Remembering Steven Schinke

January 11 @ 4:53 pm
By Communications Office

Professor Schinke’s groundbreaking research significantly moved forward social work knowledge in many important domains including mental health, substance abuse, AIDS prevention, and children’s well-being. He will be sorely missed by his friends, colleagues, and former students.

Steven P. Schinke, the D’Elbert and Selma Keenan Professor of Social Work at the Columbia School of Social Work, died Tuesday, January 1, near his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 73.

Steven was a globally recognized leader in the field of prevention science. In a career spanning four decades, he developed and tested programs aimed at helping children and adolescents, principally at-risk youth, to reduce risky behaviors that would compromise their health and life chances.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies, Steven’s research addressed such topics as sexual risk-taking and substance and alcohol use among adolescents. His studies contributed meaningful data on minority populations largely overlooked in the literature, including Native American youth, urban youth, Hispanic youth, mothers and daughters, and children with developmental disabilities.

A prolific academic in the social work field, Steven’s findings appeared in the most prestigious health and medical journals. He was the founding president of the Society for Prevention Research and served as associate editor of the Society’s journal, Prevention Science, for 15 years.

At the School of Social Work, Steven earned the respect of his colleagues not only for his stellar research and publication record but also for his collegiality, dedication to teaching and mentorship, and stalwart leadership of academic committees. His last role for the School—one that he relished—was as faculty advisor to the School’s online campus, which launched in 2015 and has now graduated two cohorts.

“Steven was that rare combination of an incredible work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and seemingly endless optimism,” said Interim Dean Irv Garfinkel, adding that he was fortunate that his own career had intersected twice with Schinke’s: “I first met Steven in 1972 at the University of Wisconsin when he was a student and I a new assistant professor. When I moved to Columbia 20 years later, I got to know him as a colleague and friend.”

Recalling Steven’s personality and presence, Garfinkel added: “Steven was kind and generous. He was also the best-dressed man in the school. I will miss him.”

Born May 9, 1945, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, to Edward and Vera Schinke, Steven attended Elkhorn Area High School and then entered the Air Force, with postings domestically and in Okinawa. After leaving the service, he enrolled in University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning his BA and MSW in social work and PhD in social welfare.

While pursuing his studies, Steven worked as a psychiatric social worker at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. In 1975, doctorate in hand, he received a joint appointment at the University of Washington in Seattle as assistant professor of social work and director of social services at what is now the Center on Human Development and Disability.

Steven joined the School of Social Work faculty at Columbia in 1986 and quickly became the driving force behind establishing the School as a site for behavioral studies research.

“Steven was the very first faculty member I recruited to Columbia, after observing his rapidly rising trajectory at the University of Washington,” said School of Social Work Dean Emeritus Ronald Feldman. “Throughout his 32 years here, his leadership and commitment contributed inestimably to the School’s development and the overall advancement of the social work profession.”

Robert Schilling, a social work scholar who collaborated with Steven for decades said, “His work ethic was unsurpassed by anyone, and he was always so happy to be part of Columbia University.”

At the time of his death, Schinke was completing a large-scale study of a smart-phone app designed to reduce drug and alcohol abuse among Hispanic youth, and had started work on a drug abuse prevention program for LGBTQ youth. He was also preparing to welcome and teach the cohort of online campus students who are starting this month.

“That’s a mark of his dedication,” said Interim Dean Garfinkel, adding that Steven didn’t stop teaching, researching, or participating in meetings despite health issues that started in November.

It was common for those who met Steven for the first time to comment on his ebullience, particularly if they met him at a time when he was learning something new. When he first came to Columbia, he enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Columbia Business School, eager to pick up the management, marketing, and entrepreneurial knowledge that would advance his research agenda.

Later, as the academic director of the online campus, Steven embraced the challenges of using technology for teaching and learning with the same zest he had displayed in his early career as a scientist and researcher. Noticing how much his teaching had improved through the online medium, he would often proclaim he had no desire to teach in a physical classroom again. He also found it exciting that an online campus made it possible for any qualified person in the United States to earn an MSW from Columbia, and predicted it would be a boon to the social work profession. He welcomed nontraditional students, including students who are parents, and was unfazed by the sound of a baby crying during his online classes.

“He loved the online campus,” said Jeanette Takamura, dean emerita of the School of Social Work, noting that Steven had taught section after section of the Research Methods and Introduction to Statistics courses, eventually winning an award for his online teaching.

Moreover, his enthusiasm for learning extended to junior faculty, doctoral students, and others. “He was a rigorous mentor who supported outstanding scholars and researchers as they developed their own lines of inquiry,” Dean Emeritus Takamura said.

Schilling emphasized this trait as well. “Steven elevated mentoring to an art form. The best MSW and doctoral students sought him out, and their careers were forever changed for having worked with him.”

Lin Fang, associate professor at University of Toronto, and Traci Schwinn, research scientist at the School of Social Work, said they were privileged to be among the hundreds who had benefited from his timely responses, frank feedback, and academic prowess. Lin said, “Steven was able to see things I could not see in myself, inspiring me to do my best.”

Traci said, “At every turn, he encouraged me to remove the word ‘unique’ from my writing, maintaining that nothing in our field is truly one of a kind. But every rule has an exception. As a teacher, scientist, colleague, and mentor, Steven was singular.”

Dean Emerita Takamura found him unique in the best possible sense of the word. “We will not forget Steven Schinke, his dapper, impeccable style, his suspenders, his wide grin, and his love of his wife, Mary, herself an accomplished attorney, and their beloved bichon frise, Charlotte. But most of all, we will not forget Steven Schinke because he left his imprimatur on the School squarely in the center of its heart.”

Steven is survived by Mary, his wife of more than thirty years, whom he met when she joined the School of Social Work as a research assistant. He was predeceased by a brother, Phillip Schinke, of Oregon.


Memorial details: A memorial service will be held at St. James’ Church, 865 Madison Avenue, on Friday, February 1, at 11:00 a.m. A reception at the church will follow the service. In addition, colleagues at the School of Social Work are organizing an online memorial to take place on Friday, January 25, 8:00–10:00 p.m. EST, offering an occasion for the many online-campus students who knew and loved Steven to pay their last respects (register here for attendance). And a Festschrift in Professor Schinke’s memory is being planned under the direction of Drs. Nabila El-Bassel, Traci Schwinn, and Allen Zweben.

Donations & letters of condolence: To honor the exceptional care provided to Steven and Mary during his final days, donations in Steven’s memory should be made to Regional Hospice & Palliative Care, in Danbury, Connecticut. Letters of condolence to Mary Schinke can be mailed c/o the Columbia School of Social Work, 1255 Amsterdam Ave, NY, NY 10027.


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