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Longest Serving Social Work School Dean Offers Perspective on the Field
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Longest Serving Social Work School Dean Offers Perspective on the Field

Sheldon Gelman, MSW, PhD, MSL, ACSW, Professor and Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean, Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work


Editor’s Note: Upon the announcement that Dr. Sheldon Gelman would be stepping down as the dean after 21 years at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University, Currents invited Dean Gelman to share his views on the social work field, from his unique vantage point. Dean Gelman is currently the longest serving dean of a school of social work in North America.

This July marks the 21st anniversary of my arrival in New York as the Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. As an immigrant from Central Pennsylvania, New York was a new and challenging opportunity to bring my knowledge and experience as an academic social worker to the Big Apple. Something must have clicked as I am still here, looking forward to transitioning out of administration and returning to the classroom. I will be relinquishing my title as Senior New York Social Work Dean and the longest serving social work dean at a single institution in North America.
I have had the opportunity to work with my fellow deans in the city and statewide in creating a functional and effective Social Work Education Consortium in conjunction with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services and the New York City ACS; to see the passage of Social Work licensure, albeit not in a form that is without significant problems; to see the number of MSW programs in the metropolitan area increase from seven to ten; and to see social work education develop close working relationships with both public and voluntary social work agencies, involving dozens of faculty on site. I am proud to be a founding member of the Latino Social Work Task Force and to serve on the Selig Institute Board at JBFCS.

I have watched and participated in the evolution of a constructive collaboration among the schools of social work in initiatives, ranging from curriculum change and evidenced based practice, to work force retention, “Real Cases” (a teaching monograph infusing child welfare content throughout the social work curriculum), and financial literacy designed to enhance the services provided in our diverse City, replacing a history of interactions that were based on suspicion and distrust.

At the same time, I have experienced the ongoing cyclical expansion and contraction of services being offered to the most vulnerable and the loss of our most experienced and talented practitioners through retirement or downsizing. While we have come a long way since Marisol, — the 2000 lawsuit in which the Deans joined children’s advocacy groups against the City — I have real concerns about what ongoing cuts mean for the welfare of children, the elderly, and those with disabilities. While we still strive for accountability in the provision of services, I shudder at the gaps in services and the inadequacy of those who fail to meet the ethical expectations of the profession. I have seen the wondrous capabilities of the Internet, as well as the problems it has created in terms of plagiarism, and I refuse to be “friended” by anyone. I don’t tweet.

But these are unusual times with a political climate that we have not seen in generations. I am deeply concerned by the virulent rhetoric that dismisses both the role of government as a safety net and the end to entitlements for the most vulnerable. Unions, public employees, teachers, police/firefighters and the poor are denounced as the cause of all problems. Wall Street gets made more than “whole”, while preventative and restorative services are being dismantled. Welfare for the richest of the rich and welfare for the poor and vulnerable are unfortunately viewed by elected officials very differently. While I was encouraged that we had moved beyond the view that social workers were “bleeding hearts”, I find it intolerable that those who may one day need the skills and services we offer accuse us of destroying our country. The absolute certainty and rigidity with which some politicians and commentators have attacked caring and conscientious professionals and those we serve is not only scary, but contrary to the democratic principles that are the foundation of our country.

I am also concerned about the growing cost of obtaining a social work education, higher and higher tuitions, growing debt burden, limited loan forgiveness, and a competition of others who claim that they have the same or greater expertise than we do. One must ask the question – why would someone want to be a social worker? The answer I think is clear. We care; we believe in our profession and its mission; we are doers who believe in action rather than rhetoric. We give voice to those who are vulnerable or have limited ability to advocate on their own behalf. To us, social justice is not just a slogan – it is a value that reflects who we are as a profession.

Salaries remain a problem and the public still does not really know or understand what it is we do, until they find themselves in need of our expertise. I’ve experienced 9/11 and what it did to our city and country. I’ve experienced the City’s changing demographics and the recognition of the importance of culturally competent and anti racist practice. I hope we can overcome this period of nastiness and continue working with truly dedicated colleagues, who believe in a better and more just world.

On a personal note, I have continued publishing, served my professional associations, had the opportunity to travel throughout the world, mentored both faculty and students, served my University for ten years as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and developed the University’s Presidential Fellows Program. I have co-chaired two CSWE APM’s in NYC, served my New Jersey community, and have had my knowledge and expertise acknowledged as an expert witness in more than a dozen lawsuits which unfortunately involved bad or non-existent practice. I am honored to be an NASW Social Work Pioneer, to have been inducted as a Fellow by the New York Academy of Medicine, to have been recognized by the Latino Social Work Task Force at its 7th Annual Scholarship Dinner, and to have a scholarship fund at Wurzweiler established in my name. However, in spite of my time in New York, I remain an ardent Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

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