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A Tenure Marked by Growth, Diversity, and Collaboration

Dean Paula Allen-Meares

  • An endowment that has grown from less than $1 million to $42.3 million.
  • Externally funded interdisciplinary research awards exceeding $94 million.
  • More scholarships, fellowships, and research assistantships to benefit a student body that is now 26 percent students of color, with 3 percent classified as “international” students.
  • A larger and more diverse faculty, including six new collegiate professorships, three endowed chairs, and an increase in jointly appointed faculty, post-docs, and staff.
  • Growth in intellectual contributions, such as mental health expertise in child and family welfare, the Nonprofit and Public Management Center, and focus on health disparities and aging.
  • A modern, spacious new building.
  • And the one thing that has not changed at the School of Social Work under Dean Paula Allen-Meares’ leadership: its standing as one of the leading social work programs in the country.

“Many, many people are responsible for these achievements,” Dean Paula Allen-Meares emphasizes. “I have worked with outstanding faculty, staff, and students, as well as stakeholders across the state and the nation, who have moved our agenda forward.

“What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of ‘we’ in this.”

Collaboration is a theme she has stressed from the beginning. As Allen-Meares steps down after fifteen years as dean, the partnerships forged with foundations, state and national agencies, institutes, and communities will endure. They have yielded an incredibly diverse interdisciplinary research profile that encompasses aging, child and family welfare, poverty, substance abuse, health issues, policy development—and the list goes on.

Our outstanding national ranking as the leading social work program is a direct reflection of Paula’s leadership and vision.

—Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan

Dual degree programs have been created with law, public policy, and urban and regional planning. Social Work researchers collaborate with colleagues throughout the University, from psychology and the health sciences, to anthropology, education, and business.

“If you are interested in the cross-fertilization of ideas involving other fields and professions, Michigan is one of the best places to be,” Dean AllenMeares declares. “There are few barriers here.”

Dean Allen-Meares, who is also the Norma Radin Collegiate Professor of Social Work and professor in the School of Education, planned to become a physician until a high school counselor steered her toward the more “realistic” profession of teaching. This was the professional pinnacle for a woman, she was told; there was no way an African-American woman could become a doctor. So young Paula began volunteering with programs like Head Start, sparking an early interest in child welfare. She earned a BS from State University of New York at Buffalo and a fellowship to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, where she completed an MSW and a PhD.

After a brief time in child and family services, Allen-Meares became the first person of color to be hired by the Urbana School District as a school social worker, eventually becoming the head of all social services in the district and then department chair for special education at Urbana High School.

So when her alma mater, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, sought a new faculty member who understood the intersection of education and social work practice and policy, the choice was obvious. Dean Allen-Meares spearheaded the first school social work specialization to be approved by the Illinois Board of Education. She went on to direct the School of Social Work’s doctoral program and its MD/PhD component. She was named dean in 1990 and answered the call to Michigan in 1993.

In her inaugural keynote at the U-M SSW, Dean Allen-Meares outlined the principles and goals that would guide her vision. In the “stern fiscal climate,” she argued for “innovation by substitution,” an idea set forth by the late Gil Whitaker, then U-M provost. “Rather than simply pursuing growth, we must be creative with limited resources,” she stated. “We must maintain and develop collaborative projects and inter-unit relationships.”

One of her first tasks was to raise funds for constructing a new building. “Dean Harold Johnson recognized the need for new space, and he had worked very hard to position the School to achieve this. Emeritus Professor Jesse Gordon, who had a deep interest in architecture, contributed immensely in helping to facilitate the building process,” she relates. “The faculty was on board, and I had tremendous support from Central Administration and the Regents.”

Dean Paula Allen-Meares has been an inspirational force for me, as well as my fellow MSW students. I am confident that her future students will experience the kindness, motivation, and encouragement that she has readily bestowed on us.

—Reem Shaijah, SSW Student Union president

Dean Allen-Meares discovered a natural aptitude for fundraising, growing out of her zeal for forging relationships. Over the years, she found mentors in President James Duderstadt, Provost Gil Whitaker, School of Business Dean Joseph White, Associate Vice President for Development Chacona Johnson, Provost Nancy Cantor, and members of U-M’s Central Development. “I read a lot of books,” she recalls. “But talking with people who had done an outstanding job of raising money was the most helpful.”

Completed in 1998, the majestic Social Work building houses, in her words, “a world-class faculty documenting the impact of today’s most urgent social issues on the well-being of people around the globe. Our curriculum has always been cutting edge. And our master’s and doctoral students are just exceptional,” she attests. “We are second only to Brandeis University in producing deans of schools of social work across the country.”

Her colleague Joe White, now president of the University of Illinois, says, “Paula has achieved the nearly impossible: keeping a top-ranked school at the very top of its game for fourteen years. We like the term ‘good to great’ in America, but in this case, make that ‘great to even greater.’ A most impressive achievement.”

“I have never known anyone who works harder— and I have never known a social work dean who has maintained her intellectual pursuits as incredibly well as she has while being a dean,” says Professor Siri Jayaratne, associate dean of faculty and academic affairs. “She can be tough, demanding, and intense— but I don’t think she asks more from others than she asks of herself.

“She once told me that she keeps a tape recorder next to her bed so that if some idea occurs to her in the middle of the night, she can make a note to herself. I guess I must have looked aghast or something, because she seemed very surprised that I did not have a tape recorder next to my bed! She is energetic —she never stops working.”

Beyond being a dean, Allen-Meares says that she has always enjoyed doing the work of the deanship. She likes the administrative challenges, likes balancing the budget and responding to the competing concerns of multiple constituencies.

“But also—and this is just my own personal issue—I wanted to be a role model. If I am asking the faculty to publish, to secure grants, and to work with doctoral students, I believe I should engage in those activities as well on a smaller scale. I wanted to have a respectable record so that as I step down from the deanship, the faculty will want me as part of their community.”

During her tenure, Dean Allen-Meares has published twenty-five journal articles, eight books (along with translations into Korean, Chinese, and Japanese), ten book chapters, and a myriad of op-eds, editorials, and essays. Major grants include her ongoing work with the Skillman Foundation, bringing a major university presence to urban Detroit; principal investigator of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored Global Program on Youth; as well as one of the lead contributors of the National Institute of Mental Health Center on Poverty, Risk and Mental Health, which was housed in the SSW before moving to other units at the University.

Dean Allen-Meares also serves on several editorial boards and national professional and scientific societies, including the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). She brings a social worker’s perspective to the NYAM committee composed of nurses, physicians, nutritionists, and psychologists.

As evidenced by these numerous examples, Allen-Meares is seldom without something to do. She looks forward to teaching again (at Illinois, she was consistently named to the “incomplete list of teachers ranked as excellent”) and will continue advising doctoral students (five, at present) and to pursue research interests that include the role of social workers in school settings, psychopathology in children and adolescents and families, adolescent pregnancy, and the strengths of African-American parents and communities.

As Allen-Meares starts the next phase of her career, her tenure as dean of the U-M SSW will be remembered as a positive time in the history of social work education. Syracuse University President Nancy Cantor, former U-M provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, recalls, “Dean Allen-Meares has always been a passionate advocate for social work. She spoke everywhere and to all who would listen about the relevance of the faculty’s scholarship in promoting a healthier, more equitable society, and the impact that a social work education could have in producing leaders who would change our world.”

—Pat Materka, a former U-M staff member, is a freelance writer who owns and operates the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast

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