Sesquicentennial Memories

School of Social Work Begins its 25th Year

By Michael Smith

School of Social Work Begins its 25th YearAs Rhode Island College observes its Sesquicentennial, the School of Social Work this fall begins its 25th year on campus. During the course of a quarter century, the School has enrolled thousands of students and has had five different homes, but just one Dean: George D. Metrey.

Such was the eagerness to establish the state’s long-awaited first School of Social Work that the usual course of events was reversed: classes began on September 4, 1979, a formal opening ceremony was held on October 2, 1979 with an address at Gaige Auditorium by Dr. Harry Specht, Dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley -- and the Board of Regents gave its official approval for the School in August of 1980!

The School can trace its lineage back to at least the mid-1960’s, when public, non-profit, and professional social work organizations recognized the need for a full-scale professional development school for social workers in Rhode Island. In May of 1966 the first of a series of feasibility studies was published, this one entitled “Preliminary Feasibility Survey of the Need for a School of Social Work in Rhode Island,” with research conducted by the Rhode Island Council of Community Services, Inc.

By the late 60’s, a consensus began to emerge that Rhode Island College would be the proper place to establish such a school. In 1969, the Sociology Department began to offer the first Social Work courses and in 1970 the Board of Regents endorsed the concept of an undergraduate Social Work program at the College. A Social Work major was first offered in 1974; the 1973-75 College Catalog identified it as a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, while later Catalogs identified it as a Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare. Through the spring of 1979, the major continued to be offered by the Sociology Department, with program accreditation granted in the 1977-78 academic year by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the only accrediting agency for postsecondary social work programs in the country.

By 1979, the stage was set for the establishment of the long-anticipated Master of Social Work program. Fortuitously, during the 1978-79 and 79-80 academic years, the College was engaged in a reorganization of its academic units, establishing professional schools in addition to a faculty of arts and sciences. With its graduate program soon to be in place, Social Work met the requirements for a professional school and has operated as such ever since.

The year 1981 saw several milestones. The BA degree in Social Welfare was changed to a Bachelor of Social Work, the baccalaureate program was granted re-accreditation by CSWE for the maximum seven-year period, and the MSW program was granted a three-year initial accreditation, retroactive to the establishment of the program in 1979. A highlight of the year came on May 22, when amid high spirits and colorful balloons, 31 students became the first to receive MSW degrees granted by a Rhode Island institution of higher education.

While the faculty, staff, and alumni of the School of Social Work have been highly successful in their endeavors, it has long been the goal of its advocates to find a permanent home. Indeed, the somewhat nomadic existence of the school prompted President John Nazarian, at an October 2, 1998 ribbon cutting for the School’s current temporary home in Building 1 on the East Campus, to say to Dean Metrey, “While this isn’t the Promised Land, you can see it from here…” The President was referring to plans for the renovation of Building 9 on the East Campus, then a concept, but now underway. The School’s permanent home is expected to open in the Spring of 2004.

The first home of the School of Social Work was on the 100-level of Adams Library, in the addition that had opened just a year earlier. In the summer of 1980 the School was moved to the old School Building (now the Recreation Center Annex) on the campus of what was then the former O’Rourke Children’s Center. When plans to convert the building to a permanent home did not come to fruition, the School moved to the second floor of the Henry Barnard School.

When the College acquired, through the RIC Foundation, a 3,640 square-foot building on Hennessey Avenue from the Rhode Island affiliate of the National Education Association, plans were made for yet another move, with a ribbon-cutting taking place on April 11, 1985. However, as the School continued to grow in reputation and in size, combined with its impressive success in establishing such allied research, service, and advocacy organizations as the Poverty Institute, the Child Welfare Institute, and others, the move was made to its current quarters in Building 1 on the East Campus. At 8,500 square feet, it represented a considerable improvement, but when one contemplates its 25,000 square foot successor now taking form across the lawn of the Forman Center, it is clear that the best is just ahead.

As the School of Social Work concludes its first 25 years, one can look back with pride that it has not only fulfilled, but exceeded the most hopeful objectives of its early advocates. It can be no coincidence that by many positive indicators of social welfare, especially measured in terms of children’s welfare, Rhode Island is among the national leaders. While the many challenges facing the professional social worker are not likely to abate any time soon, one may expect that the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, as one of only 158 accredited graduate-level schools of social work nationwide, will continue to be a significant influence in the Rhode Island community for generations to come.

PHOTO CAPTION: A rendering of the new School of Social Work building, slated to open in the spring of 2004.

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the eighth installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Dean Metrey and Ellen Hunt of the School of Social Work, as well as Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for their assistance with the research.

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