Nationally respected social policy analyst retires from faculty after 28 years at ASU


Headshot of Elizabeth Segal

Social work Professor Elizabeth Segal retired in May 2023 after 28 years at ASU.

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A nationally respected social policy analyst whose textbooks have guided thousands of social workers, Professor Elizabeth Segal of the School of Social Work retired this month after 37 years in academia, the last 28 at Arizona State University.

Widely known in social policy circles, as well as for her insights into social and interpersonal empathy, Segal taught social welfare policy, research methods, critical theory, community practice and proposal writing. She also at one time coordinated the master’s and doctoral degree programs at the School of Social Work and served as its interim director.

“I have been so fortunate to have wonderful colleagues throughout my 28 years at ASU. Just as I have stayed in touch with many folks after their retirement, I intend to do the same,” Segal said. “Being a good colleague is also being a good friend, and that connection transcends being in the office together. I look forward to sharing many more new experiences with my wonderful colleagues.”

Segal had a wide variety of academic, research and administrative assignments. She served as associate dean of the College of Public Programs, the former name of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, from 2005 to 2006.

Segal spent six years, from 1989 to 1995, at the College of Social Work at Ohio State University as assistant professor and associate professor, before coming to ASU in 1995. She also was an assistant professor of social work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign from 1986 to 1988.

Segal spent 1988–89 in Washington, D.C., as a congressional research fellow in the office of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and the Illinois Commission on Intergovernmental Cooperation.

Her well-known work in social empathy has focused on “how greater empathic insight can lead to the creation of more effective social welfare policies and programs,” according to her biography. The author of 12 books and numerous book chapters and peer-reviewed articles on social welfare issues, her books’ recent emphasis has been on interpersonal and social empathy.

Segal has also written monthly online columns on empathy for Psychology Today magazine.

School of Social Work Director and Professor Elizabeth Lightfoot said thousands of social workers have learned about social policy from Segal’s bestselling texts.

‘A master lesson in civility and integrity’

Lightfoot, a former University of Minnesota professor who has been director of the school since July 2021, said that when she was first thinking of coming to Arizona, every person at ASU she spoke with said Segal was an important mentor to them “and that she was the most important person at the School of Social Work.”

Lightfoot said that at first, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of hearing that from so many people at the school.

“It actually kind of intimidated me as no one said that about anyone else, but I realized soon after I got here that they were right,” Lightfoot said. “I so appreciate everything about Liz: her incredible brilliance, her humility, her willingness to go the extra mile, her humor, her extreme generosity, and for me personally, I love her policy wisdom.”

Just watching Segal interact with her ASU colleagues “has been a master lesson in civility and integrity,” Lightfoot said. “I want to say from the bottom of my heart how valuable she is to all of us here at ASU and how much we will miss her.”

Read on to learn more about Segal’s time at ASU and her post-retirement plans.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: You are known for your work in empathy, and among your writings on the subject was a column that appeared each month in Psychology Today online. What is stopping many people from finding within themselves what they need to feel and act with more empathy?

Answer: I distinguish in my work between interpersonal empathy and social empathy. Both require a subset of skills that include abilities to take the perspectives of others with awareness that those feelings belong to the other person and not confuse them with our own feelings. We do that best when we keep ourselves balanced through the skills of emotion regulation. For social empathy, we add skills in understanding the social, economic, political and environmental contexts within which others live, including the historical context. 

Social work students typically excel in interpersonal empathy by the time they graduate. They can share feelings and experiences with other individuals and use that sharing to understand what the experiences mean. Applying that on a larger scale and across different groups requires social empathy. That ability is more challenging because it often requires "walking in the shoes of others" who are very different from you. Thankfully, social work students, through their field practice and supporting classwork, are trained to share the experiences of groups who are different than them.

However, for the general public, that is all too often not the case. I believe it is the lack of sharing and understanding of feelings and experiences of others who are different that holds people back from growing their empathic abilities. And the older we get, the less likely we are to immerse ourselves in new and different experiences.

Empathy requires lifelong learning. We have the foundational tools to be empathic in an unconscious format, but we need the conscious awareness and training to learn to act empathically. The good news is that being an empathic person gets easier the more you practice and use it.

Q: Your texts have guided thousands of social workers, particularly regarding policy. What will social workers of the future need to know to be effective, to accomplish as much as they can in the lives of those they serve?

A: The goal of my teaching policy has always been to help students decipher what such policies mean to their clients' lives, and their own. And that lesson does not change. Public policies are typically passed at government levels through processes that seem impossible to understand or track. The content of my teaching has been to give students the keys to unlock that process.

Once the processes and dynamics of policymaking are understood, it becomes easier to advocate for changes that will benefit the groups with whom social workers interact. Thus, in the future, the skills to understand policy and track the impacts will continue to be vital to successful social work practice. 

Q: Tell us about a few of your next steps.

A: My first steps will be to slow down and reflect on what I have done throughout my career, and what parts of that do I want to continue or replicate in my retirement. I have some writing ideas, including a family history project.

My father served in the Army during World War II and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, and fought through to the famous Battle of the Bulge. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as an American prisoner of war in German prison camps. He shared a lot of his experiences, which shaped his teaching in our family about social justice and (before I had the term for it) social empathy. In many ways my father is my original source for social empathy. I have taped conversations I would like to transcribe and see where they lead me in terms of a book or something in written form to share with the rest of the family and maybe a larger audience.

I am grateful to have all my training as an academic researcher to guide me through this process.

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