Saturday, January 07, 2023

Too Far Afield for a Dean of Social Work at the University of Houston?

The senior faculty guard at the University of Houston School of Social Work took it upon themselves to push out their social justice dean. As stated by this former School of Social Work Dean Alan Dettlaff, it will most definitely have a chilling effect on scholars like him that value racial justice and abolitionist work in the academy.

This story makes me wonder whether the senior faculty actually do not know what abolition means today—a problem that Dr. Dettlaff cites—or whether they actually did know but disapproved. 

Abolitionism is a word and concept that begins in the academy that holds resonance for lots of folks outside of the academy primarily, I think, because it addresses root causes of inequality.

Lest we reinscribe oppression, abolition assumes a stance of assessing harmful systems with the idea of replacing them with one that humanizes and serves everybody fairly and equitably. As long as our focus is on quick policy fixes, we're not addressing root causes.

In the area of high-stakes testing, I have always said that eliminating high-stakes tests is not a policy fix even at its best—should we ever arrive at the day that we abolish them and we very well might. Rather, we have to also attend to the underlying value structure that allows us to even conceive that it's okay to lose some kids and not others. 

Why can we not make a world where failure is more mythic than real. Why can we not make a world with no "dropouts?" In this world, it's not whether a student graduates from high school, but when. One could even graduate early if they were so motivated. In a word, this is abolitionism—and a world that I dream of under any name.

A final thought. Given that abolitionism was an apparent draw for many students to the college, this decision to send Dr. Dettlaff back to the faculty ranks will most definitely not set well with them. All else equal, he is quite admirable. 

It's all pretty devastating to think about. Leaders like him are far and few between. One sees why.

-Angela Valenzuela 

University of Houston pushes its dean of social work back

down to the faculty. He says some professors objected to his 

views on racial justice and abolition.

January 6, 2023 | Inside HigherEd
Alan Dettlaff, a Mexican American man with short hair wearing a business suit and tie.
Alan Dettlaff
(Alan Dettlaff/Twitter)

The University of Houston suddenly removed its dean of social work last month. The university has said it did so to better align the Graduate College of Social Work with broader institutional priorities. The former dean, Alan Dettlaff—who is returning to the social work faculty, for now—says his views on racial justice got him fired.

“I’ve said many times, one of the things I’m most proud as dean is that we were focused as a school on racial justice before summer 2020, when a lot of people started to come on board and develop programming and messaging around that—we’ve been focused on that for a long time,” Dettlaff told Inside Higher Ed of the college’s orientation during his seven-year tenure.

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