The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 20 | Issue 2 | Summer 2013
Summer 2013

Dean Neil Guterman

Two weeks after the shooting death of Chicago Public Schools’ student Hadiya Pendleton this winter, I was invited to Hyde Park Academy to hear President Barack Obama deliver a speech on gunviolence and his broader domestic agenda. In his remarks, President Obama gave a “shout out” to a handful of teen boys who participated in the Becoming a Man-Sports Edition (BAM) program at the school, a counseling and mentoring strategy designed to prevent youth violence in Chicago. A week before the president’s visit, the City of Chicago announced a commitment to provide an additional $2 million to expand the program. Approximately 2,000 more young men will have an opportunity to join the program with the new round of funding.

The growth of this program and the attention it has garnered from the President of the United States is due, in a large part, to a randomized clinical trial conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, directed by Jens Ludwig at SSA (jointly appointed at the Harris School of Public Policy) and co-directed by Harold Pollack at SSA. Last summer, the Crime Lab released findings from this “gold standard” study that found the program significantly reduced arrests for violent and other crimes and increased school engagement. With scientific evidence in hand, BAM has been able to find the support to serve more families, assist at-risk teens and reduce the problem of violence in our urban settings.

Crime Lab is but one potent example of how research at SSA has a direct real-world impact. The commitment and expertise to produce rigorous, high-impact scholarship that advances both the knowledge base and real-world practices has been a hallmark of the School since it was founded more than a century ago. SSA’s faculty visibly bridges what has often been lamented as a gap between rigorous research and tangible benefit for the professional field: 

SSA scholars produce research of the highest order and impact: The scholars at SSA are engaged in world-class research on the frontline issues of our day. In this issue, for instance, the article “Poverty Protection” covers the work of Susan Lambert and Julia Henly on low-wage service employment, Marci Ybarra’s research on who uses welfare today, Scott Allard’s study of nonprofit service providers and Heather Hill’s research into income insecurity. With the nation’s unemployment rate still far too high and the economy providing fewer options for the most vulnerable individuals and families, their research is providing rigorous evidence that informs how we can understand and effectively address poverty.

SSA scholars design and test interventions that, if found effective, can be disseminated widely: A growing cadre of faculty members at SSA (myself included) do not just evaluate the efficacy of existing interventions. Because of our deep knowledge of social problems and the design of services that they address, SSA scholars are increasingly on the cutting edge of innovating scientifically informed interventions—that is, generating and testing the efficacy of new and smarter ways of addressing social problems. For issues as diverse as improving fathers’ participation in programs for vulnerable parents, preventing teens from engaging in risky sexual activity and stopping youth violence, this deeply immersive approach places SSA researchers at the vanguard of advancing both knowledge and real-world strategies to best serve those most in need.

SSA scholars advance understanding of—and directly inform—the policy world: Research that has an impact rarely happens by accident. Understanding the current policy challenges and the political and organizational opportunities for change allows SSA’s researchers to undertake studies that shape policy decisions. Mark Courtney’s work on providing foster care for older youth is an excellent example (see “Extending Foster Care”). Mark has a keen sense of how federal and state child welfare systems work, what changes are politically feasible, and what empirical data would inform the issue, and his rigorous longitudinal studies have been instrumental in moving the child welfare policy discourse.

SSA scholars partner closely with government and nonprofit agencies and service providers: SSA faculty have many ongoing and deep partnerships with a wide variety of service providers and key stakeholders in and around Chicago, the nation and, increasingly, the globe. One exemplar is the work of Melissa Roderick, who founded SSA’s Network for College Success, which currently works daily with a dozen high schools across the city. The impact of Melissa’s research is heightened because of these relationships, and she will be the first to tell you that her research is improved in turn because of what she learns in the field.

SSA’s faculty research strives—and succeeds admirably—to attain both the highest of scholarly standards and the highest impact, whether through the dissemination of new knowledge or evidence-based practices and policies, testimony to elected officials, or engaged expert consultation with civic leaders, service providers and policymakers. In a complementary way, the education of our students nurtures a critical professional acumen. SSA’s graduates serve in leadership roles throughout the United States and are uniquely prepared to draw on the highest standards of evidence and the most sophisticated thinking.

As we look back on another academic year, I’m proud to say that SSA’s faculty have received more externally funded grants than ever before to fuel their research. Our inspiring students continue to excel and receive accolades, including more human rights internship awards than any other school at the University and multiple prestigious Schweitzer fellowships and Davis Project for Peace prizewinners. The Crime Lab will serve as a principal evaluator for initiatives supported by a new $50 million fund developed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to address the problem of violence in the city. Recent events like CHAS’s 50th anniversary conference and SHINE’s symposium on HIV/AIDS remind us that SSA continues as the destination for leading scholars and practitioners from around the country.

As the University of Chicago advances its aspiration to become a model urban university, SSA will continue to be at the vanguard of efforts to deeply engage with the city of Chicago and other global urban centers, bringing high-impact scholarship to bear on the most difficult and complex challenges facing urban life. We are well prepared for this task and intent on rigorously shouldering the responsibility.

Neil Guterman, MSW, PhD
Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor