Dean’s Response to SSW SOCC’s “Expectations for Portland State University’s School of Social Work”

May 12, 2017


Dear SSW Students of Color Caucus, other SSW Students, Faculty, Staff and other SSW Community Stakeholders:

The School of Social Work has received a document entitled “Expectations for Portland State University’s School of Social Work” that was developed by the School of Social Work Students of Color Caucus (SOCC), a group of 30+ students and staff of the School.

This document, which was presented today to the faculty and staff of the School, suggests that the School enact a number of structural, organizational, and cultural changes in order to serve better students who come from targeted communities.

I greatly appreciate and commend the group’s hard work.  This is a comprehensive document that includes a number of deeply important observations and urgent calls for change.  Today, these students collectively shared 27 first person stories of challenge, frustration, “isms,” and wounding that have occurred in our school.   

As the dean, I want you to know that I acknowledge not only the experiences you shared, but the clear courage and risk that was involved in sharing them with our community.   I know it was not easy.  I heard how frustrating it is to have to share your pain — again — in order to bring attention to the need for change.  What our students have to say matters and I commit to assuring progress in all dimensions of the expectations document shared today.  

As your dean, it is my job to keep a clear focus on our shared academic mission.    I must push us ahead  to assure that our school grows, takes risks, and prioritizes equity. Student success for all is a shared responsibility both School leadership and the faculty take very seriously.   You have our unwavering commitment to continue to improve our shared academic environment.    Student experience is at the center of everything we do, so we take every student’s perspective on their learning and mentorship experiences very seriously.  

It is clear that we still have much work to do to improve equity, access and inclusion.  Today the faculty and I resolved to begin this process by not rushing to offer a superficial action plan but to sit with what we heard and process our grief reactions, even as we might wish to act quickly towards resolution.  That said, we do not want to wait too long to begin the work ahead. 

After the presentation, faculty and staff of the School gathered and expressed their wish to acknowledge how our school has struggled to “get this right” for so many years, and yet has fallen short of our vision.  We acknowledge that too often, students of color or other students from minoritized groups, in many ways feel othered, exotified, exploited for their personal experiences and experience unchecked microaggressions.  Very real pain has resulted from these experiences and we must advance our efforts to reform with greater acceleration.  

Here’s what I as dean commit will happen next:  

  • Faculty in the School of Social Work will be collaborating on and publishing a statement of support for the SOCC’s “Expectations for Portland State University’s School of Social Work” document and endorse the steps recommended.
  • Individual academic program committees (BSW, MSW, CFS and Ph.D.) will consider opportunities to address all of the concerns in the document relevant to their work.
  • We will conclude our academic year with another faculty meeting on June 9, 2017, in which we will propose and commit to specific actions.
  • A draft action plan will be developed and prepared to share with students in the fall related to these issues.  

It is time for us to go beyond talking and move into taking bold action unlike any we’ve seen in the School’s 55 year history.   Never has the need for change been so important or so urgent. 

With respect and commitment,

Laura Nissen
Dean and Professor
School of Social Work