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Renee Cunningham-Williams named first Watts Endowed Professor

Cunningham-Williams is a recognized authority in challenges facing young people, particularly African American youth

Portrait of Renee Cunningham-Williams, ASU's first Watts Endowed Professor

Renee Cunningham-Williams is Arizona State University's first-ever Watts Endowed Professor. Photo courtesy of Renee Cunningham-Williams

December 16, 2021

Social workers often help young people navigate through poverty, mental health and substance use disorders, sexual risk-taking, criminal justice involvement and family violence issues, to name a few.

A lesser-known challenge that may not come up in many conversations about youth, however, is problem gambling.

Renee Cunningham-Williams, the first-ever Watts Endowed Professor of Social Work at Arizona State University, has dedicated a large portion of her research over the last 25 years to the prevention and intervention of all of these concerns in her efforts to help youth make a successful transition into adulthood.

Cunningham-Williams, who is currently on faculty in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, is joining the faculty of the ASU School of Social Work next year. She is an internationally recognized authority in the study of problem gambling, substance use and abuse and mental and behavioral health, particularly among African American youth and emerging adults.

The new Watts Endowed Professor, who also is director of a National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded Transdisciplinary Training in Addictions Research pre- and post-doctoral training program at Washington University, will start her new position in August 2022, according to Cynthia Lietz, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and a President’s Professor of social work.

Cunningham-Williams is the first of what will be five Watts Endowed Professors, Lietz said. In 2018, Mike and Cindy Watts, owners of the Phoenix-based Sunstate Equipment Co., made a $30 million investment in the college, which today bears their last name. Funding for the endowed professorships is from the gift.

Lietz said Cunningham-Williams “exemplifies a commitment to advancing the field of social work. She is impacting the field through the impact of her own research and through her commitment to mentor and support the next generation of social work scholars. I cannot think of a better person to be associated with the first Watts Professor appointment than Dr. Cunningham-Williams.”

Cunningham-Williams’ research has centered on the epidemiology and diagnostic measurement of problem gambling among young adults and how it relates to substance abuse and mental health disorders.

Young people can have their first gambling experience early, Cunningham-Williams said, some as young as 10 years old. She said studies she has conducted and those by others have established the prevalence of problem gambling and disorder. These studies have made significant inroads in advancing understanding of certain risk and protective factors for these youth and young adults — especially for the most vulnerable among them.

Cunningham-Williams will also become the School of Social Work's first-ever associate director for faculty development, said Elizabeth Lightfoot, school director and Foundation Professor.

“One thing I noticed immediately when I came to the School of Social Work is that we had developed a great infrastructure in our school for our academic programs and had grown substantially, but we had little formal supports for our faculty researchers and educators,” Lightfoot said. “They were managing to be fantastic on their own, but we really needed to provide more formal supports for them.”

Lightfoot said it was important to her that the new faculty development position be held by a senior scholar, and Cunningham-Williams turned out to be a perfect fit.

“She is a strong, internationally-respected researcher who has extensive experience mentoring emerging scholars, particularly scholars of color, through her work at Washington University and at our national social work associations,” Lightfoot said. “I can't tell you how excited I am to have her join us here at ASU.”

Cunningham-Williams said ASU’s longtime designation by U.S. News & World Report as the nation’s top university in innovation impressed her.

“It speaks to where ASU has come. It’s also a call, a challenge, to be creative, to be open to creating new things and being innovative, and says the university will support that. If you have an idea, there will be the support to make it happen,” she said.

Cunningham-Williams said she was “just blown away” by the School of Social Work's high number of research centers and the productivity of the faculty there and throughout the Watts College.

“I felt immediately that this is a place whose ground is fertile for new ideas and doing your best work,” she said.

Cunningham-Williams said in her ASU faculty development position she will apply experience gained from her role as an associate dean for doctoral education and her leadership in pre- and postdoctoral education at Washington University. During eight years as associate dean at the Brown School, and 25 years in pre- and post-doctoral education at both the Brown School and School of Medicine, she mentored doctoral and post-doctoral students, particularly women and people of color, helping to build individual and institutional capacity for their success.

At Washington University she increased the number of African American students pursuing a PhD degree and post-doctoral education. She said she was passionate about this as she is a first-generation college graduate who went on to earn a doctoral degree from the Brown School before completing her own post-doctoral fellowship in psychiatric epidemiology at Washington University School of Medicine.

“I emphasized to ASU my passion for mentorship in this area. ASU embraced this, saying it was wanted and needed,” Cunningham-Williams said. “It’s a labor of love for me.”

Cunningham-Williams earned three social work degrees — a Bachelor of Social Work from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a Master of Social Work and a PhD in social work from the Brown School. She also earned a post-graduate master’s degree in psychiatric epidemiology from Washington University School of Medicine. A lifelong learner, she recently completed her faculty sabbatical year as a Dean’s Scholar in the Juris Doctor degree program at St. Louis University School of Law.

Cunningham-Williams’ work spans the disciplines of social work, public health, psychiatric epidemiology/nosology and biostatistics. She has more than 25 years’ experience in academic leadership, emphasizing social work doctoral education quality and capacity-building for early- to mid-career scholars, as well as scholars traditionally underrepresented as researchers and college educators.

She has been a consultant for the National Institutes of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Singapore government and on national elected boards, such as the Society for Social Work and Research and the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education, among others. Because of her outstanding career accomplishments and leadership, she was inducted this year as a fellow in the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

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