Minnesota professor named School of Social Work director

Elizabeth Lightfoot, who has a strong commitment to international collaboration, inclusion, begins duties July 1

Elizabeth Lightfoot, new, director, School of Social Work, new director

Elizabeth Lightfoot will be the new director of the ASU School of Social Work starting July 1, 2021.


Elizabeth Lightfoot will become the next director of the Arizona State University School of Social Work on July 1, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions Dean Jonathan Koppell announced.

Lightfoot, a University of Minnesota Distinguished Global Professor who has directed UMN’s doctoral program in social work since 2006, has been a member of its faculty since 1999.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the faculty, staff and students at ASU. I can’t really think of a better fit for me,” said Lightfoot, whose father lived in Phoenix and who has other family in the Valley. “Not only do I love Phoenix … but ASU has one of the best schools of social work in the country and one of the biggest schools in the world. I’m honored that I’ve been chosen to lead it and look forward to working with everyone.”

“Dr. Lightfoot’s joining Watts College to lead our School of Social Work will benefit our students, faculty and college in numerous ways,” Koppell said. “She is a respected scholar and talented innovator, particularly in her attention to the international aspects of social work. I am impressed that she has held honored leadership roles among social work educators and am confident she will apply her experience when working with our dedicated and productive faculty to advance our mission of inclusion paired with excellence.”

Lightfoot will succeed James Herbert Williams, who will return to teaching July 1. Williams, Arizona Centennial Professor of Social Welfare, has been School of Social Work director since September 2017.

“Dr. Williams has demonstrated a strong and steady hand heading the School of Social Work,” Koppell said. “His career has inspired so many to enter the profession and make a difference to so many more. And his leadership in the field has brought attention to the caliber of our program.”

Lightfoot, who will also be appointed as a Foundation Professor, focuses her research in the area of disability policy and services and the intersections of disability with child welfare, aging, abuse and health. She currently has several research projects underway exploring family caregiving during the COVID-19 pandemic; fraud and older adults/people with disabilities; parental supports for parents with disabilities; doctoral education in social work; and social work, disability and aging in Romania and Namibia.

Lightfoot said she incorporated an international approach to teaching social work, which she plans to bring to ASU.

“One of the highlights of my career is to have international collaborations,” said Lightfoot, who said she had “the great fortune” to receive two Fulbright scholarships that took her to Namibia and Romania, where today she maintains deep connections.

“I’m interested in general with further international collaborations, both with faculty doing research projects, but also developing opportunities for students to learn what social work is like in other countries by doing visits and internships,” she said.

Lightfoot said she looks forward in particular to working with first-generation ASU students to determine how to make such trips affordable.

“I have enjoyed taking (Master of Social Work) students who have never had a passport to do field training in a place like Namibia,” she said.

Lightfoot said she was particularly moved by the ASU Charter’s emphasis on inclusion, and the way the university defines success based on whom it includes rather than excludes. She said it aligns with her own research interests and values.

“I love that phrase,” Lightfoot said, adding she encountered it frequently while visiting ASU as a candidate for her new position.

“In every meeting I was at, someone repeated that phrase. I liked that so much,” she said. “It’s wonderful that you can be a world-class university with high levels of research, scholarship, really smart and caring undergraduate and graduate students, and have a message of inclusion. This impresses me so much because I’m a disability researcher. I’m guided by the idea of access.”

Lightfoot’s doctoral degree is a joint PhD in public policy from the Department of Political Science and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her Master of Social Work degree is from the University of Minnesota. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Santa Clara (California) University.

Lightfoot is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and a fellow of the Society for Social Work and Research. She has served as president of the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) and the secretary of the Society for Social Work and Research.

Lightfoot has spent sabbatical years as a Fulbright Scholar at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Bucharest in Romania (2018–19) and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Namibia (2008). She has received the University of Minnesota's Award for Global Engagement: Distinguished Global Professor, GADE's Award for Educational Leadership in Doctoral Education, and the College of Education and Human Development's Educational Leadership Award.

Lightfoot said she’s looking forward to moving to Arizona — she has already decided to leave her snowblower behind – and to working with school's faculty.

“It’s a great faculty, they’re doing so many cool things,” Lightfoot said. “I’m lucky to join a place like ASU.”

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