Social workers find higher education a good fit

Jun 5, 2013

By Rena Malai, News staff

Much like a social worker attending to the welfare of others, being a college president is like being a mother hen that knows no boundaries, said James Kelly, past president of NASW and current president of Menlo College in California.

James Kelly

As a college president, Kelly said he uses every social work skill he possesses on a daily basis.

“It is impossible for me to separate my social work self from my educator self,” Kelly said. “Some days I’m in clinical mode, I am accepting and I am a listener; I help guide people to those best suited to aid them. Other days, I’m involved in advocacy, and sometimes in legal matters.”

Social workers are not the norm in higher education leadership roles such as president, according to NASW member and university president Karen Haynes, but they have the perfect training.

“(Social work) is an incredibly useful skill set,” she said. “In my past role as interim president at the University of Houston Victoria, the faculty said to me that if they had known about my social work background, I may not have risen to the top of their list. But since they experienced my style, they saw social work skills as actually a good fit.”

Haynes is now president of California State University, San Marcos, and says her career in higher education has always involved social work in some aspect.

“When I look back at 18 years of being president in two universities, overwhelmingly what my job is,  is about building and maintaining relationships,” she said. “Engaging in daily relationships, mediating, it all is very familiar in terms of using a lot of social work skills.”

NASW member Dianne Harrison, president of California State University, Northridge, said people from business and education backgrounds tend to be seen as the most suitable for higher education leadership roles when universities seek to fill these positions. But she feels her social work background helps when it comes to dealing with certain situations.

“When universities seek out a new president, they don’t traditionally think about social work faculty and backgrounds as their criteria. It’s usually people from backgrounds such as arts and sciences, business, occasionally engineering,” she said. “But I honestly am very grateful that I have social work training and education, because it really did prepare me for what I have to do.”

From the June 2013 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story after logging in.