Social work profession faces formidable challenges

Sept. 25, 2009

The encroachment upon the social work profession by other professions, notably human services, will be the "real test" of the profession, according to Julia Watkins, executive director of the Council of Social Work Education, the national accrediting body for social work higher education.

At the invitation of Diana Garland, dean of Baylor School of Social Work, Watkins spoke to faculty, staff, students and members of the School's Board of Advocates (BOA) at a special session Sept. 17 at Baylor University. The session included a panel discussion with four tenure-track or recently tenured professors of the School (sidebar).

"We must be clear about what social work is and claim it as our own," said Watkins, who has served at CSWE, based in Washington, D.C, since 2003. "Otherwise we face serious problems in recruitment of our students and professionals," she said, where many programs' rates currently are flat.

Examples of professions that are encroaching upon the social work professional domain, she said, include nursing, marriage and family therapy, counseling, community and social development specializations, sociology and rehabilitative counseling.

Watkins said she believes this ambiguity among the professions is happening because the social work profession has not been unified in its voice.

"We haven't been there speaking as one voice about what social work is and what we bring to the table. As a profession, we haven't grappled sufficiently with this. We are applied sociology - it's doing research; it's going out into communities and being good generalist social work practitioners.

"I think we're the best educated for it. I have no modesty in saying that at all. We've got to be really clear and really forceful with our voice on that," she said.

About 50 people gathered for Watkins' presentation on the challenges that face the social work profession as part of a BOA Retreat Sept. 17 and 18. Garland introduced Watkins saying, "She has a vision for social work education that will inform us about the future of the School of Social Work here in Waco, Texas."

Watkins said the profession also is faced with "formidable challenges" of accountability, quality assurance and the pressures of developing global educational opportunities.

"We must carry out our imperative as a transformative force in the world. We speak implicitly and explicitly to changing lives one at a time and confronting global problems of poverty, insecurity, inequality, racism and a deteriorating global environment," she said.

There are 397 accredited social work undergraduate and 169 graduate programs in the nation representing 50,700 students, "an enormous and significantly conspicuous enterprise," she said. That total includes 143 social work programs in faith-based institutions.

"Maintaining the status quo is not acceptable. We all must have a vision for 2012 and beyond, as Baylor does. Difficult choices must be made and global partners must be identified so that as a profession we can continue to 'give back.'"

Watkins lauded the School's Global Mission Leadership Initiative, in which students from Asia and Southeast Asia earn a joint master's of social work/master's of theological studies degree at Baylor. Upon completion of the degree, they return to their native countries to practice or teach, also serving as field supervisors for Baylor SSW students who will intern in those countries.

"One of the key variants in this equation of global education and social work education is that of leadership. The Baylor model for global leadership is a wonderful example of this kind of development," Watkins said.

Accrediting requirements from the CSWE have reflected the increased emphasis on accountability, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a "quest for excellence," Watkins said. Schools no longer can concentrate on content solely but now must be accountable for measuring outcomes and outputs. "We could no longer suggest it was simply value-added and not demonstrate what it meant," she said.

Baylor School of Social Work, accredited in 2005 for eight years, will be re-examined for accreditation in 2013. Faculty and administrations already have begun weekly meetings to examine its curriculum to adjust to the new requirements.

"We must always return to the core values of social work practice," Watkins said, quoting from the profession's nationally recognized standards: "Service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships...these cannot and will not be put aside," she said.

Contact: Vicki Marsh Kabat, Director of Marketing and Communications for the School of Social Work, (254) 710-4417

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