Neil B. Guterman began his second term as SSA dean on July 1, 2015. (Photography by Lloyd DeGrane)

From local to global

Looking back on a century of results, School of Social Service Administration dean Neil B. Guterman shares SSA’s plans to make a global impact on social work.

More than 100 years ago, the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) opened its doors as the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and commenced its historic role in defining the field of social welfare. At a time when women had not yet earned the right to vote, the school’s “founding mothers”—Edith Abbott, PhD 1905; her sister, Grace Abbott, PhM 1909; and Sophonisba Breckinridge, PhM 1897, PhD 1901, JD 1904—began shaping a new and bold vision for the social work profession. Edith Abbott led the merger of the school into the University of Chicago and became its dean—the first female dean of any graduate school in US history. Sister Grace developed child labor law policies and advocated for immigrants. Breckinridge was the first woman to receive a PhD in political science at the University and the first woman to graduate from the Law School. She served as professor in the University’s Department of Household Administration and taught at SSA.

These three original thinkers professionalized the social work field, undergirding social work practices with scientific evidence and theory and leveraging social science research to solve the most complex societal problems—a then revolutionary approach. They embodied the University’s core mission of civic engagement, striving to enact social reform and make a positive impact in the rapidly growing city of Chicago. This pioneering spirit inspires us to rescale their vision of the social work profession to the global stage.

Globalization in the economy and technological advances have made our world smaller, faster paced, and more connected. Social problems and their solutions, as well, have global drivers and consequences. Consider such basic concerns in the social work profession as poverty and inequality, immigration, the spread of HIV, or human exploitation and violence. These are not only “backyard” concerns and problems. They all have global influences and repercussions.

In response, SSA is adding new faculty with explicit expertise in global social welfare; expanding collaborations in India and mainland China in conjunction with the University’s centers in Delhi and Beijing; developing strategies to improve child welfare in former Soviet bloc countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East; and offering a new educational concentration in international social welfare.

Our work in China spotlights some of our most ambitious global efforts. China, now undergoing historic economic and social transformations, has outlined an ambitious plan for completion by 2020: educating 1.45 million new social workers to tackle its social problems; establishing a new infrastructure for social work education serving all of China; and developing social welfare services on a massive scale to support its continued growth and urbanization.

To meet these daunting goals, China is seeking out models across the world. SSA, which has fast become a go-to destination for Chinese social work students, is a major resource to our Chinese colleagues, having forged important relationships with key institutions and partners, including Peking University (PKU), home to mainland China’s oldest and most prestigious social work program. We have hosted PKU faculty and visited PKU to share insights on curriculum and field-based education. As a member of the China Collaborative, a capacity-building effort by the Council on Social Work Education in the United States, the China Association of Social Work Education in China, and the International Association of Schools of Social Work, we have led immersion programs designed to assist social work faculty from across China as they work to establish their social work educational infrastructure.

Further galvanizing our efforts is a newly launched program. With lead support from Anna Pao Sohmen, EX’70, a Hong Kong–based anchor donor and former SSA student, SSA will direct an endowed joint graduate social work exchange program in partnership with PKU and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The program is expected to feature cross-national and cross-university exchanges among faculty and students and discussions and programs with scholars focusing on pressing social welfare issues.

These exchanges will foster the development of an enduring, rigorously trained workforce—professionalizing the field and developing the capacity to grow a vibrant social welfare system in China. This is an exciting prospect: to share the lessons honed by SSA’s founders, which gave birth to the social work profession in the United States, to help support the profession’s nascent growth in China. This work will help transform the lives of the most vulnerable in China, develop new knowledge and leaders in international social welfare, deepen our own understandings, and train others who can uplift the lives of citizens in their own country and in many others.