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School at 90: From humble beginnings to one of the country’s best

By Susan White

From humble beginnings to one of the country’s best, UNC’s School of Social Work has defined and redefined itself throughout its rich 90-year history.

State lawmakers in North Carolina likely never envisioned the significance of their decision to establish the School of Public Welfare – the predecessor of today’s School. But in 1920, the course was set and renowned sociologist and reformer Howard W. Odum was tapped as the School’s first leader.

Over nine decades, UNC’s social work program has evolved from a primarily training institution to a program that has earned national prominence for its quality classroom and field instruction, cutting edge research, invaluable public service, community engaged scholarship and technical assistance. This tradition of excellence has enabled the School to produce practitioners and research leaders who are committed to providing innovative solutions to critical social problems such as poverty, mental health and domestic violence.

After nearly a century, there is much to be proud of, said Dean Jack M. Richman, but much more work remains.

“I expect our School of Social Work will be leading in social work education — teaching, research and service — for the next 90 years.”

Many people and moments are essential to the history of UNC’s School of Social Work, but three influential changemakers are largely credited for the program’s growth and success. Charlotte businessman John A. “Jack” Tate, School Dean John Turner and TV journalist Charles Kuralt embraced the vision, passion and tenacity that launched a historic movement in the 1980s and 1990s, firmly establishing the School’s fiscal, academic and physical presence.

The numbers tell much of the story. Twenty-five years ago, the School’s endowment barely stood at $40,000. By 1996, it had grown to $4 million. That seed of success further flourished over the years, enabling the School to build an endowment now worth nearly $16 million, an amount that includes funding for student scholarships and chaired professorships.

Although the School’s very first classes amounted to less than a dozen full-time students, more than 300 MSW and 45 Ph.D. students are enrolled today. In 2009, U.S. News & World Report ranked the UNC School of Social Work’s MSW program No. 8 out of 165 programs evaluated nationwide.

The School has grown physically, too. Back then, there was a small central building with some office space and only a hodgepodge of additional offices and classrooms around campus. By 1995, students, faculty and staff were celebrating the opening of a $10 million, 75,000-square-foot facility, appropriately named for the men who fought for its construction: the late Tate, Turner and Kuralt.

Without a doubt, this threesome’s efforts laid the foundation for the School of Social Work’s achievement as one of the top graduate programs in the country, agreed current and former School leaders and faculty members.

“They not only got the money, they got the people interested in social work,” said Maeda Galinsky, a Kenan Distinguished Professor and faculty member for 45 years. “They helped raise the awareness of social work within this School, within the University and throughout the state.”

Historically, the School’s journey began in 1920, one year after North Carolina lawmakers decided that the state needed well-trained welfare workers to serve the public’s needs. Ultimately, the newly founded School of Public Welfare — a title that evolved until 1950 when it became the School of Social Work — helped launch a new era in the social work profession.

Over the next 50 years, the School enrolled American Red Cross workers, helped develop mental health services throughout the state and organized field placement work for students. With pioneer scholar Alan Keith-Lucas on faculty, the program also began to develop a reputation around group child care.

The School transformed alongside the country as it encountered new challenges. According to an undated, written “Historical Perspective,” the program “shared the post-World War II preoccupation with a clinical emphasis, achieving eminence as a functional casework school. It responded to America’s awakening to poverty and civil rights with a range of field and classroom learning opportunities … (that included) work with groups and communities.”

By the 1970s, student enrollment had risen to more than 100, and the School had extended its curriculum focus to prepare students for direct and indirect services. However, even with expansion and academic progress, the School still lacked status, including within the University’s stone walls.

“Today, it’s seen as an outstanding School of Social Work around the country, but it certainly wasn’t even mentioned within that same breath when I came here,” said Galinsky, who arrived in 1965.

The drive to prominence began with John Turner. A writer, scholar and teacher, Turner joined the UNC faculty in 1974 as the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Social Work. He was named School dean in 1981, becoming the first African American dean at the University. He wasted no time in making his mark.

In Turner’s view, the School was languishing. There was no Ph.D. program and very little research. Perhaps most striking, there was barely any funding, nor was there any plan in place to campaign for donations.

“When I started, it was kind of a joke that they had received a $75 gift that had been unsolicited,” recalled Elizabeth Benefield, the School’s former assistant dean for development. “People just weren’t being asked to give.”

Even by the mid ‘80s, the social work program still longed for a permanent home. For years, professors and students were scattered across campus in five different buildings, including the alumni building, where faculty members often encountered pesky visitors.

“There were cockroaches in the basement,” said Galinsky, a native of New York. “I would come in, turn on the light, close my eyes and go (stomps feet on the ground). I wasn’t used to the southern animals that were here.”

Without a building, School officials were forced to beg for classrooms every year, a routine that resulted in instructors lugging teaching materials around campus. Turner and others worried that the School would struggle to attract and hold on to faculty members.

“You felt like you were the stepchild of the University,” recalled Louise Coggins, current chair of the School’s board of advisors and a 1980 MSW graduate. “You felt like you had to be poor and not wear good clothes. That’s how we were viewed and where things were.”

Under Turner’s helm, the School soon plotted a new path toward national recognition and respect. Turner’s first strategic move: asking retired banking executive and former UNC-Chapel Hill trustees’ chairman Jack Tate for help. Tate, according to a 1996 article in the Raleigh News & Observer, helped the School develop “a five year plan to get better facilities, well-known professors and more resources for social work programs.” Tate and Turner also assembled a board of advisors, a power group of business leaders, philanthropists and politicians. Kuralt, whose father had graduated from the School in the 1930s, was among those tapped for the board.

Together, the men mapped a plan for the School’s financial growth. The timing was perfect. The University was about to launch its Bicentennial campaign and had asked each school to submit a fundraising goal. With Benefield on board as the School’s first development director, Tate and Turner decided to pursue $5 million, an unheard of amount for a School that had no history of fundraising.

But Tate, Turner and Kuralt made quite a persuasive team. Tate had deep business connections and was skilled at reaching out to the corporate community. He could reason with his peers that they had a responsibility to children and families in need. He was also determined. He had already begun traveling every other week from his Charlotte home to Raleigh to lobby lawmakers for the millions needed for a new School building.

Turner was the charismatic visionary, who was highly respected for his knowledge of the field. He could convince potential supporters that for the School to develop as a top-notch research base and attract more well-known professors, it needed a Ph.D. program. Kuralt was the down-to-earth newsman who brought everyday America into homes across the country. As the son of a social worker, he valued the profession and could easily frame a message encouraging supporters to do the same.

“They were the perfect team in every way,” Benefield said. “They had the passion, and they had a huge following of believers. It felt like there was nothing we couldn’t do.”

Within five years, the accomplishments mounted. The School exceeded its fundraising goal, raising an impressive $6 million, an amount that wowed University leaders; many donors included family names UNC had courted for years. By 1992, the General Assembly had approved full funding for construction of the School’s five-story brick and concrete building. Within the following year, the Ph.D. program was underway, and the School was under new leadership, following Turner’s retirement. New Dean Richard L. Edwards picked up where his predecessor left off, guiding the School through more unprecedented growth and change.

By 1996, all eyes were fixed once again on the School with the opening of the Jordan Institute for Families, a research, training and technical assistance institute focused on solving social problems and strengthening North Carolina’s families. Funded by a $1 million donation from basketball great Michael Jordan, the institute boosted the School’s name recognition and influence. Additional money continued to flow in over the years, enabling the School to set up endowed professorships, including ones to honor Tate, Turner and Kuralt.

UNC’s School of Social Work had finally arrived.

“Long-standing families who had been committed to social justice issues in this state wanted to be a part of what we were doing,” said Mark Fraser, the John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need and associate dean for research. “It became a movement.”

And that movement led to an awakening, said Benefield, who also credits the School’s support to a newly crafted message. Instead of simply asking for money, the School had encouraged potential donors to invest in the economic and social well-being of the people of North Carolina.

“We wanted them to know that they were investing in the future of our state,” Benefield said.

That investment continues to return benefits, adding to the School’s esteem. Last year alone, the School received $16.2 million in federal, state and foundation funding to support programs, training, and technical assistance that directly or indirectly impact the state’s nine million residents.

A portion of this money also funds the research of faculty members who are seeking innovative solutions to society’s most challenging problems, including issues of addiction, aging, poverty, mental health, family violence and affordable housing.

“Our faculty and staff are incredibly strong, have global reputations and produce important and meaningful research that leads to more effective social work practice,” said current Dean Jack M. Richman. “They care about educating our students and are among the best in the world.”

Financial growth also has enabled the School to attract a diverse group of students and to assist them in paying for their education. Over the last decade alone, the School raised $21.3 million through the University’s Carolina First campaign, 152% of its goal. Through these funds, the School has created three new endowed professorships and 14 new scholarships. A record amount of more than $240,000 in scholarships was awarded in 2007-08.

The School’s continued academic and financial success reflects the vital work of Tom Lambeth, who succeeded Tate as board chair, and Coggins, the board’s current leader, said Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s current associate dean for advancement. Their leadership ensured that the School “expanded and strengthened its relationships internally and externally,” she said.

“But I also give a lot of the credit for the past decade to our volunteers and to Dean Richman’s leadership and for having a vision and saying, ‘This is what we need to do,’ and then inspiring people to give,” Hernandez added.

Students play a critical role in this growth as well. Many continue to receive support long after graduation by participating in various School-sponsored trainings, workshops and lectures. They join the nearly 4,500 alumni who give back by serving in direct practice and management positions and working with racially diverse communities in rural, urban and suburban settings across the country.

“I think one of the biggest reasons for our growth and success is because of our students,” said Iris Carlton-LaNey, a social work professor. “The students who graduate from this program are being placed in positions throughout the state where they are influencing policy, practice and hiring.”

Collectively, the School’s achievements further support the successful social work program that Tate, Turner and Kuralt envisioned years ago, Coggins noted. And although the legacy is hardly complete, after 90 years, it’s nice to reflect on how much has changed, she said.

“It’s very interesting to have come so far from being that poor stepchild to being somebody that everybody is listening to,” she said.

“Everyone now knows we make a difference.”

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