UK College of Social Work: Continuously Evolving to Meet Society's Needs

By Whitney Harder

(Oct. 30, 2015) — Like the University of Kentucky itself, the UK College of Social Work was established to fulfill a need in Kentucky, one for the college that began in the 1930s with the Great Depression and continues to evolve today.

Emerging from the Great Depression, the nation was dealing with a number of social issues, including one-third of the workforce being unemployed. The widespread suffering helped catalyze the establishment of the Social Security Act of 1935, which brought immediate relief to many families with a system of retirement benefits, old age pensions and aid to dependent children.

Qualified personnel were needed to staff these programs and so the social work profession flourished, ideally situated to expand along with these social policy changes, and the need for social work education and training in Kentucky grew.

Responding to that need, the UK Board of Trustees established a Department of Social Work within the College of Arts and Sciences in 1938, but it was Frances Jewell McVey, wife of UK President Frank LeRond McVey, who first dreamed of offering social work training at UK. She is credited as the catalyst for the establishment of the college.

"Many people don’t quite understand what social workers do, but when they experience the services of a social worker, they become our biggest fans," said Kay Hoffman, professor and former dean of the college. "Everybody will need a social worker sometime in their lives, whether when they are young parents or when their parents are elderly; when their neighborhood needs to organize or when their community needs a youth center."

Vivian M. Palmer was hired to head the new department. Formerly she was an assistant professor in the UK Department of Sociology and taught at Texas State College for Women and at Macalaster College. Palmer had also served as director of local criminal research at the University of Chicago.

Courses in the social work department were offered to undergraduate and graduate students, with emphasis on the master’s level program. Four months after its creation, the program was accredited by the American Association of Schools of Social Work.

Harold Wetzel joined the UK faculty Sept. 1, 1944, as professor and head of the Department of Social Work. Wetzel earned a master’s degree in sociology at Ohio State and taught sociology there for 10 years before coming to UK. As the department expanded, Wetzel hired Constance Popeo (later, Wilson), newly arrived in Kentucky with her master’s degree from Boston University.

Wilson became acting head of the department in 1968 when Wetzel went on sabbatical. Wilson was instrumental in hiring Ernest Witte to do a feasibility study of the need for a generalist graduate program in social work in Kentucky.

In July 1969, Witte became the first dean of the new College of Social Professions, which was later renamed as the College of Social Work.

In 1974 Professor Ronda Connaway of Washington University, St. Louis, was hired as dean to succeed Dean Witte upon his retirement. Under Dean Connaway's leadership, the off-campus master's in social work program in Hazard was developed, and more off-campus programs were developed and expanded under S. Zafar Hasan, the third dean of the college. Today, the off-campus master's programs, in Hazard and Morehead, Kentucky, are geared toward those employed full-time and offer part-time student status as a convenient way to complete their graduate educations.

"Our off-campus programs in Eastern Kentucky have educated hundreds of professional social workers who make lives better and improve communities; our Lexington programs add to the professional work-force in mental health, child welfare, aging services and community development," Hoffman said.

Edgar Sagan served as interim dean from 1996-1998 during a national search. Following Sagan's term, Kay S. Hoffman, previously the director of the Social Work Program at Radford University in Virginia, became the fifth dean of the College of Social Work. Under Dean Hoffman’s leadership, the college expanded its research and intellectual inquiry components with the creation of the Training Resource Center - which has been designing and implementing child welfare training, evaluation, and service programs across the state for nearly two decades - the CATS Clinic and the Center for Violence Against Children and the Institute for Work Place Innovation, (iWin).

Currently, Ann Vail, director of the School of Human Environmental Sciences (HES) and assistant director of Family and Consumer Sciences Extension, is serving as the college's interim dean. James P. "Ike" Adams Jr., dean of the College of Social Work for the past six years, is taking on a new role as special assistant to the vice president for Student Affairs.

In its second century of service to the nation, the social work profession, and the college, continues to alleviate social problems, emphasizing both human well-being and social justice. Research by College of Social Work faculty and students today is revealing new information on suicide prevention, LGBTQ* well-being, community development, adolescent mental health, violence and victimization, substance abuse and behavioral health.

"The services our graduates offer change the world and make it better," Hoffman said. "UK College of Social Work adds immeasurably to the Commonwealth and I believe our faculty will be doing important work for many years to come."