“I’ve only been here three weeks, I’m still in the honeymoon period, and I could be wrong,” jokes new School of Social Work Dean Elizabeth M.Z. (Betsy) Farmer, “but it feels like a school that likes one another. It’s a collegial school … and that’s not something that’s to be taken lightly.”
Farmer arrived Aug. 1 from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work in Richmond, where she was professor and associate dean for research — an office she founded and managed. There, she created several cross-disciplinary community engagement projects, such as the Adopt-A-Classroom program for a local elementary school.
Previously, Farmer was on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Penn State University and Duke University in North Carolina, where she earned her Ph.D. in sociology. Since 2011, she has been co-editor of the “Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.”
Before beginning her academic career, she worked as a treatment foster parent, respite care provider and group home parent, which engendered her research interest in improving treatment and care for youth with mental health problems, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The resulting model of treatment foster care is in use in more than 20 states today.
As hammers sounded from the ceiling above her 21st floor Cathedral of Learning office — floors 21 and 22 are being completely renovated for the School of Social Work — Farmer spoke about her Pitt connections and her plans.
What are your goals for your first semester?
Really to get to know the school, our community partners, all of the people around the University that the school is and should be connected with, and really getting myself up to speed with everything that is happening here. I think we have some opportunities to improve the ways we work together … and really figuring out how we position the school so it can be successful.
Why did you want to come to Pitt?
The school’s reputation in the field: It is a long-standing leader in social work, and so I really like everything it is doing in social engagement, (including) the University’s commitment to social engagement centers and the way the University is understanding community engagement and the commitment being made to that across the whole University. The things the school focuses on are a good fit with what I do, (such as) child welfare issues. I really value this being a place where colleagues are focusing on those types of issues. It’s a school that does great things and I thought it would really be fun to be here and be a part of that.
What are you first impressions of Pitt, and of your school in particular?
How incredibly welcoming everyone has been. It has been a very supportive environment, at all levels within the University. I was struck when I was first exploring Pitt with how productive the school is. As an outsider, I thought there was a much larger faculty than there is here. People are just incredibly productive. It feels like a very coherent University, like all of the parts work together, and it’s doing a lot of really groundbreaking work and I was really impressed with the interdisciplinary collaborations that are happening here.
And what are you first impressions of Pittsburgh?
My mother’s family is actually from southwestern Pennsylvania, so I have a lifetime connection to this area. My grandfather graduated from Pitt in 1927, so I’ve always known of Pitt. But when I was a kid, Pittsburgh was not very desirable, so we would come in for a ballgame and leave quickly. When I came back, I was struck by the revitalization of Pittsburgh. It’s the cool little neighborhoods and restaurants. I love the river trail and the stairs on the South Side that take me from bottom to top. … I also like the variety of neighborhoods and how Pitt is involved with them.
What strengths and weaknesses do you see in your school?
The strengths are: We have a wonderful faculty, a very productive faculty. We have a national reputation as experts in a number of areas. We attract strong students and have really strong education programs at all levels. I also like how the school is integrated into the broader University. Everyone here and in the broader University is making me understand how central the school is seen within the University.
Our weaknesses are that we need to grow — we have a relatively small faculty for the number of students we have and for the level of productivity of our research. And I think we’re facing the challenges that higher academia is facing. It’s becoming more and more challenging to recruit students. We are entering a period of fewer college-age youth, and we’re going to have to keep ourselves nimble to make sure we keep up with the 21st century.