Until a couple of months ago, Dr. Richard Gelles’ title was dean of the School of Social Work. On July 1, it became dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice. While neither he nor his job changed appreciably, the change of the school’s name was more than just cosmetic.
According to his message on the school’s website, the name-change “more accurately identifies the school’s commitment to its deeply held and broad-based efforts to advance human welfare, promote resiliency among disadvantaged populations, and provide a model for other schools, centers, and programs that share our core values and goals.” And in Gelles’ view, that nominal change will also help the school maintain its necessary edge in those areas.
“You have to have substance,” says Gelles (who is also the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Practice). “You can’t just change your name.”
When he became permanent dean 2 years ago, “we looked at the strategic plans of our school and the other schools, and felt there were a couple of major opportunities at the University that we should take advantage of,” he recalls. One was the new Master of Science in Nonprofit/Nongovernmental Organizational Leadership program, a three-way partnership with the Wharton School and the School of Arts and Sciences; its first class was admitted this month. Another, to be approved and implemented later this year, is a master’s program in social policy, thus taking advantage of the “core strength of our faculty—which is research, primarily around issues of social policy.” Both of those new programs “focus on improving the human condition—but are not social work in the core professional sense,” he notes. “They would get lost under the banner of social work.”
Instead of a ceremonial unveiling of the new name, the school decided to have a symposium “to honor the substance of what we’re doing,” he says. “So we’re inaugurating the Franklin Symposium, a series around the topic of ‘Challenges facing nonprofit nongovernmental organizations.’” Former actor Michael J. Fox—founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research—will be the keynote speaker at the symposium, to be held October 19.
In a sense, the name-change grew out of Gelles’ frustration with the public’s misperceptions of the social-work profession, and with the profession’s reluctance to grapple with that problem in a meaningful way. “Social work as a brand, the understanding of what the profession does, is not consistent with what the profession actually does—and certainly not consistent with what we do here,” he says. “Social work is part of almost everybody’s life, birth to death. But the profession is just dismal in its ability to hold on to its nobility and its professionalism. It lets BAs in art history be called social workers without protest.” (They should be called case workers.) And the public’s image of social workers “doesn’t even cover a fraction of what the profession does, let alone what we do here.”
While social work may be a critical part of the school, he says, “the whole research, administrative, and policy components of the profession were lost under the strength of the [social-work] brand.”
Penn’s school “really is a bit unique,” he adds. “Being at the University of Pennsylvania, at an Ivy League school, we probably put a much greater emphasis on research here” than is the case at most other schools. That research, and the policy and administrative applications of it, helps people at the “macro-practice” level—what he has sometimes referred to as the “wholesale” level—as opposed to the “direct-practice,” or “retail” level.
“Many social workers attempt to help people one at a time, 10 at a time, 20 at a time,” he explains. “But other social workers help people five million at a time, two million at a time. When Dennis Culhane [associate professor of social welfare policy and co-director of the Cartographic Modeling Lab] does work on homelessness, he’s helping tens of thousands of homeless individuals. When he does his research on obesity, he’s helping hundreds of thousands of youngsters who are at high risk of juvenile diabetes because of their dietary habits.”
Furthermore, “there are 3,000 501 (C)3s in the tri-state area, non-profits who deal with some sort of social-service delivery, whose annual budget is in excess of $1 million,” he points out. “Somebody’s got to run all those places. And the ripple effect of 3,000 agencies serving people in the tri-state area—that’s what I meant by wholesale.”
Reaction to the name-change so far has ranged from “very, very positive” to “angry,” he says. “Even in a profession whose business is change, change comes with difficulty.”
But, he adds: “You can do it at Penn because this school has always marched a little bit to a different drummer. It’s a long tradition. If you were to look around the country and say, ‘Which school is going to do something different, something radical?’—Penn would be at the top of the list.”