Forty years ago, a young Cornell-educated economist came to Columbia University School of Social Work to help launch a regional rehabilitation research institute funded by the federal government. Upon the suggestion of Dr. Howard Rusk, M.D., she had written a grant proposal for the Sidney Hillman Health Center of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) said it would fund if the project could find a long-term home.
New to the faculty at the School of Social Work, Professor Hy Weiner was able to convince then Dean Mitch Ginsberg to accept the grant from the Vocational Rehabilitation Services of HEW and bring the young economist in as research director.
Subsequently, when Hy Weiner left to be dean at NYU, Dean Ginsberg asked her to join the faculty—HEW had said Columbia could keep the grant if she were appointed director of what by then had become the Industrial Social Welfare Center. It was a one-of-a-kind research unit that had as its focus the roles of labor and management in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. The scope of the work included New York State, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—all part of the then U.S. H.E.W. region.
Years later, the Industrial Social Welfare Center would become the Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace, otherwise known as the Workplace Center.
The faculty member and its director emerita is, of course, none other than Professor Shelley Akabas, who has just now announced her decision to retire.
Over four decades, Professor Akabas has educated more than a thousand CUSSW students and mentored hundreds. Besides developing the Workplace Center, she developed, designed, and led the Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) method and the World of Work field of practice.
Her former students are now leaders in their own right and are carrying Professor Akabas's lessons forward, touching the lives of thousands of workers, including persons with disabilities, and of managers and executives.
"After forty years, Professor Shelley Akabas leaves a legacy that is—there is no other word—exemplary," said Dean Jeanette Takamura. "Like her colleague and friend Sheila Kamerman, a social policy icon who retired two years ago from the School after a stellar career, Shelley Akabas is retiring after a similarly stellar career as THE icon who gave the School its exceptional SEA program and its Management Fellows Program, who led the Workplace Center and kept its commitment to the employment of persons with disabilities and other segments of our population.”
Dean Takamura added that Professor Akabas can also be likened to Dr. Marion Kenworthy, a renowned psychiatrist who strengthened the School for decades as a non-social work member of the faculty:
Dr. Akabas demonstrated over four decades the importance and the value of faculty who are not necessarily social workers by professional training, but who are social workers in spirit because of their orientation and their lived dedication to the profession and its ideals. She helped make the School what it is today. By virtue of her tenure, she also knows the School's history better , and is much more familiar with the development of social work as a profession, than most more recent professionals.
Motivating by the belief that all could be successfully employed if evidence-based practices were used to create forward-thinking policies and sound programs, Professor Akabas expanded the influence and the scope of the social work profession by placing social work students in non-traditional internships in non-traditional organizations.
Her former students are in the corporate sector, in government, in labor unions, and in many other sectors. They are small business owners, founders and executive directors of nonprofit organizations, and professional leaders.
And they are deeply grateful to Professor Akabas for helping them grow their pathways in directions they might not themselves have considered. Every year, unrivaled numbers of alumni convey their appreciation, always referencing her unselfish dedication to their professional development and advancement.
Please join the School of Social Work in expressing your gratitude and best wishes to Professor Shelley Akabas, who will shortly be Professor Emerita, by entering a comment in the space below. Let’s show her how proud we are that she will forever be a part of the School's history as well as how much we appreciate the contributions she has made to the lives of so many who have passed through our doors.