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Viewpoint: From The Dean - Strengthening Our Leadership in Local and Global Social Welfare

Written by Neil B. Guterman.

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the SSA Magazine.)

More than a century ago SSA's founders were true pioneers—fashioning a new profession, laying down the tracks of early policies and practices to protect our most vulnerable citizens, originating the use of new social science tools as a means of analyzing and addressing the most intractable of social problems. Their fearlessness and clearmindedness continue to inspire and guide us as we face persistent, increasingly complex, and emerging challenges of our day. For example, recent events related to police and gun violence, growing social inequities, and a highly polarized and politicized public discourse challenge our work at SSA to provide clarity, rigor, and forthright commitment, guiding the most impactful and enduring of solutions. At SSA, we are ever striving to elevate our training, intellectual contributions, and leadership in places around the globe, at home, and within the School.

Here in the city of Chicago, for example, the video documenting the killing of Laquan McDonald has provided but one visible and painful reminder of the urgency of our work seeking to advance social equity and justice and our efforts to prevent violence. As one tangible response at SSA, faculty members Deborah Gorman-Smith, Gina Fedock, Alida Bouris, and Matt Epperson have organized a yearlong series of discussions on "Illuminating (In)Justice," involving members of the community to address racial justice and policecommunity relations in the city, including a recent candlelight vigil for victims of police violence. And in support of enduring change, SSA faculty members are taking the lead in directing initiatives and engaging stakeholders in ways that test and disseminate more effective interventions to reduce violent crime. For example, Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor and co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, for example, organized a recent meeting at SSA with US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and a group of faith, community, and academic leaders collaborating in violence prevention interventions around Chicago. At this meeting, local leaders from the Bright Star Community Church, the YMCA, Youth Guidance, the University of Chicago Medicine, Northwestern University, and SSA's Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) discussed practical evidence-based strategies they are pursuing to serve vulnerable communities, the obstacles they face, and their insights in "bringing to scale" effective violence prevention interventions.

Of particular note on this front, the CCYVP has been in the news for its recent selection by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as one of the three new National Centers of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention. CCYVP, led by Deborah Gorman-Smith, the Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor at SSA, is currently working with a coalition of faith and community leaders to develop, implement, and evaluate youth violence prevention strategies in high-risk neighborhoods in the city.

More broadly, beyond Chicago and the nation's concern over violence and policing, SSA's growing global social welfare agenda continues to expand rapidly. We continue to expand our student exchanges in India, China, and Hong Kong, and last quarter, as part of our exchange program, SSA welcomed four outstanding master's level social work students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) from Mumbai, India, the oldest school of social work on the continent of Asia. These exchange students attended classes, shadowed SSA students in field placements, and participated in other SSA events, including a cross-national panel discussion on urban poverty and community development in Mumbai and Chicago.

Thanks to new gifts totaling over $3 million from Hong Kong-based donors—former SSA students Anna Pao Sohmen and Moses Tsang, and businesswoman Sue Peng—we are establishing a new endowment in support of student and faculty exchanges with China and Hong Kong, in collaboration with Peking University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This exciting new initiative, to be formally launched in the next few months, will support faculty and student exchanges and immersive programs to help fuel SSA's growing social work partnerships and our strategic efforts at supporting the development of a rigorous social work education and scholarly infrastructure in Mainland China.

Within the walls of SSA, we have recently been intensively working to elevate the educational experience for our students, both in our overall review and revision of the master's degree curriculum, and, in particular, in the ways we take up the challenges of social inclusion, equity, and diversity. We have recently established a new committee of faculty, students, and staff administrators at SSA who will provide strategic effort and continuous, dedicated attention to address questions of inclusion and diversity, both within our educational program and in the climate of the School.

Finally, we continue to expand our intellectual capacity to tackle the emerging challenges facing our profession by hiring a stellar group of new faculty and postdoctoral scholars. The School's distinctively rigorous environment and national stature continue to serve to make SSA a destination "magnet" for the most talented academic leaders for the profession. This past year we added three new SSA faculty members and a postdoctoral scholar. Joining us this year as an Assistant Professor, Gina Fedock brings to SSA special expertise on improving vulnerable women's health and mental health, particularly those involved in the criminal justice system. Assistant Professor Angela García focuses her work on the experiences of disadvantaged immigrants, particularly those from Latin America (You can find her article, "The Sanctuary Cities Debate," on page 40). Associate Professor Nicole Marwell joined SSA with expertise in urban governance and focuses her work on the diverse intersections between nonprofit organizations, government bureaucracies, and political processes. Also joining this past year, Postdoctoral Scholar Shantá Robinson brings to SSA her expertise on the role of social identity in the educational experiences, career aspirations, and outcomes of students who have been socially marginalized. These outstanding new SSA scholars have already added great energy to our already vibrant academic and educational community.

Accompanying these important advances on our scholarly and educational fronts, SSA is launching a new scholarship fundraising campaign to support our superb students. Students come to SSA because of the quality and rigor of our educational program and the outstanding career prospects our graduates face. In our recent one-year follow up survey of SSA graduates, 97% were employed in the field or seeking to advance their education further. However, with the modest salaries our graduates typically earn after leaving SSA, the economic calculus of pursuing a degree at SSA can hinder those who are considering applying to SSA in the first place. While we provide generous aid to our students—on the whole more generous than our peer schools—with the rising costs of higher education, SSA students still typically graduate with significant educational debt; this reality can and does inhibit some of the most talented prospective students from choosing social work as a profession and from seeking out an education specifically at SSA as the pathway into our profession. We can and must lower the economic hurdle to an SSA education as much as possible, so that a rigorous social work education remains an attractive and financially feasible option. We will be talking about and reaching out to our alumni and friends in the coming months to ask them to invest in and support our students, enabling SSA to continue to launch the most talented and skilled future social workers. I hope you will consider supporting us in  these and other efforts at SSA as we shape the field and profession.

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