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Maeda Galinsky: For 45 years, ‘Grand dame’ of the School of Social Work

For at least half of the School of Social Work’s 90-year existence, there has been one constant: Maeda Galinsky. In 45 years, hundreds of students, dozens of faculty members and nine deans have come and gone, but Galinsky, a Kenan Distinguished Professor, has remained.

Those who know her best are hardly surprised. Her name is as synonymous to the School and UNC as it is to the theory and practice of social group work. In social work circles, Galinsky is considered a pioneer scholar for her work on groups and on intervention research.

“She is the grand dame of the School of Social Work,” said Louise Coggins, MSW ’80, and chair of the School’s Board of Advisors. “She represents what social work is.”

“She cares amazingly, deeply about students and about faculty and has helped this School to be what it is today,” added Dean Jack M. Richman.

For the 75-year-old Galinsky, teaching, researching and writing have been her passion since the start of her career in the 1950s, although the call to “help others,” came much earlier. “I’ve had a rebellious streak since I was little,” said Galinsky, who grew up in College Point, N.Y. “I would always talk to the person in trouble — someone whom you weren’t supposed to talk to.”

Galinsky said she fully realized her career path as an undergrad majoring in social relations at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass. While there, she served as a volunteer and then director of a program that enabled student volunteers to work with the mentally ill in a psychiatric hospital. “I just knew that social work is what I wanted to do,” she said.

Galinsky went on to receive her MSW and Ph.D at the University of Michigan, where she also taught for a year. Then, in 1965, her husband David was offered a position with UNC’s Department of Psychology. Soon after, Galinsky was hired as an assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. Although excited about the new opportunity, she accepted the job with slight trepidation. After all, for a city girl raised up North, the South in the 1960s was a tinderbox.

“I learned, however, that many people here were eager for racial equality and that they were willing to work together to effect change,” Galinsky recalled. “While the area and the culture felt strange at first, I grew to love living here.”

Forty-five years later, she marvels at how much the University, but especially the School of Social Work, have evolved. Although trained as a researcher and practitioner, Galinsky arrived during an era when the School was focused on teaching students the functional model of social work.
“It was more about building the relationship and working within the agency requirements,” she said. “It was really casework. Group work, community organization and research were kind of on the periphery at that point.”

However, Galinsky was undeterred and despite the lack of funding, pursued various pilot studies with then colleague, Janice Schopler. They paid out-of-pocket for some of their early research. Over the following two decades, Galinsky’s work flourished along with respect from other scholars.
“She was on the ground floor of (social group work),” Richman said. “And over time, she became a stalwart. She historically represents this whole basis of group work.”

Galinsky has always been a critical thinker and prolific writer, and she continues to write and publish today. Much of her work has been accomplished alongside colleagues who respect Galinsky’s willingness to join forces. Collaboration, she said, has taught her to be a better researcher. Time has shown her the value in embracing others’ perspectives, while standing firm for her own convictions.

“Her biggest strength is her extraordinary ability to ‘think with,’” said Mark Fraser, who has co-authored and co-edited numerous journal articles, journals, book chapters, books and other presentations with Galinsky. “She has the unusual capacity to excite ideas in others. She simply makes us all better scholars and better people.”

That admiration extends to the classroom, where students have often been in awe of Galinksy’s ability to “translate theory to practice with ease,” said Traci Wike, a doctoral student. “She is creative and intellectually curious,” Wike said. “This equates to interesting and sometimes challenging conversations that always involve my learning something from her.”

Those meeting Galinsky for the first time also quickly learn that the petite professor packs quite a youthful spirit and a wry sense of humor. “Every time my daughter is in the building, Maeda plies her with candy and then grins and lets me know ‘She’s all yours now!’” said Anna Scheyett, the School’s associate dean for academic affairs.

More often, her humor and generosity collide in very subtle ways, as Wike discovered last winter when she ran across Galinsky’s purple sweater hanging in the fifth-floor suite outside the professor’s office. Attached to the sweater was a note, offering the garment to anyone who might be chilly.

“It’s ugly, but it’s warm,” the note read.

“That is what I love about Maeda,” Wike said. “She is a wonderful balance of intelligence, warmth, humor, and just general goodness.”

That Galinsky would be thrilled to still be walking the halls of the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building when the School celebrates its 100th anniversary doesn’t surprise Dean Richman. She remains a valued voice and will contribute wherever she can, he offered.

At the same time, she is well aware that many others her age are fully embracing their retirements, enjoying life’s casual pace. And although she’s slowed a bit, she just isn’t ready to join them.

“It just feels good to be a part of a profession and a School that care about people and their environment,” Galinsky said. “Students come here because they want to help people and make the world a better place for all. If you can help one person, you’ve done a lot.”

This article is from our “School of Social Work’s 90th Anniversary” feature in the 2010 print edition of Contact Magazine