ASU School of Social Work director looks back at 4 years in the job

James Herbert Williams points to accomplishments, sees school's future as strong

James Herbert Williams, director, School of Social Work, Arizona State University

James Herbert Williams returns to teaching and scholarship when he steps down as director of ASU's School of Social Work July 1, 2021.


James Herbert Williams plans to keep a full schedule that includes editing two books and traveling to Africa once he concludes his four years as director of the Arizona State University School of Social Work this summer.

“Prior to coming to ASU I had several collaborations in eastern and southern Africa, and I would like to reconnect with my African colleagues. I spent the last decade working with tribes in Africa on conflict mediation and sustainable development,” Williams said.

His successor, Elizabeth Lightfoot, steps into the school director position July 1 from the University of Minnesota.

Williams returns to full-time teaching and scholarship as one of four editors of a book about the “Grand Challenges for Social Work,” a 10-year initiative to address significant health, social, economic and environmental problems impacting society. The profession’s focus on these 13 grand challenges should “move the needle” on identifying positive solutions to ameliorate these problems.  

Williams is a board member and executive committee member of the Grand Challenges for Social Work. During his tenure, the School of Social Work has been very active with GCSW. The book is actually the second edition of one published at the start of the 10-year period five years ago. It will examine what’s been accomplished at the mid-point of the initiative, he said.

Williams is also editing a second book with his colleagues from the University of Houston; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Howard University, based on a co-sponsored four-part symposium, “Social Work, White Supremacy and Racial Justice.”

“The events of last summer reminded us (of) the need to hold the social work profession accountable for its racist history by providing a space for social workers to present their scholarship,” he said.

Williams said the school has made “some tremendous strides” since his arrival at ASU in 2017 from the University of Denver.

Since then the school has risen to No. 25 out of 296 accredited Master of Social Work programs in the United States in annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, meaning the school is in the top 10%, Williams said. Four ASU faculty members are members of the prestigious American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

The school's faculty and student populations are larger today and it offers a more expansive online program. A new Master of Social Work degree program is based in Yuma, Arizona, at the request of students who wanted a local in-person program, not an online one.

“People call it launching a program, but it’s really increasing community capacity,” he said of the Yuma Master of Social Work curriculum. “If you hold a program in Phoenix, graduates won’t leave the big city.”

The school, based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, also succeeded in bringing a Master of Social Work program back to ASU’s West campus.

“Its presence is expanding our footprint, not just in the Valley but throughout the state,” Williams said of the program’s multiple locations.

Williams said he is particularly pleased that Professor Neil Websdale and the Family Violence Center he heads moved to ASU last fall from Northern Arizona University.

“(The center's) research and community engagement complement the work of the Office of Gender-Based Violence. Having FVC and OGBV increases our national recognition for innovation and high-quality scholarship in the areas of family violence and gender-based violence,” he said.

Williams also said he worked to make sure everyone employed at the school, whether tenured, tenure-track or fixed-term faculty or staff members, understands the school’s mission and knows how each is making important contributions to that mission.

He also said he has worked to make the School of Social Work a more student-centered, student-friendly school.

“This is a challenge, given our size, our multiple sites and research productivity,” Williams said. “We created more student-supportive programs.”

Looking forward, Williams said he believes the school has a very strong future. Labor statistics are predicting a growing need for social workers, he said, yet in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, much turmoil has surfaced in the profession in the past year.

“There are divisions in our profession who say we need to reassess our involvement with the child welfare system or our partnering with the police,” Williams said. “A self-assessment has occurred: We are asking, 'Who are we? How do we interact with other institutions and professions?' Those are big questions and big conversations we need to have.”

He said other big issues face the profession as well, in education, student debt, diversity of the school’s students and keeping its graduates in the profession.

In addition are salary issues — whether an MSW graduate will be paid a livable family wage.

“They come in with all the best intentions about what they want to accomplish – but given the cost of higher education, quality assurance and gatekeeping will be an important part of our profession,” Williams said.

This may not necessarily mean adapting to a model of measuring outcomes similar to those in the medical profession, he said, “but we have to show that what we’re doing actually works, otherwise, who’ll invest in it? Will this family be at a better place than when we started working with them?”

Williams said he’s confident in the future of social work because he’s seen in younger scholars that “our profession is in very good hands. They’re very well trained, more intentional and willing to address the big issues.”

Some days have been better than others, but Williams said throughout his time as director he always started his morning looking forward to going to his office.

“Academia is such a privileged profession. You get to spend your day with very bright people and you get to choose what research questions you want to investigate,” he said. “It has been a great opportunity to serve as director. I will miss my colleagues from being the director.”

Williams said he deeply appreciates the school’s administrative team and support staff.

“When you’re a leader you need to have people around you who take care of you. You don’t always need it from them, but it’s there when you need it,” he said. “I’m fortunate from my time at ASU to have a wonderful group of colleagues. You only can have accomplishments if you have the right people whom you put in the right place for them to succeed.”

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