IMAGE:  October 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 1
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Q&A - Life of the socially minded

Health-policy expert Edward F. Lawlor has been dean of the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) since 1998.

Lawlor came to Chicago in 1984, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. A professor with joint appointments in SSA and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, Lawlor has written on medical indigence, health-care reform, and health administration and policy for the aged and poor. Founding editor of the Public Policy and Aging Report, he has written a book on Medicare reimbursement policy.

SSA was founded by activists in the settlement-house movement as the independent Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, which merged with the University in 1920. The school has always emphasized both practical training for caseworkers-including the current fieldwork requirement of 1,000-plus hours-and a solid foundation in social science and social research.

What are SSA's greatest challenges?
Our challenge is not only moving forward this school and its research but also shaping the social-work profession. There is more change out in the streets than at any time since 1965. In this city alone we're in the midst of pivotal stages of welfare reform, massive education reform, the transformation of public housing, and a whole set of changes less visible to the public but equally important in how abused and neglected children are cared for. We want to play a change-agent role for our graduates in anticipating the profession's transformation.

In the long run, we must continue to attract the best students who will also pay our very high tuition-as it is, 90 percent of our students receive financial aid. We face an interesting puzzle of economics. We offer an expensive graduate education and a career path that offers very little pay. To balance that, we've taken internal steps-developing, for example, a career-services office and in some ways working more like a business school, creating strong relationships with outside constituents to build pathways for graduates.

Does SSA see Chicago, first and foremost, as its constituency?
Yes-partly because it's where we live and partly because of the opportunities here for what we do: research and service. Both former President Sonnenschein and President Randel have viewed the University's work as contributing in significant ways to the city, and in important ways SSA does that-for example, with our student fieldwork program.

But we also are a national and international institution. Our graduates often go into national and international policy. We are developing a faculty international exchange program, and we work on global issues. So although Chicago is our home-and the South Side the center of our world-that's not the whole picture.

How do faculty fit in?
One change with many implications is that, because of retirements, in a five-year period we will turn over about half of our faculty. We've hired ten new faculty members in the past four years, and we are negotiating with two more. By the end of next year we may have 15 new faculty.

On the one hand, our faculty retirees are the great ones. They have been leaders in the field and great citizens of the school-just this July two former deans retired. So the turnover presents a big challenge: we want to get the very best people we can, and we want to socialize them into this place. The stakes in faculty recruiting have gone up substantially. On the other hand, the turnover provides an unusual opportunity to think strategically about assembling faculty groups in specific areas.

Where is faculty recruitment focused?
This year we reached a faculty consensus about two areas: community development and mental health. We've been extremely successful on the community-development front, an effort that's been reinforced by a generous gift from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. This year we granted tenure to one community-development professor, hired two new faculty, and now have a chaired professorship to fill.

What is "community development"?
It's an umbrella term for community organizing: community planning; community economic development; a new international field called community building; another new area called community-centered practice, which uses community resources to assist individual families. A virtue of our new faculty resources is that we'll also have a portfolio of elective courses in this huge area.

How will SSA's notable history affect your approach to the future?
Our mission-to improve the quality of life for vulnerable individuals, families, groups, and communities through education, scholarship, and service-grew out of the settlement-house movement. All of our faculty feel some responsibility to that history. So an important challenge is to figure out the service piece.

Some of our activities-obviously the fieldwork program-grow naturally from our educational program. Our students spend 255,000 hours a year doing fieldwork. We're spending serious time thinking about that program. This year the Council on Social Work Education accreditation body has waived many of SSA's auditing requirements for reaccreditation so we can develop a field-education model for other schools-a fact that itself indicates SSA's notable history.

We're working on other fronts to define meaningful outreach, perhaps in the form of technical assistance and professional education for social-work agencies. We already work closely with the Chicago Public Schools, and we have an increasing number of student-outreach activities.

What is most exciting about SSA's work?
This school has the most interdisciplinary faculty you'll find. We have people whose disciplinary backgrounds-psychology, law, economics, social work, anthropology-represent an amazing diversity of methods. We have faculty who work in poverty and welfare, child welfare, mental health, substance abuse, health care, schools, early childhood development. And we have faculty who work at different levels-from the intra-psychic all the way to globalization.

We could have an enterprise in which everyone does their own work. But SSA's vision is to develop new ways of both understanding human behavior and creating social services, and each must inform the other. For example, people who think about managing systems-designing and operating child-welfare services-should learn from those who know about early childhood development. So the question becomes, what makes for a system that creates developmental opportunities for young kids?

We're creating structures to bring together practitioners and scholars. For example, the faculty-proposed Institute of Social Policy and Practice is modeled on the old Bell Labs, which brought together the engineers and the basic scientists-the engineers had problems to solve, and the scientists had theory and science to bring to bear. Our faculty's idea is to join with a small number of external partners-agencies with problems to solve. By creating long-term relationships, we'll get a better understanding of agencies' work, and they'll get research with major import for what they do.




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