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Why are endowed chairs important?

Faculty at the USC School of Social Work reflect on the importance of endowed chairs to their programs

To many it may seem like a simple title, but earning an endowed professorship or chair at the USC School of Social Work sends a strong message.

“It’s an excellent way to attract outstanding faculty, and it’s a very important mechanism for recognizing research accomplishments,” said Marilyn Flynn, the school’s dean. “It’s one of the few ways we have of publicly endorsing and honoring the achievements of research faculty.”

The school currently boasts nine named professorships and chairs, and in addition to recognizing individual talent, Flynn said they help promote the school’s presence and expertise in particular areas of research, including aging, vulnerable populations, child welfare, health and mental health, and social policy and development.

USC School of Social Work's Ron Astor and Dean Marilyn Flynn

USC School of Social Work’s Ron Astor and Dean Marilyn Flynn (Photo/Brian Goodman)

“It is also an enduring way of ensuring that we will have a very highly qualified faculty in perpetuity,” she said.

On a practical level, the funding supports the salaries of top scholars and can even include assistance with travel and other aspects of research. To the faculty members who receive an endowed professorship, however, there is an added layer of meaning.

Kathleen Ell, the Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity, and Poverty, views the honor as lending a certain sense of legitimacy to her work. A member of the faculty since 1980, Ell has dedicated her career to research on the interplay among chronic illness, depression and mortality.

“The title emphasizes my career aims, which are to study and ultimately help low-income populations, ethnically and racially diverse populations,” she said. “That’s where my heart and mind have been for a long, long time.”

A signal of success

As a social work scholar who specializes in health-related issues, Ell said she believes having a named professorship has been critical to her ability to secure federal grants for her research and ensure that her findings are published in leading medical journals.

“It carries with it some recognition outside of social work,” she said. “People who review grants recognize it. It signals that you are doing something important and unique.”

Similar sentiments were shared by her colleague, Iris Chi, who was named the Chinese-American Golden Age Association/Frances Wu Chair for the Chinese Elderly upon joining the school’s faculty in 2004. Although she had been a well-established and recognized researcher in gerontology and issues of aging among Chinese older adults, Chi said she has also noticed a change after receiving the title.

It’s about getting a message across that can guide policy, change laws, and change the day-to-day lives of individuals who are suffering and not receiving support.

Ron Astor

“Many people knew about me and my work before I came to USC, but after I joined USC with an endowed chair, people who would have in the past seen me as a colleague now refer to me more as the leading person in this area,” she said.

That has led to opportunities such as being asked to convene an interest group within the Gerontological Society of America on Chinese gerontology research, Chi said, which now features more than 250 members and is one of the organization’s largest interest groups.

Personal meaning

Chi has met frequently with Frances Wu, the namesake of her endowed chair, and delivers yearly reports on her research to inform Wu of her achievements.

“I really admire her,” she said of Wu, who developed and oversaw an apartment complex for low-income older adults in Monterey Park. “She is a great social worker and has done so much for the community. I don’t think I’ll ever match her energy, but I’ll try my best to make sure her legacy continues.”

Another researcher at the school who is keenly aware of the legacy attached to his endowed professorship is Ron Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor of Urban Social Development. He met regularly with the couple until Richard’s death in 2011 and continues to share his progress with Ann on efforts to reduce school violence and support children from military families in school and community settings.

Astor said the title is particularly meaningful to him because of the lifelong commitment of Richard and Ann Thor to social work and philanthropy, not to mention the fact that Richard earned a master’s degree in social work from USC in the same graduating class as Astor’s father, in 1958.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be following in their footsteps,” he said. “Everything I do is done in their name. It’s on our publications, our grants, our presentations. People know that their efforts supported this kind of work.”

Opening doors

In terms of the benefits Astor has seen from having an endowed professorship, he emphasized the increased weight of his voice on issues such as preventing school shootings or helping military children deal with the overseas deployment of a parent. He has visited the White House on several occasions to share his research findings, in addition to meetings with top education officials in France and Israel.

“I can’t help but feel that the title gives you access and the ability to convey your ideas at high levels,” he said. “People listen a little more carefully, they take notes, and I do feel that it’s important in signifying that this person has a track record, they’ve done a lot, and the ideas they are presenting can help many others.”

Although Astor said he is honored to have received the endowed professorship, he said he views the title as recognizing and supporting his work, not his personal achievements.

“I’m very much in favor of anything that will elevate the importance of what we do and say,” he said. “Whatever I do, it’s not just for me. It’s about getting a message across that can guide policy, change laws, and change the day-to-day lives of individuals who are suffering and not receiving support.”

Other endowed professors at the school are John Brekke, the Frances G. Larson Professor of Social Work Research; Bruce Jansson, the Margaret W. Driscoll/Louise M. Clevenger Professor of Social Policy and Administration; Jacquelyn McCroskey, the John Milner Professor of Child Welfare; Michalle Mor Barak, the Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor in Social Work and Business in a Global Society; Lawrence Palinkas, the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health; and Penelope Trickett, the David Lawrence Stein/Violet Goldberg Sachs Professor of Mental Health.

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