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Joint Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science Celebrates 50th Anniversary

After forty years in the profession, Diane Kravetz (’67, PhD ’70) now understands why the U-M SSW faculty constantly said how innovative and cutting-edge the Joint Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science was. “The program is at the forefront of advancing social work practice,” she told her fellow alumni at the program’s 50th anniversary celebration on October 11 and 12, 2007.

It was Professor John Tropman (PhD ’67) who suggested Kravetz go for a PhD. She thought she wasn’t smart enough, but he knew better.

“You don’t have to be smart, just persevere,” he encouraged her.

“‘Well, I can do that,’ I said. It was a wonderful turning point in my life,” testified Kravetz, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she served as director and associate director of the School of Social Work.

“Still today the U-M SSW Joint Doctoral Program remains a unique program in the world,” agrees Eileen Gambrill (PhD ’65). “I am grateful to those both in social work and the social sciences who had the vision, the resourcefulness, the persistence, and the interpersonal skills and diplomacy required to make this program a reality.”

Such praise and stories were not uncommon at the Joint Doctoral Program’s 50th anniversary conference, dinner, and tailgate party. The event featured alumni from the program and recognized their significant contributions to scholarship, education, and practice. The program, which is built upon interdisciplinary education in social work and a social science, is the only one of its kind.

The joint doctoral students bring an applied perspective to the program that can be stimulating in class.

—Norbert Schwartz, Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor, Department of Psychology

A Little History

The Joint Doctoral Program admitted its first students in 1957. Graduates of this unique program receive an interdisciplinary PhD degree in social work and one of five allied social science disciplines: anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. The program was founded at a time when there were very few PhD programs in social work with a mission to train scholars and researchers who would bridge the gaps between theory and action by utilizing social science theory and methods to address significant social problems. The success of the program has been dependent on good relationships and collaborations between faculty in the School of Social Work and in the social science departments.

Over the past fifty years, over 300 students have graduated from the program. Many of these graduates have made significant contributions to social work knowledge, education, and practice. Among the graduates are many deans of schools of social work, editors of social work and social science journals, and research scientists with organizations such as the Urban Institute, United Nations, and Centers for Disease Control. The unique doctoral education they received at the University of Michigan positioned them to take on leadership roles. In the words of one of the graduates, David Hollister (’62, PhD ’66), professor of social work at the University of Minnesota, “The U-M doctoral program is a beacon of light to other schools of social work, including the University of Minnesota. It has opened many doors for its graduates.” 

Current Program

Currently, the Joint Program has seventy active students involved in different stages in the program. This extremely talented and capable group of students represents a number of countries, theoretical perspectives, and life experiences. The diversity of experience and perspective among the students contributes to a rich educational experience in their courses and research activities. Students within the program not only develop knowledge and skills in social work and a specific social science, but also communicate and collaborate with those in other fields. Their intellectual interests include such significant topics as decision making regarding organ transplants, infant mental health, philanthropic strategies, and parenting practices in India. An average of fourteen students graduates each year, the majority taking faculty or post-doctoral positions at colleges and universities around the world. 

In 2005 an external review of the program was conducted by an interdisciplinary committee of faculty from peer institutions in the United States. This committee described the program as “a crown jewel of interdisciplinary doctoral training for the University of Michigan for nearly fifty years. It is a key reason for the School of Social Work’s current number one ranking. Through their scholarship, teaching, and academic administration, the program’s graduates have played key roles in injecting and maintaining academic rigor within schools of social work.” The committee also recommended that the program build on its strengths by supporting more opportunities for interdisciplinary research involving faculty and students, admitting more students annually, streamlining the social work course curriculum, and recruiting more faculty into joint appointments with social science departments. All of these recommendations have been translated into initiatives within the School of Social Work.

Anniversary Celebrations

The celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary reflected the significance of the program in developing knowledge, practice, and education. A planning committee for the event—comprised of students, faculty, and alumni—selected the theme Solving Problems in Society: Ideas and People as an organizing framework. The first day of the conference was focused on the School of Social Work community. That afternoon featured panels of doctoral alumni and current students, who discussed their experience with the program. An alumni dinner that evening included remarks by Dean Paula Allen-Meares and a panel of former doctoral program chairs. 

Alumni Panel

The panel of alumni was comprised of two alumni from each decade of the program. Their remarks reflected changes in the program, our society, and profession. Two members of the first class admitted to the program—Professors Emeriti Rosemary Sarri (PhD ’62) and Phillip Fellin (PhD ’62)—discussed their experiences as students of Henry Meyer and Eugene Litwak, who were among the faculty who founded the program. Graduates from the 1960s and 1970s spoke of the significant changes in the field and in our society. Larry Gary (’67, PhD ’70), professor of social work at Howard University, described the climate of the campus as a time of student activism on peace, social justice, and civil rights. In his remarks he said that, as a student, “I was an activist. I had no choice.” Marti Bombyk (’76, PhD ’83), professor of social work at Eastern Michigan University, spoke of her active involvement in organizing the Graduate Student Organization and the Women’s Studies program at the University of Michigan. She, Dr. Gary, and others also described how the University of Michigan and faculty such as Dr. Edwin Thomas brought a behavioral perspective into the center of social work theory and practice. 

Alumni from the late 20th century described a more quiescent campus environment but an equally stimulating intellectual environment. In reflecting on her experience in the program, Eileen Trzcinski (’79, PhD ’85), professor of social work, Wayne State University, stated that “the intellectual, open richness of life in this program can’t be exceeded elsewhere.” Summerson Carr (’97, PhD ’04), assistant professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, described how the challenges of translating her work to faculty in both social work and anthropology lead to more rigorous scholarship. This view was echoed by Katie Richards-Schuster (PhD ’05), research scientist, University of Michigan, and Bowen McBeath (’97, PhD ’06), assistant professor, Portland State University. These two speakers also spoke of the challenges and opportunities that come from integrating knowledge based in scholarship and practice. 

Student Panel

A panel comprised of current students from each social science organized its comments around particular questions, rather than areas of studies. These students spoke of how the struggle to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship enhanced their understanding. In the words of Pilar Horner (’03, social work and sociology), “I struggle daily with interdisciplinary research. I feel like I’m pushing the boundaries of research, and I love it. I love figuring it out.” Their integration into the social science departments was described as a tension as they are often the only students in their seminars who are concerned with the application of the theories they are studying. Students described the Doctoral Program itself as supportive of students and the student cohort as encouraging. Jessica Wiederspan (social work and sociology) said, “I have depended on students who went before me and tried to help the new cohort in turn. Everyone realizes the challenge in figuring out the program and is willing to help. Also, we don’t compete for funding. We have a common bond.”

Keynote Speeches and Topical Panels

The second day of the program began with welcoming remarks from Janet Weiss, dean of Rackham Graduate School, who spoke of the significance of the program in interdisciplinary graduate education. The morning keynote speaker was Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and president of the American Sociological Association. She was selected by the planning committee because of the significance her scholarship has had in informing social work scholarship, education, policy, and practice. 

In her keynote, “The Dizzying Transition of Poverty, Politics and Policy,” Dr. Piven described the Joint Doctoral Program as unique in bridging social science and social welfare. Her address focused on how the U.S. society has alternately supported and retreated from government policies that support social welfare. She described the significant role that grassroots social movements and interest groups can play in making large scale political change. She closed with the following words, “We must begin organizing ourselves. We must create a political position based on what the profession tells us is right analytically and normatively. This could bring back an American welfare state.”

The keynote was followed by panels on topics suggested by alumni of the program. Each panel featured alumni speakers and was moderated by faculty from the U-M School of Social Work and the affiliated social science departments. These panels highlighted the contributions that alumni have made to research on identifying the interactions of structural, cultural, and individual determinants of social issues; using policy to create effective cross-system public mental health and substance abuse service networks; aging; and applied social science to address social issues.

A second keynote address, by Patricia Gurin, Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan, was titled “Enduring Dilemmas.” Dr. Gurin focused her remarks on how the Joint Program and its graduates have worked to address enduring dilemmas in our society such as inequality and racism and the integration of research and practice. She identified one of the Joint Program’s strengths as educating scholars to study the interaction between individual and structural causation of social phenomena. As current director of research for the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, she is co-investigator with Biren (Ratnesh) Nagda (’89, PhD ’96), associate professor of social work, University of Washington, on a national study of the impact of intergroup dialogues on student learning. This study integrates her work as a social psychologist on attitudes with her teaching and practice in intergroup dialogues. She described how her ability to bring together research and practice on this topic leads her to deeper levels of knowledge than she had anticipated. She shared this example as exemplifying the dynamic tension inherent in the PhD program and the benefits of that tension. 

The joint doctoral students are high caliber, have interdisciplinary interests, and are serious about research.

—Sandra A. Graham-Bermann, professor, Department of Psychology

The Future of Social Work and Social Work Education

The final afternoon program featured four concurrent panels featuring doctoral alumni and a closing panel of alumni who spoke on “The Future of Social Work and Social Work Education.” The concurrent panels included a discussion of the development of evidence-based practice, a roundtable on mixed methods research, perspectives from social work history, and global and international perspectives on social work and social welfare. 

The day’s closing plenary on the future of social work and social work education consisted of remarks by alumni Ronald Feldman (’63, PhD ’66), dean emeritus, Columbia School of Social Work; Jon Matsuoka (PhD ’85), dean, University of Hawaii School of Social Work; Peter Vaughan (PhD ’77), dean, Graduate School of Social Service, Fordham University; and Josephine Allen (’70, PhD ’79), professor, Cornell University and past president, National Association of Social Workers, on their vision of social work at the 100th anniversary in 2057. They spoke of the growing cultural diversity within in the United States and how these conditions are changing dynamics in communities and organizations as well as increasing the need for social workers prepared to work with different populations.

A second theme of their remarks was the impact of globalization and information technology in reconceptualizing our ideas regarding social justice and social welfare. This trend has made us even more aware of how the social issues we deal with are connected with similar issues around the world. A final focus was on the continuing need of social work to develop and implement policies, programs, and interventions that contribute to improving quality of life and address social injustice. 

This final panel provided a clear direction of where we have been for the past fifty years and what we need to consider as we move into the future. Graduates of the Joint Program continue to play a significant role in that future. In the words of our dean, Paula Allen-Meares, “These two days were an excellent opportunity to reminisce about the program’s rich history, take a look at how the program has grown in numbers and in influence, and collaborate on the future potential of the program and its graduates. Together we have highlighted another fine example of leaders and best.”

—Lorraine Gutiérrez (PhD ’89) is director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science. She is professor of social work, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology, and faculty associate in American Culture.

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