Dean Wilma Peebles-Wilkins steps down, having reshaped SSW’s research mission
By Tim Stoddard
Wilma Peebles-Wilkins appreciates the value of a practice-oriented education. As a young social worker in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1960s, her casework with autistic children and families added a critical dimension to her textbook learning. In her 12 years at the helm of the School of Social Work, she has maintained the school’s long tradition of training graduate students on the front lines, weaving social and economic justice into a curriculum that’s evolved to meet shifting sociopolitical needs in metropolitan communities. But during her tenure, Peebles-Wilkins has also transformed the school into a research institution with a growing national prominence.
When she steps down as SSW dean in May, she will depart from a school that has changed dramatically since 1991, when she was hired as an associate professor and associate dean of academic affairs. Graduate students still benefit from practice-learning in Boston’s community centers, schools, churches, and social agencies, but faculty are now devoting more time to research and scholarship than they did a decade ago. “When I started here,” Peebles-Wilkins says, “the faculty told me that they wanted to be more scholarly and research-oriented. This school has developed tremendous momentum in the past 10 years in the research area.”
Faculty development was a priority for Peebles-Wilkins in 1993, when Dean Emeritus Hubie Jones (SSW’57) retired and she became interim dean. With her appointment to the deanship in 1994, she continued to support a broadening research agenda within the school, helping her colleagues dedicate more of their time to scholarship, a critical factor in tenure decisions. “It’s now a rare occasion when we recommend somebody for tenure and they don’t get it,” she says. Nearly 75 percent of the currently tenured faculty attained tenure during her deanship.
When Peebles-Wilkins leaves, Gail Steketee, an SSW professor and cochair of clinical practice, will become dean ad interim for two years, until a permanent dean is found. During the transition, Steketee will balance her administrative duties with her ongoing research on obsessive-compulsive disorders. She was recently awarded a $1.17 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study compulsive hoarding, a disorder in which people tend to acquire excessive quantities of certain types of items, have difficulty discarding possessions, and live in cluttered, unorganized homes. With other researchers, she is developing cognitive and behavioral treatments for the disorder.
“Wilma has enabled the school to run smoothly on the administrative side,” Steketee says, “and that frees up faculty to do what we’re best at, which is teach and do research. She’s done a very good job of moving the school as a whole to a new plane. We hire very competent faculty, who are good researchers and also very good teachers, and Wilma’s been very important in achieving that.”
The school has become increasingly visible at the national level in the past decade. In addition to two successful reaccreditations, SSW now ranks among the top 20 best graduate schools of social work, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 8th among private schools. Peebles-Wilkins attributes the school’s rising prominence to its thriving research. Faculty have published 32 books over the past decade, she says, which is a big deal in the field of social work. “The faculty are in the top 10 in terms of the number of peer-viewed publications,” she says, “and the top 8 in relation to cited works among social workers. Our research activity is thriving.”
During her deanship, Peebles-Wilkins has helped SSW update its curriculum to keep pace with evolving social needs. “The environment has changed,” she says. “Most social workers in this country now work in health and mental health, and managed care has changed how they do their jobs. But we’re basically still providing the same kinds of services.”
In Boston and other urban settings, social workers have seen an increase in domestic violence, she says, coinciding with increasing substance abuse. There are other emerging issues for social workers to confront, such as increasing numbers of veterans returning from duty with post-traumatic stress disorder and thousands of children recovering from the trauma of the September 11 terrorist attacks. “Environmental and political circumstances influence greatly what we’re doing in social work,” she says.
While many traditional courses have remained in the curriculum, “the content has shifted with client needs,” she says. “For example, there’s a dramatic need to deal with trauma right now and to talk more about substance abuse, which is one of our specialty areas; 35 years ago, when I was working in child welfare, we had the same kinds of problems in child neglect and abuse, but for different reasons. In some ways, these are age-old problems with different outfits on.”
In her scholarship, Peebles-Wilkins has focused on the history of African-American social welfare. During her sabbatical, she will return to Duke University, where she had done research in the 1980s as part of a Ford Curriculum Development Grant. She will resume her earlier research at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Research, focusing on the history of African-American social welfare. She will also spend part of her time at Case Western Reserve University, using archival materials to continue her research of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey.
Peebles-Wilkins was recognized by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers with its 2002 annual award for Greatest Contribution to Social Work Education. Peebles-Wilkins, the citation states, “has made outstanding contributions during some 25 years of experience in higher education and as a practitioner and administrator with children and families in both the public and private sectors. Her contributions to social work have been of exceptional value to the profession and to the community at large.”
Peebles-Wilkins has also invigorated faculty and curriculum at SSW, Steketee says, giving the school a momentum that will last for years to come. “There’s very little that’s broken that needs fixing,” she says. “I think my goal is really to keep things moving as they are now, because I think we’re going in a great direction.”