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Richman leads School of Social Work into 95th year

By Brandon Bieltz, UNC’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs

He didn’t know for sure what he wanted to do with a degree in anthropology, but as a college student, Jack Richman knew that he wanted to be helpful.

Not really knowing what kind of work that meant, he left the door open for anything by heading into social work.
“There are a lot of ways you can go about being in the helping profession, but social work allows you to not have to choose,” he said.

After decades of working with struggling and vulnerable populations though research and counseling, Richman has continued to use his helping touch to bring the University of North Carolina School of Social Work to the forefront of the field — as dean.

As the school celebrates its 95th anniversary this year, Richman is dedicated to carrying on its legacy while keeping up with the changing field.

“We are really here to come up with intervention research that leads to innovative and cutting-edge interventions that will benefit populations,” Richman said. “This has to do with everything from economic justice, social justice, human functioning, mental health and child welfare. We really cover the gambit in the areas, but it’s all about economic and social justice and vulnerable populations.”

The school’s heavy focus on research has come a long way since the school first opened its doors nearly a century ago.

Opened as the state’s only School of Public Welfare in 1920 under the supervision of sociologist and first dean Howard W. Odum, the school served as a training institution for North Carolina’s welfare workers. At one point, the majority of the directors of social services in the state’s 100 counties were graduates of the school.

Continuously growing throughout the years, it was renamed the “School of Social Work” in 1950. Then 45 years later — in 1995 — the school moved into a $10 million, 75,000-square-foot facility.

The school’s first classes amounted to less than a dozen students. Today, the school teaches 300 Masters of Social Work students and 30 Ph.D. It has grown in scope to cover a wide range of research including poverty, mental health, violence and substance abuse.

“We started in 1920 as the School of Public Welfare, so that was at the core of who we were,” Richman said. “We still do an awful lot in the world of public welfare, but we broadened out as social work has grown. … In 95 years, we’ve gone from a small public welfare-focused school to fifth ranked [by the US News and World Report]. And we are becoming more global.”

A significant factor in that change has been Richman, who was named dean in 2002.

“We’ve come so far in offering an incredible experience to the student,” said Louise Coggins, an alumna and member of the school’s board of advisors. “Dean Richman’s leadership has been the largest part of that for decades now. He’s a very gifted teacher and professor as well as a gifted leader. He just has the skillset that really brought the school a lot of attention.

“He’s done so much. He’s really helping the school keep up with changes. He keeps retaining the best professors.”

Richman arrived at Chapel Hill from Nebraska Wesleyan University where he taught for six years. Initially, Richman served as assistant dean and director of studies for the UNC School of Social Work, but five years later he took a tenure-tracked professor position to return to the classroom.

From an assistant professor position, Richman worked his way back up the ranks and was selected dean by fellow faculty members in 2002. Richman continued the progress of the school, which now boasts nine certificate and dual degree programs, an MSW program and a Ph.D. program.

“I think he’s just continued on in the same way in promoting outstanding practice and research that adds to the field and the theoretical development of the practice,” said Maeda Galinsky, a faculty member for 50 years.

Over the past 13 years, Richman’s main goals as dean have been to acquire top-tier faculty members while promoting more research and focused on multiplying the school’s endowment to attract students — an effort he says that has continued to propel the school to become the nation’s fifth best school of social work.

The future of the school, Richman said, will depend on the future of the field, but it will always revolve around the concept of creating the best research to help practicing social workers.

“The research that’s driving the doctoral program and the faculty has to link up with the practitioner in giving them better tools,” he said. “The best practice is informed by research, and the best research is informed by practice. That’s the school we have to be. I think that’s where this school needs to go. We need to keep focusing on the nexus of research and practice so that we’re producing the best of both.”