Profiles in Leadership: FSU social work dean coaches faculty to greater heights

March is National Social Work Month. The FSU College of Social Work, celebrating its 100th anniversary, holds more experience than any other institution in Florida offering social work education and was the first in the world to offer a Master’s in Social Work through an accredited online program. Below FSU Social Work Dean Jim Clark shares his vision for the future of the college. 

As the Florida State University College of Social Work prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Dean Jim Clark is working to lead the college into its next century by coaching and inspiring his faculty and staff on the frontlines of the world’s most pressing issues.

“Social work is a profession that touches all sectors of society,” Clark said. “All the problems we face, the struggles that people face in terms of racism and sexism, homophobia, lack of access to health care, terrible social inequality — all these issues that people around the globe face, we’re involved in.”

Clark encountered many of those issues during a year in West Virginia right after graduating from Siena College in New York with a degree in sociology. He worked with a group similar to Habitat for Humanity, rehabbing homes in rural Appalachia.

“We would work with high school and college kids from across the country,” he said. “It was interesting working with primarily middle class educated people who were still on their journey as young adults. At the same time, I was working with poor families in Appalachia, who I discovered had a lot to teach me.”

It was that experience that Clark said prompted him to take a hard look at social work, specifically psychotherapy and counseling. He went on to receive a fellowship to the University of Kentucky, where he earned a Master in Social Work.

Clark then returned to West Virginia to work for Catholic Community Services before going back to Kentucky to work as the executive director of Catholic Charities.

“I was learning to be a leader,” Clark said. “That was my first formal job where I led a nonprofit and began to grow it. I had to deal with budgets and a staff and board members and community members.”

In his late 20s, Clark received yet another fellowship that allowed him to start doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, where he completed a dissertation on prisoners with severe mental illness.

Clark spent 21 years as a researcher moving through the faculty ranks at the University of Kentucky before becoming director of the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati.

In 2015, Clark joined the FSU family as dean of the College of Social Work. Since then, he has definitely made a name for himself — not only as the dean with “great hair” but, more importantly, as a supportive and an innovative leader.

“Part of my vision is to support the high-quality faculty that we already have, in every possible way,” he said. “I also have a responsibility to attract excellent faculty from around the country who are either new or established researchers, and excellent teachers to be a part of our team.”

Clark said his vision for the college largely aligns with what has been articulated in the university’s strategic plan. He wants to ensure that with the college’s help, FSU becomes one of the nation’s Top 25 public universities.

To Clark, rankings and metrics are important but should be used as tools not goals — the ultimate goal is excellence.

Getting to know his faculty and staff has been an important part of growing and improving the college, Clark said. Of the many books that line his conference room and spill into his office, he said the great leaders who authored them shared an intense curiosity about the people they worked with.

“My leadership style is a form of coaching,” Clark said. “I really try to bring the best out of people. Our faculty and staff have a lot of gifts. They want to do their best, and my role is to help them be the very best team that they can possibly be. That requires different tools, different supports and creating different types of experiences.”

Clark also wants his college to attain a national reputation in five specific fields: child welfare, family violence, criminal justice, health and behavioral health.

“When you’re working in a college of social work, part of the challenge is that you’re educating new professionals, which is the core mission of the school, while simultaneously, your research and service initiatives take you into the controversies of the times,” he said.

Clark sees child welfare and family violence as two of the primary areas of Florida research in which the college has built a solid national reputation. He said the state is depending on crucial information produced by the college’s Institute for Family Violence Studies and the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to inform social policies and legislation.

He wants the college to significantly grow the areas of criminal justice, health and behavioral health under his tenure. He said a focus on all five areas can also create opportunities to foster cross-college collaborations that generate creative approaches.

Clark also sees financial therapy being an interesting area for growth. Financial therapy involves serving clients so they can build assets and personal financial freedom. The college is experimenting with social entrepreneurship education as one way of preparing students to advance this innovation in social work.

“Underlying all our educational and scholarship efforts has to be an ongoing and careful examination of how we’re thinking about the ways that we’re working,” Clark said. “We have to approach these incredibly complex topics with a certain level of humility and be willing to bring other experts into the conversation as well as the communities impacted by our work.”

Clark called Florida State a hidden treasure in higher education, and he continues to be impressed by the strong leadership throughout the university.

“When I first came to FSU as a candidate for the dean job I was very impressed with the leadership’s generosity, their deep intelligence and their commitment to developing and growing the colleges and the university,” he said. “FSU is strong because of its people. I’m not just saying that as a PR ploy — it’s really true.”