More than 100 years ago, North Carolina lawmakers faced perhaps one of the most important decisions of their time. Following the end of World War I, the U.S. economy was on the verge of expanding rapidly and, along with it, American wealth. But in the South, the narrative was a bit more complicated.
In North Carolina, more than 75% of residents lived in rural areas, and most were farmers who were facing the nation’s rapid shift from agriculture to manufacturing. For these families, many of whom already lived in homes without running water, electricity or indoor bathrooms and whose children were out of school by the fifth or sixth grade, the struggle to eke out a living was becoming even more challenging.
Understanding that the state’s overall success depended on the well-being of all of its residents, including its poorest, North Carolina’s General Assembly forged a plan in 1919 to establish a statewide system of public welfare. This system would deploy trained welfare workers and superintendents to all 100 counties, with a focus on strengthening services and the livelihoods of children, families and communities across the state.
A year later, this plan would crystallize with the partnership of University of North Carolina President Harry Woodburn Chase. Like state lawmakers, Chase was well aware of the ramifications of ignoring the needs of rural communities. Moreover, Chase believed the University had a moral and civic responsibility to address the social problems of the time. With Chase’s full support and in cooperation with the N.C. Department of Charities and Public Welfare and the American Red Cross, the University launched its School of Public Welfare in 1920.
The mission at the time, according to state historical records: to educate and develop a clinical workforce of “country social workers,” individuals trained with the hard and soft skills to work in the rural South. Sociologist and Kenan Distinguished Professor Howard W. Odum, who specialized in the social problems of the southern United States, was tapped as the School’s first dean and guided its growth for the first decade.
Over the following 30 years, the School’s name evolved several more times before officially becoming UNC School of Social Work in 1950. Although initially founded as a training program for largely inexperienced public welfare workers, the School gradually grounded its expertise in social work practice across a range of fields, including health, mental health, community practice, administration and policy practice.
The decision to build a research program in the mid to late 1980s solidified the School’s rise to national attention as social work research faculty came to introduce the production of and use of empirical evidence in practice settings. These early researchers helped to transform the School’s curriculum and lay the groundwork for additional partnerships to address some of North Carolina’s most pressing social and economic problems, including violence prevention, substance use, and care for the aging. They also initiated the path forward for a new Ph.D. program that, for the last 30 years, has produced preeminent social work scholars who embrace cutting-edge research design to improve practice and advance social interventions.
The journey to become one of the nation’s best social work schools has, like most historical narratives, included ups and downs. The 1995 completion of the School’s $10 million building certainly deserves mention. After years of bouncing around different spaces on campus, the School moved into its new 75,000-square-foot building, which finally gave the program the long-awaited physical presence and the national clout to attract top-dollar donations and top-notch students and faculty.
Other historic milestones include the appointments of social work professor Hortense McClinton, UNC-Chapel Hill’s first Black faculty member, in 1966; School of Social Work Dean John Turner, UNC-Chapel Hill’s first Black dean, in 1981; Kimberly Strom, the School of Social Work’s first female (interim) dean in 2000; Travis Albritton, the School of Social Work’s first associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, in 2018; Mimi Chapman, the School’s first professor to receive the Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award in 2016 and the first social work professor elected faculty chair in 2020 and Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, the School of Social Work’s first Black female dean, in 2021.
Still, as former Dean Gary Bowen noted in a message to students, faculty and staff in June 2020, the School has fallen short in realizing its commitment to racial justice and to dismantling structural racism. Even after 100 years of historic growth, professors and students of color continue to remind our School that much more work is needed to identify and address internal legacy systems that have created and maintained patterns of oppression. These systems have prevented faculty, students and staff of color from sharing their voices and having access to resources and opportunities of all kinds. Collective efforts to reshape the School in more equitable ways began in earnest last year and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, social workers are driven by a passion and commitment to do good. So, for every accomplishment achieved over the last 100 years, there will no doubt be many more to come, said Dean Denby-Brinson.
“UNC School of Social Work has been at the heart of advancing the profession of social work. We have blazed new trails and, in partnership with many, we have accomplished so much. What excites me now is the story that will be written about the next 100 years. What will social workers of the future say about this time? What will be the meaning and impact of our work? It is now our time to lead the profession. We can create the future we want to see. Let us do so driven by our values, courage, and conviction.”
When the School of Public Welfare at UNC-Chapel Hill emerged during the early years of the 20th century, it was considered the first collegiate school of its kind in the South and one of only 17 formal social work training programs across the country. Social workers from the previous century were largely untrained and often volunteers who served individuals and families living in poverty. But by the 1920s, practitioners skilled in social casework were in high demand, including as counselors for treating “shell shocked” soldiers returning home from World War I.
Perhaps to no surprise, some of the dozen or so full-time students who enrolled in the School’s very first courses had served with the American Red Cross, providing relief to the nation’s armed forces. In fact, the need for Red Cross social workers remained so great at the time that the charity offered scholarships of $75 per month to students who committed to serving with the organization one year after completing their training.
Red Cross leaders also advocated for the academic training of social workers and for the elevation of the profession. One of the School’s first professors, J.F. Steiner, a former national director of educational service for the American Red Cross, argued that universities should be just as responsible for educating social workers as they were for educating lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers.
A professor of social technology, Steiner was among the School’s initial handful of faculty, which included members with expertise in sociology, rural social science, and community organization. The School, once housed in the basement of Alumni Hall, also drew faculty from across campus, including those with experience in economics, psychology, history and government, and sanitary engineering.
From the beginning, School and University leaders emphasized pairing classroom instruction with training in the field, giving students the chance to learn hands-on skills in real time. In those early years, students were most likely to work in direct practice and were assigned to public welfare agencies mainly in counties adjacent to the university. Today, students have the opportunity to work in public and private agencies across North Carolina, including in departments of social services, community providers of mental health services, substance abuse agencies, hospitals, domestic violence agencies, homeless shelters, and public schools. Those interested in programming, administration, policy development, and advocacy are also placed with state and national think tanks, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Although the School initially drew students interested in a helping profession, many of today’s graduates enter the MSW program with a wealth of volunteer and practice experience including global service, and they are committed to changing social and political systems from within.
“Many of these students have enjoyed successful careers in advertising, project management, and other corporate positions, but yearn for an opportunity to make a difference,” said Tina Souders, the director of the School’s 3-Year MSW Program in Winston-Salem. “We’ve found these students to be very driven and focused on their educational goals.”
Over the years, the MSW curriculum has evolved as well. Early core courses were organized under five themes: state and public institutions; the community; family and the individual; methods of organization and administration; and field work. Founding-year classes familiarized students with a variety of issues including social movements and social reform, rural economics, the development of community as a social phenomenon, and family welfare. Students were expected to specialize in one of the recognized departments of social work, such as child welfare, mental hygiene, industrial problems, housing, public health, home economics, or delinquency.
As the School’s enrollment increased and new faculty were appointed, the curriculum adapted to respond to society’s changing and complex times. For example, as desegregation slowly spread across the South, particularly within public schools, social work professor Hortense McClinton created and launched a new class on institutional racism and implications for human services. Other new courses followed on marriage and family, social work and the law, social welfare policy, citizen participation and grass roots organization, substance use and addictions, mental health, and the criminal justice system, among others.
In more recent years, courses have been updated to include content on welfare reform, the Affordable Care Act, trauma, immigration, practice in global settings, critical race and feminist queer theory, history of oppression, and environmental justice. Other specialized areas of study have also been added, including the Child Welfare Education Collaborative program, Substance Use and Addiction Specialist program, and UNC-PrimeCare, an integrated healthcare program that trains and prepares students for practice within the medical community.
“Our curriculum continues to expand and evolve to ensure that our social work graduates are the most competent and prepared as they can be,” said Lisa de Saxe Zerden, senior associate dean for MSW education. “Students have to be made aware of policy changes as they happen and how they impact individuals, communities, and social work practice.”
A growing need to accommodate working professionals and parents has led to more degree options in the MSW program over the last half century. In addition to the full-time 2-Year MSW Program, students now have the choice of applying to a 3-Year MSW Program (in either Chapel Hill or Winston-Salem) or an Advanced Standing MSW Program (either 12 months or 20 months). Moreover, students can pursue dual degrees in public health, divinity, public administration, and law.
Perhaps one of the most significant advances has involved how students are educated to think about treatment models. Early classes simply taught students to follow current models of therapy without question. Today, students must think critically about issues, examine the evidence behind psychodynamic approaches and consider new and innovative interventions.
Over the years, students have challenged the School to strengthen its teaching around institutionalized oppression, discrimination, and racial equity and inclusion. Under the direction of Associate Dean Travis Albritton, the School’s newly created Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been working with faculty, staff, and students since 2018 to create inclusive excellence within every function of the School, including curriculum and co-curriculum development.
Such changes further strengthen the School’s commitment to the social work profession. Over the last 100 years, more than 5,600 students have earned their MSW degrees from UNC School of Social Work. Without a doubt, these students have been prepared to make a difference, said Valerie Arendt, executive director of the North Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
“The contributions that the UNC School of Social Work has made to our society are immeasurable,” Arendt said. “The School has taught thousands of social workers over the last hundred years to be competent, ethical professionals who provide essential services to every community in North Carolina and throughout the United States.”
Historically, social work relied largely on research and theory from other professions and disciplines. But this approach began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when leaders in the profession committed to strengthening the bases of social work practice by developing the capacity to conduct high-quality original research.
Schools of social work across the country responded to this challenge, including at UNC-Chapel Hill. The march to the forefront of this effort began under the visionary leadership of Dean John Turner (1981–1992), who helped build the School of Social Work’s first development office. Social work scholars such as Alan Keith-Lucas, who worked to change the philosophy and practices in child welfare, and Maeda Galinsky, who pioneered group work and intervention research, helped established the School’s initial research. For the School to gain national recognition, Turner knew funding was crucial for endowed professorships to attract even more sought-after scholars.
The work of Gary Nelson and Gary Bowen, who brought expertise in aging policy and in services to military families, respectively, helped to strengthen the School’s portfolio. With Dennis Orthner, whose interests were rooted in issues affecting vulnerable children and families, Turner also had someone experienced in kickstarting a research program. Orthner had done the same at the University of Georgia and quickly established the Human Services Research and Design Laboratory, which helped to boost the School’s presence within the social work scientific community.
During these faculty-building years, the School attracted other prominent new scholars with a diversity of experience, such as Kathleen Rounds, a public health and social work researcher recognized for her evaluations of support services for people with HIV, services for pregnant and postpartum women using drugs and alcohol, and adolescent parenting programs. With Iris Carlton-LaNey, the School welcomed a scholar committed to social justice and steeped in the history of African American social welfare, including around issues of aging, caregiving, and rural community practices.
Among the School’s most significant steps: the creation and launch of its Ph.D. program in 1993 with, perhaps, the strongest curriculum on research methods in the country, including the design and development of new interventions. Today, the School’s doctoral program remains a leader in training students to use rigorous study designs and analysis methods to assess the impact of social interventions.
For Tanya Smith Brice, Ph.D. ’03, such a grounding prepared her to be a leader in social work education. Brice, one of 127 total Ph.D. graduates from the School, has served in tenured positions at several universities, including as dean of the College of Professional Studies at Bowie State University. She currently serves as vice president of education for the Council on Social Work Education.
“UNC-Chapel Hill prepared me to assess the state of social work education and to develop innovative strategies to ensure that social work educators support our students to effectively address social issues,” she said.
In those early years, the School’s focus on research methods aligned with the scholarship of incoming faculty, including Mark Fraser, an intervention researcher with expertise on risk and resilience, child behavior, child and family services, and research methods. One of the School’s first distinguished professors, Fraser was instrumental in developing grantwriting support for faculty to help strengthen the School’s federal funding portfolio. He also served as the first director of the School’s Jordan Institute for Families, an initiative begun through a $1 million gift from Michael Jordan, his mother Deloris Jordan, and the Jordan family. Originally conceived to promote evidence-supported programs across the state and the country, the Jordan Institute continues to connect communities and social work research policy and practice to advance strategies to support families across the lifespan.
By the early- to mid-1990s, under the direction of Dean Richard Edwards and with nationally known faculty on board, research funding and projects began to flourish, including those focused on issues such as school success, violence prevention, child welfare, and aging. At the same time, faculty members were instrumental in founding peer organizations, including the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR), which promoted research scholarship within the profession. With SSWR support, UNC-Chapel Hill founded the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, one of the profession’s leading research journals today.
“It was a frothy time with great debates on methodology, growing federal interest in social work research, and cadres of new Ph.D. graduates who were seeking funding to design and evaluate both prevention and intervention social welfare programs,” Fraser recalled.
For the last two decades, the School has organized its research focus across core areas including care needs and services for older adults; evidence-building in child welfare; family relationships and interpersonal violence; health and behavioral health; human services outcomes and response to human trafficking; programs on parenting and family processes; services and interventions for justice-involved people with mental illness; social research methods and data analytics; and well-being and service delivery to marginalized populations.
Faculty leading projects in these areas have attracted tens of millions of dollars in local, state, and national funding, including from the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Education, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Justice, private foundations, and other agencies. In fact, 2021 was a record-breaking funding year for faculty research with 82 grant proposals submitted totaling $60.5 million in requested funding.
In our doctoral program, students are targeting innovative research areas that are critically important to society, such as intersectional identities and mental health, children’s experience of food insecurity, decision-making in child welfare, and how students of color thrive in predominately white-serving colleges and universities.
“Others are exploring how our perceptions of populations as vulnerable morph into a vision of that population as threatening when certain factors come together such as climate shifts and high conflict,” said Mimi Chapman, associate dean for doctoral education. “We have students studying housing policy and working on big data approaches to various issues. We have students studying health disparities and new approaches to psychosocial well-being in the midst of severe health challenges. This is all exciting stuff that takes us into new territory, both as a doctoral program and as a school.”
Moreover, students and faculty continue to pursue cutting-edge research that will have a global impact in advancing equity, transforming systems, and improving lives, Chapman added.
“That is a recipe for success and growth,” she said. “I’m excited about what comes next.”
Public service and engagement with North Carolina communities is a core mission of UNC School of Social Work that dates back to its very beginnings. The School’s founding is inextricably tied to the need to educate and train welfare workers for a growing economically and socially diverse state. Over the last 100 years, our School faculty, students, and staff have produced programs and provided consultations, trainings, evaluations, resources, and research aimed at improving communities from the mountains to the coast.
At the forefront of this effort is the School’s long-standing relationship with public, private, and nonprofit agencies that provide hands-on field education opportunities for MSW students. These internship experiences are integral to a student’s whole education and give them the chance to develop and practice the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom in real-world situations. In return, these students keep employers informed on evidence-based practices and help to fill critical workforce needs. Altogether, students complete 130,000 hours annually in the field as part of their educational and professional preparation and contribute services valued at more than $1.2 million annually to North Carolina.
“The work that these students provide demonstrates our School’s commitment to investing in our communities and supporting organizations that are assisting some of our state’s most vulnerable residents,” said Rebecca Brigham, assistant dean of field education.
For employers, the opportunity to be exposed to new theories of practice from interactions with social work students is essential for the continuous learning of agency employees, said Lindsey Arledge, MSW ’94, chief of social work service for the Durham VA Health Care System.
“Everyone benefits from ‘fresh eyes’ and new perspectives, and students most definitely bring that,” Arledge said. “They also have a way of highlighting some of the social work values that can get challenged when you work for a bureaucratic agency.”
Meeting the Needs of the Community
Decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, the School was working to protect people with disabilities. For example, in 1963, the Developmental Disabilities Training Institute (DDTI) launched as part of the Jordan Institute for Families to ensure the well-being and inclusion of people with intellectual, developmental, and co-occurring disabilities. Much of the institute’s focus centered on providing training and technical assistance to those serving the state’s intellectual and developmental disability population, to further support the transition of individuals from institutions back into their own communities.
By the late 1970s, the School also began offering trainings and workshops to help intensify the interest of social workers in the Black experience. Assistant professor Audreye Johnson, a founding member of the National Association of Black Social Workers, created, organized, and launched a long-running series known as the Black Experience Workshops. These seminars brought together academic, state, and national leaders to participate in critical conversations about racism in America and touched on various topics such as health, economic, and social welfare issues.
School faculty have also played a significant role in meeting the needs of the state’s older adults. Professor Gary Nelson created and launched the Center for Aging Research and Educational Services (Cares) in 1987 to provide education, community engagement, and policy analysis to empower vulnerable adults and their families to experience choice and dignity in their lives. Most recently, Cares was awarded a $4 million state contract to help increase the state’s availability of affordable and accessible housing and community services for older adults and people with disabilities. The goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to housing and community living as anyone without a disability.
The School has been just as critical in helping to strengthen programs and services for children and families in the state. For more than three decades, the Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP) has worked closely with federal and state agencies to improve interventions for reducing the number of children in foster care and to strengthen services to foster care families. In addition to developing custom training and coaching programs, FCRP staff also evaluate program effectiveness; facilitate discussions involving community organizations, clients, and stakeholders; and partner with the N.C. Division of Social Services to share best practices in child welfare and foster care.
In addition, the School of Social Work has a history of meeting the continuing professional development needs of the state’s behavioral health professionals. For the last 30 years, the School has partnered with the North Carolina Area Health Education Program to provide the latest training to the state’s mental health, substance use, and developmental disabilities practitioners. In total, School faculty, adjunct faculty, field instructors, and doctoral students provide more than 450 hours of continuing education programs and research-based training to nearly 4,000 participants annually.
“The School’s partnership with the NCAHEC program is such a valuable service to the state because our faculty and consultant trainers can share their research and expertise with professionals in the field, keeping them up to date on the latest practices and helping to better the lives of the people of North Carolina,” said Sherry Mergner, clinical associate professor and AHEC liaison for the past 25 years.
For the past 17 years, the School has also offered a Clinical Lecture Series to students, professionals, community members, and those caring for individuals and families. These lunchtime trainings focus on social work best practices that are therapeutic, anti-oppressive, intersectional and centered on self-determination. Thousands have participated in nearly 200 workshops in person, via livestream, or using self-paced options.
Additional training and resources for families with premature infants or children with, or at risk for, developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, or chronic illness have also been added over the years, as well as a free lecture series for field instructors in Winston-Salem.
Over the years, the School has been especially active in strengthening the state’s support services in the behavioral mental health and recovery communities. Through the Behavioral Health Springboard (BHS), the School has trained tens of thousands of the state’s practicing behavioral health professionals, including nearly 4,000 certified peer support specialists — people living in recovery with mental illness or substance use disorder who offer support to others who can benefit from their lived experiences. In addition, BHS brings teams of health care, justice, and social services professionals together to address the needs of our communities, such as supportive resources for infants born exposed to opioids.
That the School will continue to provide support, education, and training to help improve the lives of families in crisis is beyond doubt. However, the future of this work depends on continued innovation and entrepreneurship, added Gary Nelson, the director of the School’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. Such a vision promotes partnerships where agencies and clients learn from each other and lean on each other’s expertise, he said.
“We remain committed to serving vulnerable and marginalized populations in North Carolina and around the world,” he said. “But the only way we succeed in this mission is by spending time in our communities to better understand individual and family priorities and to address the questions that are important to them. This kind of work, which requires a holistic framework, will be vital in the years to come to developing solutions and driving outcomes that best serve a family’s needs.”