Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Reputations, Rankings, and Realities of Social Work Schools: Challenges for Future Research

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Reputations, Rankings, and Realities of Social Work Schools: Challenges for Future Research

Article excerpt

IN RECENT YEARS, social workers have become increasingly aware of the crucial role that "image" can play in shaping such matters as public support for the profession, the salaries of social workers and, even, applications to schools of social work. Thus, for instance, in a noteworthy NASW News article, O'Neill (2001) reported that "Educators and NASW personnel in all regions of the country have concluded there are system-wide problems in social work that only can be solved if the profession's image is improved" (p. 3). In the educational realm, declining student applications and related institutional concerns have led at least one leading educator to assert "What is needed is an image campaign that is national in scope and includes all segments of the profession" (p. 3).

Yet, for any institution to gain maximal support from important constituencies over the long run, its public image must realistically reflect its actual strengths and weaknesses. It follows, correspondingly, that highly regarded institutions must, in fact, be characterized by bona fide strengths that warrant public recognition and support. It is plausible to presume that the relatively poor public image of an institution reflects its actual weaknesses and deficiencies. But, it is equally plausible to presume that some institutions' actual strengths and contributions are not adequately captured or conveyed by the extant mechanisms employed to indicate their quality and, in turn, to construct their public image. These include reports and publications that attempt to rank institutions on the basis of specific criteria.

Accordingly, a growing concern in social work is the construction and representation of institutional and professional "images." Yet, very little appears in the professional literature about this topic. A singular exception is the literature concerning the relative stature and standing of schools of social work. Numerous studies abound in this regard. Typically, they approach the issues of institutional stature and image from two different perspectives, to wit, the putative "reputations" of social work schools and their relative "rankings" on various criteria. Usually, the latter entail rankings of a school's scholarly productivity as reflected by the publications of its faculty members or graduates.

However, critical questions abound in this field of inquiry. Thus, for instance, to what extent, if at all, are the reputations and public images of social work schools actually correlated with their scholarly productivity? Are existing measures of "reputation" and "productivity" conceptualized and operationalized adequately? Are certain variables more important and appropriate in shaping a school's image or relative standing than its scholarly productivity? And, what adaptations need to be made in order to conduct better research on the public images of social work schools and, even, the larger social work profession? The present study highlights many of the complexities, issues, and quandaries entailed in identifying and distinguishing among the factors that affect a school's image and stature. It then suggests directions for future research aimed at ascertaining the relative strengths of social work schools and developing strategies to enhance their stature.

Who's Number One?

Central to the present discussion is the question of how social work schools are ranked differentially with regard to their respective reputations and accomplishments and, in turn, how such rankings subsequently affect their public images and the support that they are accorded by relevant constituencies. It was not until 1979 that the Journal of Social Work Education published the first refereed journal article that ranked schools of social work. It focused expressly on a single variable deemed to be linked with a school's stature and public image, namely, the publication productivity of its faculty members (Jayaratne, 1979). …

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