As we embark on a new academic year

Melissa Begg
September 09, 2022

Dear CSSW Community,

I remember sitting down to write to our community in November of 2019, just 100 days after joining CSSW. I have now had the honor of working at CSSW for three full years, just over 1,000 days. I am astounded and humbled when I think of all that has happened in that time. While we have made great strides in some areas, I know that there remains much to do to fulfill our full potential as a School community. I am confident that we have the people and the perseverance to achieve many of our ambitious goals.

As most of you know, I keep a large and growing file of quotes that inspire me, and that I look to whenever I need a boost. Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” What kind of society do we want? What kind of school do we want? If we can imagine it, we can become it. Together.

And I am proud of what we have accomplished thus far. Whenever meeting with faculty and staff, we talk about the “four pillars” for our future: building more visibility for our School and assuring we have a place at the University table; achieving greater impact so that our perspectives on research and practice reach and are informed by the communities we serve; maintaining excellence as an academic institution, recognizing that diversity is essential to excellence; and enhancing the sense of community among all our constituents – faculty, staff, students, and alums. Every action we take should be in service to one or more of these pillars.

And I believe that you all have accomplished a great deal to advance the four pillars. Here are just a few examples – it’s not an exhaustive list (due to space considerations), but hopefully an illustrative one.

PILLAR 1: Building more visibility for our School and assuring we have a place at the University table

  • Our faculty members in social work are outstanding, and are having influence well beyond the walls of our School. The Provost’s Office recognized 8 CSSW faculty for research and teaching, including University-wide awards for service and mentoring, respectively, to our colleagues Dr. Courtney Cogburn and Dr. Jane Waldfogel.
  • Social work staff, faculty, and students certainly know the value of advocacy. This past year witnessed our doctoral students contributing to the establishment of a first-ever union contract for graduate students across Columbia. We are partnering with other Columbia schools through the newly established, university-wide Community Advisory Council to become good neighbors to our Harlem community. We also contributed to the University’s plans for a more inclusive approach to public safety.

PILLAR 2: Achieving greater impact so that our perspectives on research and practice reach and are informed by the communities we serve

  • We have five new full-time faculty members as of July 1, who bring an extraordinary breadth of expertise and experience to their research and teaching, and who greatly enrich our cluster hire around the well-being of Black and Latinx individuals, families, and communities. With their recruitment, our full-time faculty are 39 in number as of July 2022; and of those, 56% are people of color, including 28% who identify as Black or Latinx. The corresponding figures from July 2021 were 37 faculty, with 46% identifying as people of color, and 16% as Black or Latinx. I’m deeply grateful to the School’s Faculty Search and Senior Faculty Search Committees for their recruitment efforts, and to Columbia’s Office of the Provost for providing substantial support for these critical hires.
  • CSSW will partner with other schools of social work and selected professional societies to advocate for better salaries for social work professionals across sectors. We are also collaborating within and across schools of social work, professional organizations, and other licensed professions to address the issue of bias in licensing exams, based on the astonishing data released by ASWB this past August. Further extending this work, we are exploring current licensing requirements for social workers, advocating for required training in inclusivity and cultural competence.

PILLAR 3: Maintaining excellence as an academic institution, recognizing that diversity is essential to excellence

  • An inaugural Anti-Racism Action Plan for CSSW was posted to our website in September of 2021, and community feedback continues to be gathered via email and an anonymous web portal. This feedback is regularly reviewed by our Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) and our new project coordinator in DEI, hired specifically for the key tasks of managing the feedback, coordinating the actions, and updating processes in consultation with colleagues across the School. They are now working closely with our expert team in Communications to revamp the website, add more information, and make it more accessible and easier to navigate. Faculty and staff also had the opportunity to participate in a series of workshops through the summer and early fall of 2021 based on the Crawford Bias Reduction Theory and Training, led by Dr. Dana Crawford – aimed at supporting the practice of creating an inclusive environment.
  • A major goal for our School is to address the untenable debt-to-income ratio (DIR) experienced by all social workers, including the graduates of CSSW. As you well know, for social work students, average debt is too high and average income is too low – making the DIR way too high. Here at CSSW, we are trying to make headway on the debt portion of the equation. Over the past three years, the average financial aid award to recipients and the percentage of students receiving awards have both increased, resulting in a three-year trend of reductions in student debt on graduation. The number of full scholarships has increased dramatically (from 4 to 20), and our financial aid team is piloting a new method of identifying students in need by looking at Pell eligibility as undergraduates. Our financial aid team is also extending a novel Loan Repayment Assistance Program for new grads, to help them in the first two years after commencement. All of this is good; at the same time, it is not nearly enough. We have much more to do, and are planning major fundraising initiatives over the next 3-5 years to address the DIR issue.
  • Our dynamic research portfolio continues to expand, addressing society’s thorniest issues. CSSW’s Office of Sponsored Projects assisted faculty in submitting 95 new and renewal grant proposals in the past year, as well as finalizing 41 awards to the School. The Offices of Sponsored Projects and the Associate Dean for Research also developed a new “orientation” website for incoming faculty, to help them navigate the new working, teaching, and research environment at CSSW. CSSW faculty and researchers are vigorously pressing ahead with incredibly important research and educational projects, ranging from using technology to eliminate racism, to providing training in the use of psychedelics to improve mental health, to reducing opioid deaths across New York State (a vital issue with increased risks due to COVID and so many other stressors).

PILLAR 4: Enhancing the sense of community among all our constituents – faculty, staff, students, and alums

  • The School continues to focus on community-building to promote satisfaction and well-being for all. Faculty meetings were expanded to include not only our full-time faculty and senior staff, but all of our faculty (including our adjunct faculty colleagues), all staff, and advisors, meeting periodically throughout the year. With the support of the Academic Affairs, Online Campus, and Alumni offices, we organized multiple staff/faculty appreciation events, including breakfasts, lunches, and cocktail hours in the building; a picnic dinner in Riverside Park; and a celebration using the online platform for our holiday event. In a bittersweet turn, we came together to celebrate a number of faculty retirements, bidding farewell (but not goodbye) to Drs. Irv Garfinkel, Lauren Gates, Ellen Lukens, John Robertson, and Allen Zweben – as well as bidding heartfelt best wishes to Dr. Desmond Patton, who moved on to the University of Pennsylvania. The academic year ended with a healing-centered retreat for all faculty and staff, spearheaded by our colleague Dr. Patton and led by expert consultants from graymatters.
  • Our Offices of Academic Affairs, Advising, Online Education, and DEI partnered to offer faculty support spaces throughout the year. In addition, the award-winning Institute on Pedagogy and Technology for Online Courses was offered again to faculty and staff, bringing the total number of graduates to 368. Our colleagues in Information Technology have generated new on-boarding and off-boarding processes for all CSSW employees to better address needs of new colleagues, as well as needs of those who transitioned to a hybrid work schedule. Our team in finance and administration managed and implemented a host of safety measures to protect our community from COVID, against a landscape of ever-changing conditions.
  • We were able, at long last, to hold in-person commencement celebrations this past May for the Classes of 2022, 2021, and 2020, organized by the outstanding team in Student Affairs. The Student Affairs team also expanded affinity graduation ceremonies to include First Gen/Lower Socioeconomic Status and Native American/Indigenous celebrations for the first time. These were truly joyous occasions, reminding us of why we are here in the first place: to support our graduates, who will enter the workforce to promote social and racial justice, and ensure full and fair access to opportunity across all strata of our society.
  • We pursued significant opportunities to provide additional support to our students and alums. Among other activities, our Offices of Student Affairs, Career Services and Leadership Management, and Alumni Affairs teamed up to expand the alum-student mentorship program, pairing current students with CSSW alums to talk about career choices and the social work profession. Our DEI Office continued to offer a host of support spaces to students as well. The Field Education Department implemented new processes in SONIA to improve the student experience, and succeeded in placing over a thousand students, despite staff shortages. Career Services held an inaugural virtual Graduate Career Expo with four other professional schools at Columbia, enabling students and alums to connect with employers who may not traditionally recruit at schools of social work.


As we finish our first week of classes, I want to extend my gratitude to you for your dedication to our School, to one another, to social justice, and to the social work profession. I am inspired.

In community,