A group of social workers marches with a banner reading "Social workers for peace" in the early 1980s.Marching for peace, early 1980s.

Building a better world

Social work celebrates a century

As young troops mustered for World War I at the University of Minnesota armory, the first professional social work program in a public university was born. The Training Course in Social and Civic Work, administered in the sociology department, required one year of undergraduate and one year of graduate study. The first master’s degree was awarded the next year.

A century later, an estimated 5,000 social work alumni have lived out the anniversary theme of building a better world. The training course grew into a school, which today enrolls more than 500 students—nearly 300 in the master of social work (M.S.W.) program as well as doctoral and undergraduate students—responding in the same spirit to new challenges.

The program’s path has been winding, from the University’s east bank to west bank in Minneapolis and back again, then to St. Paul; in three successive college homes. It has responded to evolution of the field and broad changes in the nation and the world.

100th anniversary gala

Come learn more and celebrate a century of dedication and accomplishment with the School of Social Work.

Saturday, October 7
McNamara Alumni Center, Minneapolis

Featuring acclaimed television and radio host Tavis Smiley and distinguished panelists Winona LaDuke, Sheldon Danziger, Michelle Fine, Alan Dettlaff, and Ilhan Omar.

Evening events include reception, dinner, and introduction of new School of Social Work director John Bricout.

When the School of Social Work kicked off its centennial celebration last fall, professor emeritus David Hollister was asked to reflect on changes since he joined he faculty in 1980.

“The changes during this period reflect a lot of growth accompanied by substantial enrichment in quality and impacts of our programs,” said Hollister, who served as the school’s seventh director, 1983–91.

More degree options. In the mid-1980s, the School of Social Work had just two degree programs: a two-year, full-time M.S.W. program and a Ph.D. program.

At the time, the M.S.W. program had no advanced standing, no part-time program, and no option to take weekend courses. Today that has all changed, and the M.S.W. offers some courses that combine classroom and web-based instruction, making the program more accessible.

Three dual master’s degree programs are now offered that combine the M.S.W. with public health, public policy, and urban and regional planning. They attract students from across the country.

In addition, two master’s degree programs—the M.S.W. and an M.Ed.—are offered in youth development leadership.

There’s an undergraduate major in youth studies (see the related article, “Fully flourishing”), and three undergraduate minors—in youth studies, social justice, and family violence prevention—serving students across the Twin Cities campus.

Greater quality and impact. The M.S.W. degree remains the largest of the School of Social Work’s programs, and it is the top-ranked M.S.W. program in Minnesota. The employment rate for graduates is high. And historically, the program has admitted a larger proportion of students of color than other University programs, making it a model for recruiting and nurturing an increasingly diverse student body, according to an external review completed this year.

The doctoral program  has become a research-focused degree whose graduates hold positions in universities across the nation and around the world.

“We have [alumni who are] founding deans in what are now some of the most well-regarded programs,” says professor Liz Lightfoot, who directs the doctoral program. “That’s really cool.”

In Minnesota, by Hollister’s count, more than half of the faculty teaching in the state’s 17 or so social work programs are graduates of the University’s social work Ph.D. program.

Growth of research centers. The number of centers focused on research in the School of Social Work has grown from two to six since the 1980s. These centers contribute four critical things, Hollister says: nationally significant research and dissemination of knowledge on important social problems and issues; excellent opportunities for research internships for graduate students; funding for many graduate students to help meet increasing educational costs; and outreach to the community in both the public and private, not-for-profit sectors.

Field instruction as a foundation. From the discipline’s beginnings in the 1880s, social workers have been prepared in an apprenticeship model. The Council on Social Work Education calls field instruction “the signature pedagogy for social work.” Field instruction integrates theory and concepts from the classroom with the practical world of practice settings.

The M.S.W. requires a foundations internship of 420 hours measured by demonstration of competence in key areas. In addition, candidates work in field placement for another 600 hours in their area of concentration, such as child welfare.

“That’s why it’s so important that we have a field staff,” says M.J. Gilbert, director of field instruction for the School of Social Work. She oversees a network of hundreds of social workers—mostly in Minnesota but also in western Wisconsin, North Dakota, and one in Namibia—who apprentice students in the M.S.W. program, grounding the school in real-life, current, daily work of serving people and communities.

The next century

As the School of Social Work embarks on its second century, it welcomed a new director, its tenth, on August 1. John Bricout explains his vision for the School of Social Work with three words: destination, discovery, and dedication, reflecting the school as a place to be and go, a community of innovation to prepare for work in dynamic environments, and an asset of 100 years of service that provides a long-term perspective on deep social challenges.

“I want generations of graduates to continue to benefit from the sustained efforts and legacy of the school’s community of educators, scholars, practitioners and learners,” Bricout says. “We need to build on the strengths of the school in each of the three areas.”

Learn more about the School of Social Work.

Also visit the Social Welfare History Archives, a resource for studying the history of social services in the United States established in 1964, in the University Libraries.


In social work, the human drive to relieve suffering and improve lives is made visible. The fall 2017 issue of CEHD Connect features three stories from the School of Social Work today. Look for another, focusing on child welfare, in the winter 2018 issue.

Social work professor Patricia Shannon and clinic founder Yussuf Shafie, M.S.W. '14, are driven to improve refugee mental health.
Places for healing—Meeting the needs of refugee trauma survivors

Fully flourishing—In the youth studies program, the future is now

An elderly woman folds her hands in her lap.
Vital years—A focus on strengths in aging

Archival photo courtesy of the School of Social Work | Fall 2017