Gehlert ends tenure as social work dean

Gehlert’s decision marks the end of her two-year tenure as dean, which started April 2020 after an extensive search to replace former Dean Marilyn Louise Flynn. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Gehlert)

Former Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work dean Sarah Gehlert left her position effective Aug. 1, Provost Charles Zukoski and Senior Vice President for Health Affairs Steven D. Shapiro announced in an email to the USC social work community July 21.

“We write today to share with you that Sarah Gehlert has informed us of her decision to end her tenure as Dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, effective August 1, 2022,” the email read. “Please join us in thanking her for guiding the School over the past two years.”

Gehlert’s decision marks the end of her two-year tenure as dean, which started April 2020 after an extensive search to replace former Dean Marilyn Louise Flynn. Flynn was removed from the role in September 2018, after which in 2019 she was indicted on bribery charges alongside former Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas. USC announced Gehlert as the new dean in January 2020, replacing interim Dean Suzanne Wenzel.

Gehlert’s career spans decades: After earning her Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis in 1991, she continued her work on health disparities and community-based research. From 2003 to 2007, she served as deputy dean for research at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration; from 2011 to 2016, the director of the Center Community Engaged Research at the WashU St. Louis Institutes for Clinical and Translational Sciences; then from 2017 to 2019, dean of the University of South Carolina College of Social Work. She has also served on several editorial boards and advisory committees, and as a member of the White House Health Equity Leaders Roundtable during her tenure at USC.

The Daily Trojan was unable to reach Gehlert for comment.

In the 16 months it took to search for and appoint Gehlert, Dworak-Peck underwent a tumultuous period, having been heavily criticized for its budgetary issues and admissions scandals. The Los Angeles Times reported in May 2019 that the school was operating at a projected deficit of $40 million by the end of the next fiscal year, and allegations surfaced that the school was compensating for the deficit by lowering its admissions standards. 

Zukoski and Shapiro wrote in their email that since Gehlert’s arrival, “her steady leadership through the grave challenges of that time helped Social Work reestablish forward momentum.”

Under Gehlert’s leadership, the school has since developed the Integrative Social Work master’s program, the lower credit and cost of which aims to reduce debt burdens for students aiming for a master’s degree in the field. The school also became the primary sponsor of the Trojan Guardian Scholars, which aims to provide a supportive network for current and former foster youth attending USC.

In a separate statement to the Daily Trojan, Zukoski said Gehlert “came to us and shared her decision to return to Missouri with her spouse. We are grateful for the vital work she has done for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and our university community.”

USC School of Pharmacy dean Vassilios Papadopoulos will serve as Dworak-Peck’s interim dean until a new dean is found. Gehlert will continue to serve as professor emeritus at WashU St. Louis.

A previous version of this article stated that former Dean Marilyn Louise Flynn was involved in the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. It was updated at 10:00 p.m. Aug. 17 to clarify that Flynn was indicted on bribery charges in an incident separate from “Varsity Blues.” The Daily Trojan regrets this error.