After four decades of teaching and leading the St. Catherine University – University of St. Thomas School of Social Work, Dean Barbara Shank will retire at the end of the 2018 academic year.
Shank will transition out of her position as dean at the end of the 2017 academic year and spend a year on sabbatical compiling and archiving the history of a social work program she has been part of since the beginning.
“I’m very proud of the School of Social Work and what we’ve been able to do,” Shank said. “When I came here there were four of us [faculty] and 50 students. Now we have 31 [faculty] and over 600 students. It’s been great to be a part of.”
As School of Social Work Director of Marketing and Recruitment Cindy Lorah pointed out, “It’s hard to overstate Barbara’s importance to our school.” Shank has been a leader of social work education within the program – as well as nationally and internationally – since 1978, when she was one of the founding faculty of the social work program at St. Catherine. Shank also led the development of the master’s in social work degree that began in 1990, and was the founding dean when the program evolved into the School of Social Work in 1996. Shank also oversaw the school’s launch of its online doctoral program in 2014 – the first of its kind in the country – and has helped make St. Catherine – St. Thomas one of the premier places in the country for social work education.
“Her legacy is huge. We will continue to benefit from her for years and years to come. People know of our program and think highly of it on a national level because she is such an advocate for, not only our school, but social work and social work education overall,” Lorah said. “Our doctoral program honors social work education as a critical form of social work practice. Barbara recognized an unmet need for this type of program and created an online DSW that is cutting edge within the profession. People will always associate our program with Barbara.”
A lifetime of service
Shank earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Macalester College in 1970 and credits a lecture about the Elizabethan Poor Laws as getting her into social service. She worked as a family courts counselor in Ramsey County throughout the 1970s, as well as earning her master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1973. She would also earn her Ph.D. there in 1993.
A two-year teaching contract in 1978 with the budding St. Catherine social work department turned into the start of a career’s work in education: Shank earned her way through being an assistant professor, to associate professor, to professor; was the program’s department chair from 1982-96; served as assistant to the provost at St. Thomas from 1984-86; was director of the division of social science at St. Thomas from 1987-92; was associate dean of the St. Thomas Graduate School of Education, Professional Psychology and Social Work; and has been dean of the School of Social Work since 1996.
Throughout all that time Shank has been a tireless supporter of social work education on the local, national and international levels, contributing an immense amount of research, presentations and overall advocacy. That will continue after her retirement through her current roles as chair of the board of directors for the Council on Social Work Education, secretary for International Association of Schools of Social Work and president of the International Consortium for Social Development.
“She has really demonstrated amazing leadership at the national level in social work education and also at the international level. She has helped to advance the field nationally and internationally. That work has been a great source of pride and speaks really well to our missions at St. Thomas and St. Kate’s,” said associate professor Mary Ann Brenden. “Barbara is a visionary. She has always had a really clear sense of the importance of the profession of social work and the important role that it plays in our institutions at St. Catherine and St. Thomas and the important role that it plays in our world.”
Shank’s passion and work have been lauded throughout her career and earned widespread recognition from organizations throughout the educational and social work landscapes, including recently being named a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers and receiving the Significant Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors.
“What I’ve done here [at the School of Social Work] has opened up into all the national and international work I’ve been able to do. This has given me a platform to do all that, which has been great for me professionally, good for our school and, I think, good for the university,” Shank said.
Growth in St. Paul
Shank’s transitioning away from the role of dean in May will coincide with the DSW program’s first graduating class, which represents a fitting completion to one of the many areas of growth that Shank championed within social work at St. Thomas and St. Catherine.
“It’s been a marvel, really, to witness her energy and her staunch determination. She may be one of the most determined people I’ve ever met,” said associate professor Mari Ann Graham. “She’s fiercely loyal to the School of Social Work, as well as to our two institutions. She’s fiercely loyal to us as faculty members; she really goes to bat for the school. It’s something to just witness that sort of determination and stamina.”
"There’s been this sense of innovation with Barbara that has led our School of Social Work to be cutting edge in a lot of ways," said Larry Snyder, Vice President for Mission at St. Thomas. "The online doctoral program, which is the first of its kind, is an amazing thing."
While so many changes have come about under her leadership, Shank said each step has been a natural one and a matter of “evolving to meet the community’s needs, which is what St. Thomas and St. Catherine are all about.”
“It’s all been a collaborative effort, a partnership with my colleagues,” Shank said. “It’s all about what we’ve done and what we’ve built together. It’s just been incredible.”
Shank will walk away from a school that is ranked in the top third in the country for social work by U.S. News & World Report, a credit to the overall quality that has come together under her guidance.
“She built a very strong faculty. While this is a big change for her to leave and move on, the faculty that she has built and attracted to our program is equipped to carry these programs on and they will continue to be enriched,” Brenden said. “It’s very competitive these days in social work education, so drawing a strong faculty is not an easy task. She’s done a great job of that.”
As her leadership roles expanded into administration and focused on higher-level issues for the school, Graham said Shank was unique in that “she’s still as strong of a student advocate as anyone on our faculty. Administrators are perceived as being far removed from students … she is the sort of dean who has always been accessible to our students and has been an advocate for our students.”
“It’s fair to say she’s been an inspiration to not only members of our own faculty, but to social work educators across the country,” Graham added. “That’s not exaggerating her impact, not even a little bit.”
Shank said the timing of her retirement after 40 years and at age 70 has been “on my radar for a while,” but that she’s not doing so because she doesn’t still enjoy every minute.
“I love what I do. If I wasn’t 70 I could do this for another 20 years,” she said. “At some point it’s time to sign out and move on.”