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A Conversation with New Dean Beth Angell

June 23, 2022

It's important to be able to get up every day and to feel like something we do will help to make a better world.

On July 1, 2022, Kathryn Elizabeth (Beth) Angell was appointed as dean of the School of Social Work. She was previously dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Social Work and, before that, held a number of leadership roles at Rutgers University in New Jersey. We caught up with Angell as she prepared to move to Ann Arbor, to learn more about her experiences, perspectives and hopes for the future.

Ongoing: Tell us about your path to social work.

Beth Angell: Like many in our ranks, I was one of those people who was drawn to social work because of my own life experiences. My mother had a serious mental illness, a psychotic disorder, and she committed suicide when I was nine. That was the backdrop of my childhood. I was raised by my father, a single dad, and I was a first-generation student. I didn't have parents to help guide my decision-making about what I studied and I found myself, after several major changes, gravitating to psychology because I wanted to try to understand what happened to me in my life.

I worked in a neuroscience lab for a little while and had a wonderful lab director who took an interest in mentoring me. One day, he said, "I'm really struck when I talk to you about what you want to do with your life. You're a lot more interested in helping people than you are about being a lab scientist, and you ought to think about the field of social work."

Once I found social work, I really never looked back, because the way of thinking about structural causes of situations is different from other disciplines. Social work gives us ways of understanding how people react, and how what looks like resistant behavior is really grounded in lived experience. If it's the right place for you, you know.

In my very first field placement as a social worker, I was in a community mental health agency. One of the first things I had to do was deliver medication to a client at home, and the instruction given to me was to "make sure he takes the medication in front of you." But the client slammed the door on my foot and said "No, thank you. I don't want to. Take it back." And I didn't know what to do.

So my doctoral work focused on what happens when society decides someone needs help, but they don't think they do, or at least not the help we are offering. How do we approach that situation and how do we find ways to address the need? How do we help in a way that's as empowering as possible and how do we give people real choices? How do we set up services so that we don't just automatically oppress the disempowered?

As part of my research, I studied how we organize services for people with psychiatric disorder, and what I found is that we set up a lot of baseline expectations of our clients - quid pro quos - that are not explicit or clear. There's a lot of hidden coercion in the way we do business. That led me to study the way we use language, specifically verbal, to regulate choice. I studied how psychiatrists, in particular, use the way they talk to clients to open up or shut down opportunities for clients to talk about what they need or want. To do that, I learned a sociolinguistic technique called conversation analysis.

Ongoing: You are a first-generation college student. How does that experience guide you as a dean?

BA: As a first-generation student, I know how it feels to not be sure you belong.

I was lucky as an undergraduate: I had people who took a special interest in me, and who saw potential in me and who mentored me. That's what I want to see for our students, especially students who come from any marginalized identity or circumstance - that they feel as though the university is a place where they do belong, where there are people who can guide them and who will help them come into their own.

The way that shows up in leadership is that you need to be really aware of policies that are exclusive, you need to be aware of ways in which "the way we've always done it" can be a door that shuts for someone. I carry that identity as a first-generation student and am aware of those kinds of interactions.

Ongoing: The future looks different in 2022 than when you started as a dean at Virginia Commonwealth Univesity in 2018. How has the turbulence of the last 18 months changed priorities in social work and academia?

BA: The University of Michigan, like everywhere in the country, has to figure out what social work looks like in a post-pandemic world. We're hearing a lot of dialogue within our field that questions the foundations of what we've done in the name of social work. Can this be made a just profession, or do we need to start over again? We were having those conversations before, but the so-called "twin pandemics" - COVID-19 and our country's reckoning with its history of racism - have centered that dialogue, because we're all questioning everything, from our safety every day in the world to our assumptions about who and how we are helping.

What role does social work play in this world? How will Michigan, as the leading U.S. school of social work, supply the thought leadership that will transform our field in the future? And is that a future where we're going to continue to produce lots and lots of social workers? I hope so, but that's a question we have to wrestle with.

And the other challenge - this is really, really pressing - is how we create sustainable careers for these bright young minds we're educating and whom we envision going out and shaping social work of the future. How do we make sure that they don't graduate with crushing debt and how do we advocate for the kind of careers, and the kind of pay, that will allow them to have sustainable careers as people who want to do good in the world and solve these thorny problems we are facing? As the School moves forward, these are the kind of high-level challenges that we need to engage.

Finally, on the pragmatic level, we're all still figuring out how to come back to work and school. What is education? Is it a brick-and-mortar endeavor, or is it an online endeavor? How do we find our place in this hybrid world? This is a fun challenge because there isn't a right or wrong answer.

People have talked about how the second year of the pandemic has, in some ways, been harder than the first, because while the first year was scary and challenging in its own way, the second year has been more about pivoting, reacting and responding to the vaccines and then the variants, so trying to keep spirits up has been harder this year. Our lives are forever changed. As the dean, you have to be empathic and make sure that students' needs stay in the center. You also have to honor employees' needs for flexibility given the changes that have happened in their lives.

As a leader, you have to be able to pull back from your own defensiveness and understand that you're learning and remember that none of us have ever been through this before. And you have to listen and you have to decide. Sometimes, a decision isn't popular, but if you're transparent with people about how you made that decision, then it tends to be something we can all live with.

Ongoing: Beyond professional goals, what excites and inspires you about moving to Michigan? Tell us about your family. Who is coming with you?

BA: My husband, Andrew Murphy, is a political scientist; he's going to be at LSA as a professor of political science. We have a 13-year-old dog named Connor. We have two adult sons, and one of the very happy coincidences of this move is that it puts us closer to where both of them live. One is an MSW student - so I have another social worker in the family - and also a former football player, so he's really, really excited to go to games in the Big House. We're all excited. Ann Arbor is a great place to take in football and all the cultural offerings of an incredible university and college town.

Ongoing: How do you manage the demands of being a dean?

BA: Balance is really important. I am an extrovert and one of those people who enjoy meetings. I love it when a team gets into the flow together. That's the part of the job that's really energizing for me.

At the same time, to keep your sense of balance, you have to have activities that help you step back from the small decisions that you have to make day to day and allow you to think in a larger frame. For me, that's running. I'm not a very fast runner but I've been running for about 15 years and I find that that gets me out of my head a little bit.

Ongoing: You're from North Carolina, which leads to a very specific question about barbecue preference - Eastern (vinegar-based) or Western (tomato):

BA: Oh, Eastern style, I have my own drum smoker and we were just debating about whether or not it's coming with us. It's moved from New Jersey to Virginia. But yeah, I smoke my own pulled pork and when I'm entertaining vegans, I make jackfruit barbecue.

Ongoing: Jackfruit?

BA: Yes, jackfruit. You buy it in a can at Trader Joe's and it has this really interesting texture. It has seeds and pulp and you pull it apart with your fork and it mimics the texture of meat and then you put a lot of barbecue sauce on it.

Ongoing: What gives you hope as a dean?

BA: Hope is in the doing and in the imagining and in the creating. Hope is watching the future that you see being crafted by our students and faculty. It's an important thing to be able to get up every day and to feel like something we do today will help to make a better world. As dean, I get this wonderful ringside seat to watch the passions of our students, and that gives me a lot of hope.

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