Viewpoint from the Dean, Spring 2012

SSA’s Connection to the World

(This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Advancing the knowledge base for social work not only involves developing a deep understanding of social problems to inform social policies and practices. It also oftentimes involves direct, tangible, “dirt under the fingernails” engagement with and service to those who are most vulnerable—carrying out a science of learning by doing.

As one such example among many at SSA, my own research team is testing a prototype clinical strategy to prevent child abuse and neglect by better considering fathers’ roles in risk for maltreatment. In the course of thinking through how to best deliver such services with one particular family in the study, our team of researchers and practitioners suddenly realized that the standard services already being delivered at our partner agency did not include any place for fathers in the goal-setting process with the family, thereby effectively excluding fathers for the remainder of the planned work.

This rather simple yet fundamental insight helped the agency better respond to families they were serving in a immediate sense; at the same time, it also contributed to the development of the prototype intervention we are testing, which holds the potential to advance the burgeoning field of child abuse prevention nationally, now serving tens of thousands of families every year.

This type of synergistic engagement—involving both SSA faculty and practitioners in the field is an everyday occurrence here at the School. Indeed, much of the scholarship at SSA does this double duty: research in the service of helping, and helping in the service of research.

This kind of connection is only one of a myriad of contributions SSA makes to the wider community on a daily basis. SSA faculty draw from their expertise to provide consultation and advise programs that serve the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities in Chicago and nationally. They inform the public through the media and through Congressional hearings, and they serve in advisory roles with key federal, state and local agencies. SSA’s students, through their field placements, provide more than a quarter million hours of service each and every year to citizens in the city. And our alumni often advance from their early professional training at SSA to take up leadership roles within social services agencies throughout the city and across the country, helping to shape the policies and programs that transform lives.  

The University of Chicago as a whole has begun to place an unmistakably greater emphasis on deepening its outward engagement and realizing greater, more direct benefit to society. The University has a long history, of course, of ensuring that its mission includes service to the broader community. In a recent talk at the City Club of Chicago this April, University President Robert J. Zimmer elevated this commitment, and singled out SSA, “whose service to the community epitomizes that outward thrust [of the University] at the same time as it underscores the University’s singular focus on inquiry and belief in data-driven arguments and ideas.”

In many ways, because of SSA’s historic mission and focus, it has long served as a primary conduit between the eminent scholarship of the University of Chicago with its numerous Nobel prize winners and deep engagement with the surrounding communities. SSA has played a unique and exemplary role for the University in advancing knowledge that changes people’s lives and working to ensure that knowledge has real direct impact. 

President Zimmer noted some of SSA’s more notable historic achievements: “Over the years, faculty members, administrators, and alumni have helped draft parts of the Social Security Act, have enforced child labor laws, and have fought for low-income working mothers. They have fostered the century-long partnership with Children’s Memorial Hospital and forged partnerships with over 600 agencies and programs throughout the city as part of their field placement program.”

Today, both SSA and the wider University of Chicago are, in tandem, deepening our vision of outward engagement. In this era of globalization, for example, we are taking up the lead by working internationally to address social issues such as education, mental illness, substance abuse, health care, crime and violence, urban development and employment, poverty, housing and homelessness, family support, and child welfare.

The School is deepening this global engagement in a number of ways, including through the leadership of SSA’s faculty. SSA has, for example, recently engaged in a series of cross-national exchanges with partners from China to Denmark, from Spain to South Africa, and the School has organized studentexchange programs with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, the National University of Ireland in Galway and Queens University in Belfast. A number of SSA alumni have played pioneering roles in advancing social work education and building and strengthening institutions for social welfare in many countries, including Brazil, India, Israel and South Korea. And, as you will read about in “Social Work / Social Justice” in this issue, we are arguably the lead academic unit on campus participating in the University of Chicago’s internationally-focused Human Rights Internship Program.

The School’s global engagements will undoubtedly accelerate as we implement our faculty expansion plan and bring in new faculty whose expertise will augment our intellectual leadership in the still-emerging field of global social welfare.

The research, knowledge and experience of the faculty, students, staff and alumni of SSA are tremendous resources. The School has a long history of bringing these resources to bear directly on the most complex of social issues, and untold numbers of people have better lives as a result. As the 21st century unfolds, I’m excited by our plans to continue this engagement and expand our contributions across the globe to open up unprecedented opportunities for cross-national educational and research exchanges that transform lives. As the world becomes a smaller place, our ambitions to take on complex and deep social problems must grow.

It’s an exciting time here at SSA, and we are glad that our colleagues, partners and supporters are part of our efforts to contribute new knowledge, leaders and professionals in the field, as we at SSA anticipate and help shape the future.

Neil Guterman, MSW, Ph.D., is the Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor of the School of Social Service Administration.