BPD Update Online, Fall 2008

Unity in the Social Work Profession

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Julia M. Watkins, Executive Director
Council on Social Work Education
September 29, 2009

During the past five years, and actually since the mid-1980s, discussion has taken place about the purposes of social work education, how it can be strengthened in a time of increasingly scare resources, growing encroachment from other professions, and more specific tests of accountability. The debate is not new, only exacerbated in today’s highly charged and media/electronic driven environment. The response of social work has been at best fragmented, lacking in strength, visibility, and impact for the profession. Nevertheless, there have been notable efforts to bring greater unity and coherence to our profession—the Leadership Roundtable, the Wingspread Conference, co-location of organizations, and the formation of new CSWE councils based in educational sector representation.


It is commonly acknowledged, and in many instances well-documented, that the fragmentation of the profession, including the fragmentation in social work education evolved out of a frustration that specialized needs and interests were not being met by the major mainstream social work organizations. In several instances, this led to the establishment of new organizations, both for social work practice as well as for social work education. Today, the best and most agreed upon estimate is that there are more than 50 different social work membership associations in the United States. Although it is not my intent to argue this history or its results, I believe that it is clear that some needs and interests have been served rather well by multiple organizations. The difficulty, however, in my view, is that maintaining the same level of fragmentation in the context of the 21st century will only harm our professional impact and increase the risk to our professional survival. Simply put, the cost will be too great.


During the past three years we have seen an increase in the discussion about “unification” of the profession. This emerged and took form during meetings of the Leadership Roundtable, a CSWE annually convened meeting of the leadership of Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors (BPD), National Association of Deans and Directors (NADD), the Saint Louis Group (SLG), the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the Institute for Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR), Society for Social Work Research (SSWR), the Action Network for Social Work Education and Research (ANSWER), and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The members of the Leadership Roundtable came to the position that exploring the possibilities of unification would be in the best interests of the profession and proceeded to hold an all day workshop, May 2, 2006, with an organizational consultant. The outcome of that day was a consensus that maintaining the status quo was not a tenable option, but that a new organization or some type of merger of organizations would be preferable scenarios. The next step was to expand the conversation beyond the Leadership Roundtable. That was accomplished with a grant from the Johnson Foundation, resulting in the Wingspread Conference held in Racine, Wisconsin, June 18-20, 2007.


The outcome of the Wingspread Conference was a resolution signed by all individual participants that read: We resolve to create a unified profession with one social work organization by 2012. This historic agreement set the stage for an organizational structure inclusive of all sectors of social work. It reflected the diversity of our profession and addressed the concerns of the United States and the global society.


A nine member transition team, formed by and of conference attendees, was asked to continue the work of the Wingspread Conference over the course of the following year and explore the feasibility of the Wingspread Resolution. The charge to the team’s members was to represent the broader social work profession and not their specific organization; two of the nine members were from undergraduate education, including the then president of BPD. In the meantime, representatives of the organizations who attended the Wingspread Conference announced and disseminated the resolution to their memberships and sought its affirmation by their boards or governing bodies. Throughout 2007-2008, the transition team met for greater discussion of the concept and held sessions at the CSWE Annual Program Meeting and the BPD and SSWR conferences to hear constituent input, questions, and concerns. The transition team is now working on its initial report to be disseminated in early spring 2009.


But the search for professional unity continued beyond Wingspread. It was not entirely coincidental that prior to the Wingspread discussion, social work education began to seek ways of achieving greater unity of purpose, conservation of resources, and higher impact in our educational institutions and within the profession generally. Two organizations, first NADD and then BPD, signed memoranda of understanding with CSWE for shared services and co-location of staff. These agreements continue and have expanded in scope over the past four years proving invaluable for purposes of communication and resource sharing, as well as helping all three organizations think more inclusively about how to effectively carry out their priority functions in a more seamless and cost-effective way.


Stepping back for a moment, as part of the Wingspread Conference, we engaged in some caucusing around what was then seen as perhaps “mini” unifications. Social work education, including BPD, NADD, SLG, and CSWE began serious conversation about how organizational connections might be strengthened. This led to a further meeting of the presidents/chairs of the educational organizations, including GADE, the evening prior to the November 30, 2007 meeting of the Leadership Roundtable. A possible structure was discussed and after several iterations, resulted in a proposal that the presidents/chairs felt would move social work education forward; this proposal was approved by the CSWE Board of Directors in April 2008. It is that particular structure that we are currently implementing.


In explanation, I have excerpted parts of a letter of invitation that was sent on April 30, 2008 to the President of BPD, as well as to the leadership of GADE, NADD, and the SLG. The full letter may be accessed at http://www.cswe.org/CSWE/about/governance/New+Governance+Councils.htm.


Dear [President or Chair],

In follow up to our ongoing conversations about some type of “unification” of the social work education organizations (GADE, BPD, NADD, CSWE, and SLG), the CSWE Board of Directors at its meeting on April 24, 2008 voted to create four new Councils, a Leadership Forum, and a new standing committee of the Board—the Program Committee [subsequent to this letter, the committee was renamed the Liaison/Program Committee; it has been changed in the text below for continuity]. This action on the part of the Board was taken in recognition of the widespread desire to continue the already productive discussion about such unification as a possible avenue for all of social work education to increase its impact in the public policy sphere, within our educational institutions, and within the profession itself….


The structure as outlined in the same letter of April 30, 2008, follows:


New Councils

CSWE Commissions and Councils are the mechanisms through which the work of the organization is carried out to meet strategic goals and objectives. Four new Councils—the Council for BSW Education; the Council for MSW Education; the Council for PhD Education; and the Council for Research/UV Universities—are the vehicles for continuing the conversation regarding possible unification and will serve to determine the work of the Leadership Forum in advising and recommending actions and initiatives to the Liaison/Program Committee and ultimately to the Board of Directors…. [Each council will be composed of the leadership body (BPD and NADD Board of Directors, SLG Executive Committee and GADE Steering Committee).]


Leadership Forum

The Leadership Forum membership will consist of the Chair of each of the four Councils and it, along with the Executive Director of CSWE and the President of CSWE, will be responsible for the ongoing process and direction of the work as defined by the Councils and the Forum. It will have the immediate prerogative and responsibility also, to recommend policy, organizational, and program initiatives to the CSWE Board of Directors through the Liaison/Program Committee.


Liaison/Program Committee

The Liaison/Program Committee serves as the Board liaison with the Leadership Forum. The function of this committee is to bring forward policy, organizational, and program initiatives recommended by the Leadership Forum. It will consist of 5 members of the Board appointed by the CSWE President. The Chair of the Liaison/Program Committee will meet at least annually with the Leadership Forum.


In one month, in conjunction with the CSWE Annual Program Meeting in Philadelphia, the first meeting of the Leadership Forum will take place and the four new Councils will also meet for the first time. The leadership of each Council has been asked for input into forming the agenda for each council meeting. Excerpts from that particular message to the presidents/chairs are included here.


Dear [President or Chair],


We continue to move forward in the formation of the four new CSWE Councils that will have as their foci, the various sectors of social work education; research institutions, doctoral education, baccalaureate and master’s education.


As I indicated in a previous message (June 20, 2008) the four of you are invited to meet on Tuesday, October 28, 2008, 2:00pm- 5:00pm, as part of the orientation of new board members to CSWE. Our thought is that this would give you a current and more comprehensive view of some of the things that are taking place at CSWE. In addition, as you will recall, all CSWE Councils will meet from 9:00am-12:00pm on Thursday, October 30. Commissions are scheduled to meet from 1:30pm-4:30pm that same day. 


Relative to these four new Councils, however, we would like to suggest that the four of you along with Ira, Karen Sowers (who chairs the CSWE Liaison/Program Committee), and I meet at 7:30am on Thursday, October 28, for continental breakfast before the Councils convene. In addition, we would like to suggest that all four councils meet together for the first hour (9:00am-10:00am) to review and provide input about the CSWE proposed by-laws changes and then have the next two hours (10:00am-12:00pm) for your own agendas.


And relative to the agenda for the Councils’ first meetings, we are requesting your input for guidance and getting things started. You may, for example, want to address any of the following, or for that matter, add additional items.


1.  Discussion of what the Councils think should be the substantive program priorities of CSWE over the next couple of years – general or more overarching priorities as well as those more specific to the educational interests of your specific council

2.  Within the context of “unification” of the educational organizations, what stands out as the primary opportunities and issues; for example, shared resources, functional overlap/gaps, organizational identity, fulfilling member needs, etc.

3.  CSWE proposed by-laws changes – further discussion from the first hour.


Please let me know your thinking particularly about the agenda setting and as well, if the other proposed meetings are consistent with what we all need to be working on together. I will continue to work with each of you to facilitate the agenda setting.


Unity within the social work profession, and more particularly within social work education, is a challenge that BPD and CSWE, along with NADD, GADE, and the SLG are ready to meet.  There can be no doubt—the future of the profession will depend on our wisdom and insight as we move forward an agenda of unity. Through the efforts and structural components outlined in this Update article, we are embarking on a path designed to increase our dialogue and illuminate our respective organizational priorities, respect organizational identity, and most importantly, bring our inter-organizational tensions into a concerted and creative response for the long term vitality of the profession.     

Another article on Unification is on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 30, No. 3, Fall, 2008

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning