School of Social Work: Four decades of success

photo of Brad Sheafor, Victor Baez, and Bruce Hall, faculty emeriti from the School of Social Work.
Brad Sheafor, Victor Baez, and Bruce Hall, faculty emeriti from the School of Social Work.

“You can’t just work to help the individual change, you also have to change the environment in which the individual lives his or her life,” Colorado State University Professor Emeritus Brad Sheafor said, referring to what differentiates the practice of social work from other “helping” disciplines like counseling and psychology. “Teaching advocacy is an important part of our mission.”

This year marks two milestones in the CSU’s School of Social Work. The bachelor’s program is commemorating 40 years of accreditation and the master’s program has reached the 20-year mark. After joining CSU in 1974 and retiring in 2012, Sheafor has been a part of most of the history of the program.

Sheafor and two of his longtime social work colleagues, Bruce Hall and Victor Baez, are joining together to record the history of social work at CSU and how it was shaped by the development of the discipline nationally.

“We emphasize the skill of advocacy, which is a fundamental social work skill,” Sheafor said. “Every social worker needs to have this skill, and we demonstrate how it’s been critical in the movement at CSU, from virtually no program at all to a program that has bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs, and has been considered one of the leading social work programs in the country.”

Social Work’s early days in academia

Sheafor, Hall, and Baez highlight the progression of social work at CSU over the years and how it has been influenced by and contributed to the development of social work education nationally. According to Sheafor, the 1960s was a time of substantial new social legislation for the country, and the federal government was concerned with how their human services programs were going to be staffed. Social work was a master’s-only discipline at that time, and the country’s social work master’s programs were turning out individuals who were primarily interested in working in counseling and mental health positions.

“The root issues such as poverty and child welfare that aren’t as attractive as mental health had to be staffed, and the master’s degree programs were not meeting this need,” said Sheafor.

Representatives of the federal agencies believed that if social work as a field couldn’t broaden its perspective as a profession to include well-prepared undergraduate students, those jobs would be taken over by other less-appropriate disciplines. Therefore, the federal government asked that the National Association of Social Workers treat bachelor’s-level graduates from accredited programs as full professional social workers. Simultaneously, the Council on Social Work Education was charged to put into its curriculum requirements the expectation that graduates would have the requisite skills for working with people.

“It was very controversial,” Sheafor explained. “There was the worry that the profession was taking a step backward, moving from a master’s only program to professionalizing an undergraduate degree.”

But the referendum put to the association passed in 1969 and paved the way for the development of the social work degree at CSU.

As Colorado’s land-grant university, in 1969 CSU was provided with 75 percent of funding from the government to develop the social work bachelor’s program, which was housed in the Department of Sociology at the time. The program was seen as a way to develop social workers to meet the need for qualified individuals to fill jobs in social services. The contract with the state dictated that the percentage of funding would gradually taper off, until CSU picked up all of the funding. The bachelor’s degree was accredited in 1974, one of the first in the United States.

As required by accreditation standards, CSU’s social work program prepared students for “generalist” practice. A generalist is trained to work with individuals, families, groups, communities and advocate for social change as well as general work to improve clients’ lives. CSU faculty members became national leaders in researching and elaborating the generalist concept.

Becoming a department

A few years after it became a major, the social work major had to find a new home due to budget cuts within the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (now Liberal Arts). In 1981, the program moved out of the Department of Sociology and became a stand-alone department, the Department of Social Work. The social work faculty was able to successfully advocate to move the program into the College of Professional Studies.

In the early years of the program, when there were substantial challenges with CSU funding, Sheafor and others created an early version of distance education offered within nine communities around the state, which generated much-needed funds to serve as CSU’s match for federal dollars. A videotape of lectures would be mailed to students, and when a series of videos were completed, the students would meet in groups with a CSU-approved representative to process the material learned from the videos in their local communities. This program allowed individuals around Colorado to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, until a master’s program was finally implemented in social work at CSU.

“This program allowed graduates to shorten a two-year master’s program to a year at many universities, while maintaining their human services jobs,” Sheafor explained.

In 1984, the Master of Social Work degree was approved. The MSW program was designed to be distinct from the University of Denver’s program, the only other social work master’s degree program in Colorado at that time. “We really made the case that we were different in our orientation from DU, because they didn’t need competition from a lower-tuition university,” Sheafor said. “We figured we would be serving a lot of people in rural communities, and we focused the program on preparing advanced generalists, while DU’s program was more clinical.”

Advancing the degree

“In 2002 we became the School of Social Work. That was a result of Ben Granger just not taking no for an answer and continually advocating for the change,” said Sheafor.

Granger served as department head of the then Department of Social Work before it was changed to a School of Social Work, which more adequately communicated to national social work audiences the advanced degree and level of research activity at Colorado State. In 2011, largely through the advocacy of Professor Vicky Buchan, the school added a Ph.D. program.

Diversity was a long tradition in CSU’s School of Social Work, as evidenced in an exceptionally culturally diverse faculty from the early days of the program.

“In the ’90s, the College of Applied Human Sciences (now Health and Human Sciences) developed a special relationship with Southern University in Baton Rouge, and we were able to recruit about 20-plus African-American students into graduate programs in this college,” Sheafor reported. “Dr. Malcolm Scott, a current social work faculty member, came from this Southern University collaboration.”

Social Work at CSU has weathered a tremendous evolution, yet has faithfully stayed in step with the changes that have taken place in the field as a whole. Sheafor and his colleagues are a living timeline of a large majority of this history, and will be celebrating this at a School of Social Work anniversary celebration on Oct. 2. With a combined total of 114 years teaching at CSU, “Victor, Bruce and I saw all of it happen and continually worked hard to champion the program,” said Sheafor.

To learn more about the history of social work at Colorado State, see Sheafor and Hall’s videos, which were captured when they were recognized as a part of the College of Health and Human Sciences Legacies Project which honors emeriti faculty and retirees.