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Hawkins named to new vice dean role at UNC School of Social Work 

by Barbara Wiedemann 

Robert L. Hawkins, Ph.D., associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at nearby North Carolina State University, has been named to the new position of vice dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work, effective July 1.  

A Henderson, North Carolina, native, Hawkins holds a Master of Public Administration from UNC School of Government and a master’s and doctorate in social welfare policy and social policy respectively from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He served as the New York University Silver School of Social Work’s assistant dean and director of undergraduate education for seven years before being named associate dean for academic and faculty affairs. During his 18 years at the Silver School of Social Work, he taught for 14 years as an endowed chair in poverty. 

“This is a homecoming of sorts,” Hawkins said about his return to an alma mater in the state where he grew up. “Growing up in a small rural community 50-odd miles from Chapel Hill, I had no expectation that I would ever go to college,” he said, recalling the drive and hunger that led him to push towards his dreams of a role in higher education. 

He also reflected on the research and leadership opportunities that took him to 24 countries, sharing the gratitude he felt for where his education led him. 

“I have been exposed to things that a little boy from Henderson who didn’t have running water and worked with his mom and sisters in tobacco fields should not have ever dreamed of,” he said. “I have been fortunate in so many ways. But I’ve also experienced tremendous injustice. Both can exist in the same body. What I’d like to do is to give others access to some of the opportunities I had. But try to reduce the number of injustices they experience.”

Navigating growth 

As associate dean at NYU, Hawkins led a team focused on strategic affairs, policy development and academic excellence across a broad range of business functions, including six academic program directors and adjunct faculty. 

At NC State, Hawkins helps set policy, expand global experiences, create mentoring opportunities, and oversees faculty affairs and high-impact practices and procedures for a college housing 19 programs and 4,000 students, including a social work program.  

Many of these areas will fall under his responsibility at the UNC School of Social Work. 

“We look forward to drawing on Robert’s mission-driven leadership in this new position for the School,” Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson said. “Our team has grown by 30% since I came to Chapel Hill in 2021 as a direct result of our continued growth in research impact and national status as educators. Robert’s deep experience as an administrator, strategic planner, policymaker and collaborative partner in both private and public higher education settings will help us navigate the path we have developed together as a community under our recent strategic planning process.” 

“There is an excitement about the innovation that the School is investing in with this new position of vice dean,” Hawkins said. “Many of my responsibilities will be in areas that I have touched on in previous roles. But this newness invites creativity. 

“People are doing really important work at the School, are dedicated to social justice and are very engaged with the community. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the School’s partners to think outside the box about how to have an impact as social workers and researchers at the state, national and global levels.”  

Family time 

Outside of academia, Hawkins and his wife, Eri, watch a classic film every week. They enjoy scary movies, mysteries, documentaries and “true crime” narratives, while keeping up with their grown daughter, who is entering an MSW program in the fall, and son, a writer for Politico. They also talk about many of the same things he invests his time on professionally.  

“My wife and I really care about social justice. Our dinner conversations are about structural racism. We talk about gender bias. We talk about violence against women,” Hawkins said. “She is a psychotherapist, but a social worker first, an expert on interpersonal violence and trauma. We talk about what we care about.” 

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