Sarah Gehlert has been selected as the next School of Social Work dean, the University announced Tuesday.
Gehlert, who has served as dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work since 2017, will assume her new role in April, replacing Interim Dean Suzanne Wenzel. Executive Vice Provost Elizabeth Graddy and Davis School of Gerontology Dean Pinchas Cohen spearheaded the 16-month search for a dean.
Gehlert’s appointment comes during a tumultuous period for the School of Social Work. The school has faced criticism in recent years for its budget problems and for allegedly lowering its admissions standards in an effort to compensate for a lack of funds.
In May, the school was operating in a budget deficit that was projected to reach an estimated $40 million by 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported, although USC administrators indicated the gap was closer to $10 million. The budget news came a year after former School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn stepped down from her position and took on a role as special adviser in the Office of the Provost following the publication of an L.A. Times investigation that revealed that Flynn transferred $100,000 donated to the School of Social Work by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to the account of a nonprofit organization run by Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, a former USC professor.
Questions have surfaced regarding the future of the School of Social Work’s online degree offerings and lax admissions criteria. Gehlert said she plans to work with current faculty to identify areas in need of attention, taking student input into consideration.
“Making changes right away, unless there’s a real problem, would be a mistake,” Gehlert said. “I’m not going to certainly dawdle, but I am going to spend a lot of time talking to students, talking to alum, talking to staff, talking to faculty and trying to see what are the best solutions.”
Gehlert is in her fourth year as president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and said she plans to continue in her role there. As dean, Gehlert said she will prioritize community engagement and encourage further research about L.A.’s homelessness epidemic.
“It’s not well known nationally how close the school’s ties to the community are,” Gehlert said. “I think that the School of Social Work has to make impact, it has to make social change and generally we start in the area where we live.”
Gehlert’s research has focused on the intersection of social and medical issues. She serves on the steering committee of the California Breast Cancer Research Program, and she said she plans to emphasize multidisciplinary approaches and partnerships with other USC schools.
“The problems that we face, the issues, the research that we do is big,” Gehlert said. “You can’t really do it in one discipline or one profession, so I’m looking forward to [collaborating with other schools].”
Central to her mission in her new position will be reinforcing the school’s commitment to providing a quality education for students who will represent and advocate for other members of the community, Gehlert said.
“The graduates that we prepare go out and have a lot of power over people who tend often to be powerless,” Gehlert said. “I take that very, very seriously. I think that our education has to be worthy of the people who we are serving.”