The head of the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work has been hired by the University of Southern California to take over as dean of its trouble-plagued social work program, it was announced Tuesday.
Sarah Gehlert will begin leading the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in April, university officials said.
Gehlert, who has served as dean of the College of Social Work at the University of South Carolina since 2017, is “known for her work on the connections between social and environmental factors and health, with a focus on vulnerable populations,” according to a statement released by USC.
USC President Carol L. Folt said Gehlert “has an impressive track record of building successful research and academic programs in this critical field of social work. Her collaborative skills will be crucial to advancing the school’s vision of providing a rich learning experience, community engagement, multidisciplinary scientific research and advocacy.”
Gehlert said she was “excited to join the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and bring a renewed focus on its core mission of promoting social justice and well-being throughout society.”
“This is an incredible opportunity to collaborate with students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters as the school enters a new era of academic excellence and fiscal responsibility,” she said.
Last spring, the Los Angeles Times reported that USC’s social work school, the largest in the world and one of the oldest in the nation, might be forced to lay off nearly half its staff and eliminate the vast majority of its part-time teaching positions following revelations of severe budget problems that began under a former dean who held the post for 21 years.
Marilyn Flynn stepped down last year amid scrutiny of a $100,000 donation she had transferred through school coffers to a nonprofit controlled by the son of a powerful local politician, according to the newspaper.
The Times reported that a team of school officials reviewing financial records after Flynn’s departure found the school, which in recent years has embraced online degree programs, had been operating at a loss for years. The school’s budget appeared balanced only because reserve accounts were tapped, sources familiar with the records told the newspaper.
Administrators also determined that admissions standards had been lowered dramatically in past years in what some faculty now suspect was an attempt to shore up the flagging budget with additional tuition revenue, according to The Times. The school’s national ranking has declined significantly over the last decade.
After accountants from Ernst & Young were brought in to assess the state of the school’s finances, the university implemented cuts that then-Provost Michael Quick said would “ensure the school is on solid footing” as it sought its next dean. Full-time faculty members were reportedly given new contracts requiring them to shoulder heavier course loads at the same salary.
As dean of the USC social work school, Gehlert will oversee its six degree programs in social work and nursing, including its Master of Social Work and PhD program. Gehlert, who succeeds interim dean Suzanne Wenzel, will also guide the school’s research centers and institutes, including the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging and the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families.
Gehlert, who earned her doctorate in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, is the current president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and the past president of the Society for Social Work and Research.
Prior to her post in South Carolina, Gehlert held a joint appointment at Washington University, where she served as the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.
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