Social workers find higher ed a good fit

Karen Haynes with studentsKaren Haynes, (photo right) center,  president of California State University, San Marcos, talks with students.

Much like a social worker attending to the welfare of others, being a college president is like being a mother hen that knows no boundaries, said James Kelly, past president of NASW and current president of Menlo College in California.

As a college president, Kelly said he uses every social work skill he possesses on a daily basis.

“It is impossible for me to separate my social work self from my educator self,” Kelly said. “Some days I’m in clinical mode, I am accepting and I am a listener; I help guide people to those best suited to aid them. Other days, I’m involved in advocacy, and sometimes in legal matters.”

Social workers are not the norm in higher education leadership roles such as president, according to NASW member and university president Karen Haynes, but they have the perfect training.

“(Social work) is an incredibly useful skill set,” she said. “In my past role as interim president at the University of Houston Victoria, the faculty said to me that if they had known about my social work background, I may not have risen to the top of their list. But since they experienced my style, they saw social work skills as actually a good fit.”

Haynes is now president of California State University, San Marcos, and says her career in higher education has always involved social work in some aspect.

“When I look back at 18 years of being president in two universities, overwhelmingly what my job is, is about building and maintaining relationships,” she said. “Engaging in daily relationships, mediating, it all is very familiar in terms of using a lot of social work skills.”

NASW member Dianne Harrison, president of California State University, Northridge, said people from business and education backgrounds tend to be seen as the most suitable for higher education leadership roles when universities seek to fill these positions. But she feels her social work background helps when it comes to dealing with certain situations.

“When universities seek out a new president, they don’t traditionally think about social work faculty and backgrounds as their criteria. It’s usually people from backgrounds such as arts and sciences, business, occasionally engineering,” she said. “But I honestly am very grateful that I have social work training and education, because it really did prepare me for what I have to do.”

On certain topics and issues, Harrison said she feels more prepared than those who don’t have a social work background.

“The most recent example is the business about child abuse reporting,” she said. “Now in the state of California, with the implementation of a new state mandate that anybody on campus — including faculty and staff — should be mandatory reporters, it caught a lot of university presidents off guard. But with my social work training, it helped me to effectively handle the situation as I worked on how to communicate the mandatory reporting initiative to the college.”

She added that she uses social work every day in her role as university president, which takes effective communication, crisis intervention, empathy and problem solving — all important skills she learned through being a social worker.

“I have to do a lot of listening, I have to hear a lot of problems,” Harrison said. “I need to approach these situations from a reasonable standpoint and an empathetic standpoint. I use social work every day.”

Paula Allen-MearesPaula Allen-Meares, standing (photo right), is chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a John Corbally Presidential Professor.

According to famous social work pathfinders Florence Hollis and Harriett Bartlett, a social worker starts where the client is, said University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor and John Corbally Presidential Professor Paula Allen-Meares. With this in mind, Allen-Meares said she uses several social work skills in her higher education leadership roles.

“I find it important to start with the situation and/or context before engaging in major change,” she said. “In social work, we advocate for collaborations and partnerships to create value and to enhance capacity, and the profession draws upon an interdisciplinary and ecological perspective. This is important in achieving collective objectives, and these perspectives have been invaluable.”

The path from social worker to president or other higher education leader can take many routes, said Haynes, recalling that her own journey took an unexpected turn.

“I set out very early in my career to find a community organization job,” she said. “This was in Austin, Texas, in 1970 — and there were not many of them. At the same time, the Council on Social Work Education started to accredit BSW programs nationally and some universities were looking for MSW candidates to help develop BSW programs.”

Haynes said she saw an interesting opportunity, and wrote letters to a number of universities in the greater Austin area.

“I was invited to step on board to be on faculty at the University of Texas in Austin,” she said. “I realized my love of social work education and stayed in the higher education field. So it was partly serendipitous for me to not find a community organization job when I first started out even though it was what I was aiming for.”

Kelly began his career as a social studies teacher in rural Pennsylvania, where he said he learned about racism, bullying, teen pregnancy, and every other form of acting out fostered by long-held, antiquated social beliefs and poor self-esteem.

“Teaching in this environment formed the backdrop for my decision to pursue social work,” he said.

James KellyJames Kelly (photo right) is president of Menlo College in California and past president of NASW.

Kelly earned a Ph.D. from the Florence Heller Graduate School of Policy, Planning and Administration at Brandeis University in 1975. He then completed a postdoctoral clinical fellowship in psychiatry at the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Medical Center at UCLA School of Medicine.

Kelly then became dean of the College of Health and Human Services at California State University, Los Angeles, after serving as director and professor in the Department of Social Work at CSU, Long Beach.

Kelly’s higher education path eventually led to executive vice president and provost at Menlo College before being named president in 2011.

“During my entire career, by serving as president of NASW-California and president of NASW National, I continued to be active in my (social work) profession,” Kelly said.

Harrison said she knew she wanted to be in a profession involved in helping and working with people, and she started earning her MSW in 1971 at the height of the war on poverty.

“I ended up falling in love with the social work profession,” she said.

Harrison worked up the academic ranks at Florida State University, from assistant professor to professor and finally dean of the school of social work. The provost asked Harrison whether she had any interest in central administration.

“I felt that was a significant fork in the road,” she said. “Instead of going to social work-related conferences, I went to other types of conferences that were not social work related.”

She found that she enjoyed working in central administration and saw it as helping people on a larger scale.

“The reason we enjoy teaching is we see it as affecting that many more potential clients as we prepare social workers to do the real work,” said Harrison, who became president at California State University, Northridge in 2012. “In administration, you multiply exponentially the difference you can make by doing a good job. It impacts faculty and students.”

For Allen-Meares, rising to a leadership position in higher education was just how things worked out.

“I had no specific career objective to enter administration,” she said. “The opportunities were available and I was invited to serve. Often these positions were laced with important opportunities and challenges, and I found this exciting.”

If a social worker wants to pursue becoming a university president, it involves taking some risks, Kelly said.

“Apply for jobs you don’t think you have a chance at. Take risks,” he said. “You’ll be surprised and rewarded when something comes through.”

Acquiring formal education beyond an MSW can also help, Haynes said.

“To succeed in a position in higher education, you have to have more than an MSW degree,” she said. “Some doctorate experience and a Ph.D. can help to put you on the right track.”

Any leadership position will naturally require some previous leadership experience, Allen-Meares said.

“Those who aspire to become a dean, chancellor, president, etc., should assume various leadership roles within their academic unit or association,” she said. “Take advantage of higher education workshops and coursework. Administrative roles take considerable time away from scholarship, however, so one should be tenured, or even a tenured full professor, before assuming such a demanding role.”

A leadership position requires wearing many hats at many different times in the day, Harrison said, and it helps to get acclimated with this type of duty by pursuing things outside of one’s comfort zone.

“Be intentional about seeking activities, experiences and opportunities that stretch you, especially outside of a school of social work,” she said. “Get involved in other aspects of the college realm, such as student affairs, budgeting, finance, development and fundraising — which are all things presidents need to know.”

It’s a role with multiple constituencies and ups and downs, Kelly said, with the goal of creating a productive, challenging, positive, and nurturing educational environment in order help students take off on their own.

“Sometimes I am a leader, but mostly I am a listener, cheerleader and advocate,” he said. “My job is to unleash the strengths of the faculty, students and staff so that they can be successful and move on with their dreams.”

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