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School of Social Work becomes a research force

By Susan White

School leaders knew the odds. Building a research program from scratch at UNC’s School of Social Work would involve a lot of heavy lifting. But by the late 1980s, the risks of not moving forward were too great. If the School wanted to take a place among the nation’s best graduate schools, it had to attract more top-notch scholars.

In 20 years, it has done just that and more.

“We have gone from being an unknown to a known, from being mistrusted on campus to fully trusted …,” explained Professor Dennis Orthner, who was hired in 1988 to help develop the School’s research funding. “We now can walk into any door, and we’re known. We can walk next door to Public Health, and we’re respected. We can walk to Nursing or to the Frank Porter Graham (Child Development Institute) center, and we’re respected.”

The pursuit to the top began in the late 1980s and in the most primitive environment, especially for scholars Maeda Galinsky, Gary Nelson and Gary Bowen. As Galinsky carved out a niche in social group work, Nelson and Bowen developed their expertise in aging policy and services to military families, respectively. The professors accomplished their work, although there was practically no money for research or even a research infrastructure, said current Dean Jack M. Richman.

“There was no development. There was no external funding. It simply didn’t exist,” recalled Richman, who joined the School as a clinical assistant professor in 1983.  “When we did research, it was small, and we had to fund it ourselves.

“We didn’t even have computers then,” Richman added. “We had one computer with dial-up in a hallway, but that’s it. It was like we were in the Stone Age.”

Still, John Turner, then dean of the School, saw much promise, including in Orthner, a professor from the University of Georgia. At the time, the decision to hire Orthner may have perplexed some. After all, his degrees were in sociology and economics, not social work. But Orthner’s research interests were rooted in issues affecting vulnerable children and families, including poverty and public education. Like Bowen, who happened to be a former student of Orthner’s, the Georgia professor was also interested in the welfare of military families.

Perhaps most important, Turner believed Orthner could successfully kick start the School’s research funding as he had done in Georgia. “Dennis was really at the beginning of all of what we have now,” Richman said.

One of Orthner’s first responsibilities was to establish the School’s Human Services Research and Design Laboratory, which helped promote and support faculty research interests. Orthner’s team quickly went to work, building a network infrastructure within the School, including its first email communications system. The new tools enabled the School to save thousands of dollars — money that the research lab in turn offered to faculty members as pilot funding to run small projects and test new ideas. School leaders hoped that these enterprises and others would spark further funding as well as boost the social work program’s overall presence within the scientific community.

Historically, the School had dramatically grown as a training institute, helping professional social workers stay up-to-date on the latest evidenced-based practices in child welfare, aging, mental health and substance abuse. But with a more intensive focus on intervention research, the School offered North Carolina an exciting opportunity — the chance to engage with academic scholars committed to providing cutting-edge solutions to some of the state’s most pressing social and economic problems.

Projects flourished within a decade. The School’s new research and design lab managed nearly $2 million annually, including the first major research work for the state: a five-year evaluation of North Carolina’s welfare-to-work program.

The state project became a stepping stone for the School’s efforts in supporting investigations that strengthen children and families. North Carolina leaders also welcomed the diverse contributions of faculty members and their groundbreaking work. There was a first-of-its-kind study that examined the effects of welfare reform on school performance and a project that tested a collaborative, holistic approach to improve the state’s adult services programs. The state valued the rigorous studies, not only because they informed practice and policies but perhaps more important to taxpayers, the research ensured that programs aimed at assisting the state’s most vulnerable were operating effectively.

“It was a very radical time because we were experimenting in lots of ways,” Orthner recalled.

The innovative work demonstrated the School’s commitment to service, but a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign would position faculty closer to the goal of creating lasting social change. The campaign was spearheaded by Turner, Charlotte businessman John A. “Jack” Tate, and TV journalist Charles Kuralt and ultimately garnered the School $6 million to support its academic core, including the creation of a Ph.D. program.

The money also provided the necessary financial capacity for the program to create endowed professorships to attract sought-after scholars. The School wasted little time filling the first two chaired positions, hiring Mark Fraser, former director of the Ph.D. program at the University of Utah’s School of Social Work, and Lynn Usher, former director at the Center for Policy Studies at Research Triangle Institute.

Fraser, the John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need, and Usher, the Wallace H. Kuralt, Sr., Professor of Public Welfare Policy and Administration, strengthened the School’s social intervention research, especially around at-risk children and families, and helped raise the UNC program’s profile nationally. Fraser also helped develop an internal base of people to assist faculty members with grant proposals, raising the School’s competitive edge for federal awards.

“For the faculty who came in initially, it was really risky,” Orthner noted. “But I think those early steps were very, very important for getting our national reputation off the ground.”

By 1996, the School had amassed a variety of national experts specializing in school success, violence prevention, child welfare and eldercare. These scholars regularly published, bringing the program additional exposure and recognition. But with the founding of the Jordan Institute for Families, the School had a national research model.

The institute, which was created with a $1 million donation from Michael Jordan, brought together scholars who could work closely with North Carolina communities to address problems threatening to undermine the state’s most vulnerable families, including poverty, mental illness and substance abuse.

Today, the institute houses more than a dozen research, training and technical assistance programs that benefit the state, including the N.C. Child Welfare Education Collaborative, the School Success Profile, the Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program, the Center for Aging Research and Educational Services (CARES) and the N.C. Area Health Education Center Training Partnership.

“The Jordan Institute gave the programs name recognition, credibility and a banner that we could use for a lot of different things,” said Gary Nelson, the institute’s associate director for program development and training initiatives.

The institute also enabled the School to demonstrate its wealth of knowledge within the social work field, added Orthner, the institute’s associate director for policy development and analysis.

“Back then, we didn’t have the cachet of being competent in research,” he said. “Now, there’s no question about our competency.”

The work of individual faculty members, especially throughout North Carolina, only enhanced the School’s reputation.

“Not only are we doing training, we have projects throughout the state that are developing new ideas for how to improve the effectiveness of social and health services,” explained Fraser, who served as the first director of the Jordan Institute. “We have Betsy Bledsoe who is working with adolescent mothers. We have Rebecca Macy who is working in the field of intimate partner violence. We have Natasha Bowen, who is working in elementary schools on assessment and matching kids’ needs to evidenced-based programs. We have Matt Howard’s work in the field of substance abuse.

“Almost everywhere you look now, you find people who are leading scholars, not just in North Carolina, but in the country.”

Support for these scholars has grown exponentially, largely because of generous gifts from donors who value the importance of social work research. In 2004, the School received a $1.2 million gift to recruit and retain faculty from former social worker Miriam McFadden, a Tennessee resident and member of the School’s board of advisors.

Three years later, Sam and Betsy Reeves of Fresno, Calif. donated $1 million to establish the Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professorship. In 2008, the Armfield-Reeves Innovations Fund was created to provide pilot funding for faculty and student research. The fund was developed with a $333,000 gift from the Reeves and a $250,000 gift from Janie and Billy Armfield of Richmond, Va.

That same year, alumna Mel Adair (MSW, ’76) established a charitable gift annuity with the UNC Foundation, directing nearly $1.4 million to the School of Social Work, one of the largest gifts in the School’s history. Adair’s gift created a $1 million endowment for the Johnson-Howard-Adair Distinguished Professorship, bringing the total number of endowed professorships at the School to eight.

“Private funding has greatly enhanced our ability to conduct innovative research and outreach by enabling us to attract and retain top faculty and students and to support them in their work,” said Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s associate dean for advancement.

Today, with 28 tenured and tenured-track faculty members as well as more than 50 clinical and research faculty, the School continues to make new contributions to the social work field, including studies that address HIV prevention, domestic violence, children with disabilities and homelessness. Collectively, the school’s faculty members bring in more than $15 million annually in state, federal and foundation funding to support research and training initiatives.

A few scholars, such as Gina Chowa, are even helping to expand the School’s reach internationally. Chowa, whose research focuses on the impact of asset building interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa, hopes the School will strengthen its ties to international research over the next 10 years.

“What happens globally affects what happens here,” she said. “And if you look at what is developing internationally, social work has a big role to play.”

Hiring creative people who have ingenious ideas will continue to determine the School’s long-term research success, Fraser added.

“It will depend upon the people who stay and how committed they are to reforming social work,” he said. “The crucial question is what is it we’re trying to do? We’re trying to change the image of social work. We’re trying to make social work the go-to profession for social justice, for the design and development of creative social programs that will solve social problems. This is where the action could be, and we have a wonderful start at it.”

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