Marilyn Flynn wants to make sure that students who graduate from USC’s School of Social Work will be prepared to work in any city, town or hamlet on the planet. And Flynn – director of the Michigan State University School of Social Work before she was appointed dean of the USC school in the fall of 1997 – says the university’s location in a highly diverse urban setting moves the school toward this goal. Generous benefactors and a gifted faculty have already thrust the school into the top 10 schools of social work in the nation. And soon, if Flynn has her way, the school will move into the top five, able to increasingly compete for the best and brightest students and professors. But building the school’s reputation as a top-notch research facility is for one purpose only, Flynn says. The ultimate goal is to increase the ranks of those who want to help make the world a better place. In an interview with the USC Chronicle, Flynn, who leaves behind the harsh winter weather of Chicago and Detroit, describes her vision for the school and its mission to help create a more just and compassionate society.
Q: What has this first year at USC as dean of the School of Social Work been like for you? Any pleasant surprises? Disappointments?
A: The year has been full of activity. The intensity was sometimes greater than I anticipated but deeply satisfying. The most pleasant surprise was the generosity of our donors, particularly the gift that will let us begin refurbishment of our building. It’s early to speak of disappointments, but I like the scope of the challenges as I’ve come to understand them.
Q: Is there something that stands out in your mind that you feel good about, that you know was accomplished after you got here and because of your involvement?
A: Yes, I think my involvement was important in the gift we have just received to begin refurbishment of our building. I also contributed to our initiative last year for creation of a new mental health research center in the school. We expect that, when funded, the center will be supported by the National Institute of Mental Health for a five-year period. These two achievements are related, by the way, and reflect the way I understand the strengths of our faculty. The gift to improve our facility was given in recognition of our promise as a research center of excellence. We expect at least two other centers of research excellence to be established and externally funded over the next few years.
We also have a new initiative with the Family of Five Schools, where we have placed 19 graduate social work interns this year. Students concentrating in clinical and community organization tracks are sent as teams to work in these school settings for nine months, 20 hours each week. This is a strong, visible input into the schools’ capacity for providing service and program coordination. We have the largest school social work program in California and a faculty with superb skills to provide consultation and research. It’s come together in an unexpected and highly productive way, I think. Most impressive is that all of the Family of Five Schools responded with financial participation, as did the Los Angeles Unified School District. The USC Civic and Community Relations program has also been a wonderful partner.
Q: Why did you choose USC?
A: I chose USC because it’s a place where individual initiative is significantly rewarded. People are free to imagine and to execute their dreams. I came because of the quality of the faculty and the reputation of the school, which is ranked as one of the best in the country. The university itself has a tremendous sense of vigor and expansion that was very exciting to me. The interest in Pacific Rim initiatives fit perfectly with my interests, as did the emphasis on research and excellence. And I like big, complex cities.
Q: You have this interdisciplinary background. How did you come to that?
A: I began my career with an interest in social science and foreign languages, especially Russian and German. My interest in Asia really derives more from my sense of wanting to participate in a global community. I am interested in identifying common, cross-national frameworks for professional knowledge. Equally, I would like to understand better those areas of significant variation that must be respected and perhaps even further differentiated.
Q: Going on to some of the differences in the field of social work in the classroom as well as on the ground between Southern California and the Midwest — are there any differences?
A: Yes. First, Los Angeles is enormously diverse. I think it’s the most fascinating environment that anybody could live in. It offers us a palette really, the best possible palette for training social workers to work in urban environments. Second, the size and complexity of the organizations that serve people are in some cases unique in the United States. For example, we have the country’s largest child welfare program and one of the largest mental health departments. If our students can learn how to cope with this level of organization and complexity, they gain perspectives on how to confront any kind of problem — global, national or local.
Q: Please articulate your vision for the school, including an analysis of the current status and where you would like it to be five years from now.
A: I hope this isn’t just my vision, I hope it is a shared vision. While we are among the best 10 schools in the country, I want us to be among the best five. And that means a number of things, which actually are well within our grasp. It means that within five years, we will have one to three centers for research excellence and for which we are recognized nationally. Right now we have a number of distinguished researchers, but we don’t have a focal point or a center by which, as a group, their work is identified. We also need to at least double or maybe triple our endowments, allowing us to compete for the best students in our doctoral program. We need to increase the size of our faculty at least another five positions through endowments. We’ve already received two new endowed professorships since I came, so I feel this is within our grasp. On another front, I’d like us to develop a well-recognized role in relation to the neighborhood and other urban initiatives involving USC. I feel that’s where the school should exercise leadership because it is one of social work’s historic domains. Our work with the Family of Five Schools is a beginning, and I hope we will have a major role in helping to define how the school addresses the urban paradigm.
Q: Is there an inevitable connection between the field of social work and other disciplines? Is it by necessity holistic?
A: People used to argue that social work was merely derivative. That is, the responsibility of the disciplines, such as sociology, economics, psychology or anthropology, was to develop theory and methodology, and the responsibility of professions such as social work was then to apply these ideas. For example, if the sociologist analyzed poverty, it was the role of the social worker to eliminate poverty. But I don’t think of social work as derivative. I think of the field as building on social science theory, but also evolving a separate kind of methodology and understanding of the world which arises from our observations of the change process. And change is the role, the mission of the field.
Q: Two years ago, President Clinton signed a bill that fundamentally changed welfare eligibility rules. How has that change affected the school’s research and teaching mission ? Have changes in welfare policy at the federal and state levels caused a theoretical or philosophical paradigm shift among scholars?
A: We have four research projects now that are related to welfare reform, and we have hired people from CalWorks and the GAIN program. We have engaged ourselves both practically and intellectually. But I would say this change has not affected the school’s research and teaching mission. Social justice has perhaps been the defining concept that has guided social work for the last century.
Q: Does the redefinition of welfare eligibility make your jobs harder?
A: Not immediately or directly, because comparatively few social workers with graduate degrees work in public assistance. Following World War II, social services were redefined increasingly in ways that broke the historic connection between public welfare agencies and social work. However, as more welfare recipients are terminated and once our economy contracts during a downward economic cycle, we can anticipate some significant problems. Homelessness among women and children is already on the rise, for example.
Q: Is the field of social work more likely to be affected by shifting political currents than, say, chemistry, law or history?
A: We have enormous vulnerability. In any period where society’s vision of government responsibility changes or perceptions of marginalized groups alter in one way or another, we are immediately affected. To give you a sense of how dramatic that can be, the amount of federal funding available to support social services declined by almost 75 percent in the decade of the 1980s. To some extent, there was, of course, a transfer of these resources to the state and county level through devolution of responsibility, but some services literally vanished. The type of employment available to social workers was consequently changed, although the field of social work continued to grow. In fact, we are now one of the 10 fastest-growing professions.
One of the biggest changes in the past two decades has been a major reduction in our roles as social planners, and to a lesser extent, in community organizing activity. At the same time, across the country, we have become the primary providers of public mental health services, our role in public and private schools has grown, and we have moved increasingly into the area of case management.
Q: Does that then affect curriculum?
A: I think all professions face this issue. To some extent, we are expected to lead the field through our research and, at the same time, to protect enduring ideas against ideological or political fads. We must continue to care about the poor, social justice and human compassion at all costs. But we are driven by market factors and employment opportunities for our graduates and need to maintain responsive linkages with all of our constituencies for this reason. We also need to be sensitive to demographic shifts. Opportunities for traditional long-term treatment of patients in private agencies are declining, for example, and we are now emphasizing brief treatment methods. Team strategies for problem-solving are overtaking models of the lone expert practitioner. So, yes — our curriculum certainly interacts with the labor market, values of current professionals and with external culture. If anything, we should strive to improve the quality of this interactivity.
Q: How important is the field of social work to the complex world in which we live?
A: There’s an adage that if people don’t have social workers, they invent them. This argument is borne out certainly in the case of the newly independent countries of eastern and central Europe and in the emerging democracies of Asia. Along with the discovery of capital markets, double-entry bookkeeping and private property, one of the first innovations of these free societies has been creation of schools of social work. A similar process occurred in this country, beginning about 125 years ago.
The fact is that free markets are inefficient. Cities are impersonal. Continuing mobility of workers and growth of large business leaves many of us strangers to each other. Whether we like it or not, new groups of disadvantaged and marginalized persons are created by these processes. More people lack the protections that were once offered by the extended family, close-knit neighborhoods or even the authoritarian state. Social workers have the job of re-creating networks, helping people to function in impersonalized and often rejecting environments, and developing policies or systems to provide help in more humane ways. We are expected to mediate between the values of society and the needs of our clients, a unique role in the professions.
There is always a struggle to define social work. But the fact is, it is something that operates like the lubrication in the joints of a complex mechanism. It’s always at the interface of changing human conditions. The form, the titles are always modified over time. But the content, the function is the same.
Q: What is your response to those people who characterize social workers as enablers and bleeding heart liberals?
A: That’s OK.
Q: You let it roll off your back?
A: Social workers are dedicated to the notion of empowerment and self-sufficiency, and all the things that most people believe. I just see this kind of statement as a reflection more of our history, our culture, than of the profession. And we do struggle in this individualistic society about how public purposes should be met. Social workers are alike in their desire for self-understanding, respect for individual differences, interest in networking, and awareness of the multiple forces that shape behavior. Beyond there are probably a lot of social workers who aren’t bleeding hearts at all and probably a bunch that are. So, we’re like anybody else.
Q: Time magazine recently did a piece on corporate welfare. Why would public assistance for poor women and children so anger people when corporations are dipping from the same till for much greater amounts?
A: Some people say that this is a society which really hates the poor. This is part of our Calvinist and Puritan tradition. In the Calvinist tradition, money is a sign of success. Corporations have high earnings and when they incur large losses, the fact that they have earned a lot of money defines them as worthy losers. And I think people in this society have a very difficult time accepting poverty almost for any reason. There’s much more acceptance in Europe, for example, of certain kinds of poverty and a recognition that this is an un-avoidable kind of condition for many people and that it’s a permanent condition for some people. Not that we shouldn’t assist business, because in some respect, corporate welfare is a form of family policy. When we allow a large firm to shut down in a community where it has been the historic employer for 75 years, we never ask the question “What’s the impact on families?” and so on. So, some of this corporate social welfare is actually a form of family welfare and is probably justifiable for social purposes as well as economic purposes. But sometimes it’s not. The other thing is they have a lobby and poor people don’t.