Elizabeth M.Z. (Betsy) Farmer, the new dean of the University of Pittsburgh Social Work, has a formidable academic track record. Before taking over at Pitt, Farmer served as professor and associate dean for research at Virginia Commonwealth University and served on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University, Pennsylvania State University, and Duke University.
But her approach to social work is deeply informed by her experiences as a group home parent, a respite care provider, and a treatment foster parent, all of which inspired her highly influential research into the challenges and complexities of out-of-home placements. This work in the social work field showed her the tremendous opportunities and challenges in a complex treatment system and the potential for interventions to change the lives of young people.
Farmer recently sat down to discuss the strengths and opportunities she sees ahead for the School of Social Work as it enters its second century.
What drew you to Pitt’s School of Social Work?
“From attending conferences and general familiarity with the field, I was very aware of the work that School of Social Work faculty members were doing. I thought they were incredibly productive and innovative. And part of what impressed me was the school’s commitment to community engagement.”
As the School of Social Work enters its second century, what elements of the school’s work and curriculum do you find it important to maintain?
“First, Dean [Larry E.] Davis did a wonderful job of positioning the school nationally for receiving the attention it deserves. Colleagues from campus, Pittsburgh, and the nation recognize the school’s productivity and excellence.
“Therefore, I am in the very wonderful position of being able to build upon a strong foundation. We will strive to maintain the core substantive foci the school has on race and social problems, child welfare, and mental health. Those are all central to social work and are all areas of great strength for the school. The aim is to maintain our strong research and education in these areas and to build from this base to grow and expand them.”
What new initiatives are ahead for the school?
“Having just celebrated the 100th anniversary and commemorated all of the school’s achievements, it’s a wonderful legacy. The question now is, “How do you build on that? What does that second century look like?” And I think the answer is by focusing on how we integrate all that we do to impact the world around us. There is so much going on at the school. How do we bring that together to develop synergy to expand our capacity and ability to create change?
“Community engagement is an area where the school is already quite strong, but we can look to continue and strategically build upon that. Where are the places in the community that we can be more useful? What does that look like? How do we learn from and work with the world around us?
“On campus, the things that could be expanded, I would say, are interdisciplinary collaborations. Areas like integrated health, underserved populations, aging, mental health, and systems change are areas where faculty are already doing strong work, but there is a potential for collaboration that we can more fully embrace and support.
“Another area to expand and focus on is bridging the Direct Practice and COSA [Community, Organization, and Social Action] specializations within the MSW program. We’re well known for that dual focus, but we need to figure out how a student can get an integrated experience of both tracks. Our alumni talk about how both micro and macro issues and skills play out in their own careers. Really, I would say we’re figuring out how we can make our education as relevant as possible for the challenges of the 21st century.”
What are you most looking forward to in leading the School of Social Work?
“This is a time when social work is desperately needed. Social work is critical for moving the country forward and bringing us together.”
“It’s also a time of rapid change, driven to a great extent by changes in technology. There are the traditional social work occupations that lots of people do, but there are also other avenues where alumni are exploring and creating new opportunities. Our students and alumni are helping us to think about the wide range of positions and fields where social work leaders, practitioners, organizers, and scholars can help to shape the future. The values and skills learned in social work have such broad-based relevance and applicability.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be here at this time and in this place. It feels like the pieces are all in place and coming together in ways that will allow us to build on what has been here and explore the possibilities for the future. I see tremendous potential.
Elizabeth M.Z. (Betsy) Farmer, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work