U of Houston removes social justice–focused dean of social work

Image:
Alan Dettlaff, a Mexican American man with short hair wearing a business suit and tie.

The University of Houston suddenly removed its dean of social work last month. The university has said it did so to better align the Graduate College of Social Work with broader institutional priorities. The former dean, Alan Dettlaff—who is returning to the social work faculty, for now—says his views on racial justice got him fired.

“I’ve said many times, one of the things I’m most proud as dean is that we were focused as a school on racial justice before summer 2020, when a lot of people started to come on board and develop programming and messaging around that—we’ve been focused on that for a long time,” Dettlaff told Inside Higher Ed of the college’s orientation during his seven-year tenure.

Dettlaff did start to focus more on abolition—of the police and of the child welfare system—more in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, however. This, he said, became controversial among the school’s senior faculty, eventually leading to his ouster by an interim provost.

Robert H. McPherson, the interim provost, said in a college memo that “Dettlaff is returning to faculty to continue his own important scholarly work, which focuses on racial disparities, improving outcomes for LGBTQ youth and addressing the unique needs of immigrant families.”

Calling Dettlaff a “well-respected thought leader in his field,” McPherson wrote that he’d initiated the change in leadership to “better align the college with the university’s academic priorities, which include growing research expenditures and elevating the learning experience for all students as we work to realize our vision of becoming a Top 50 public university.”

According to information from the university, Graduate College of Social Work enrollment grew from 405 in 2015 to 544 in 2022. Dettlaff said that research expenditures also grew under his leadership, meaning that other issues are at play—namely his stance on abolition.

In 2020, for instance, in response to conversations about the role of social work in and around traditional policing, Dettlaff co-wrote an open letter to the profession warning against framing social work as a panacea to structural problems within policing systems and society. Criticizing Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers—who previously told The Wall Street Journal that “social workers will play a vital role in helping law enforcement better serve their communities”—Dettlaff said in his open letter that there “appears to be a rush to ally ourselves with a criminal justice system that is known to perpetuate destructive violence and oppression against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.” (McClain did not respond to an interview request.)

Not a Panacea

Social workers “absolutely cannot situate ourselves as the magic ingredient to eradicating racism in law enforcement—an institution directly tied to the legacy of American slavery—if we cannot dismantle racism within our own systems of care,” Dettlaff wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than 1,100 social workers. “Moreover, we have yet to see our social work leaders take a bold stance on police divestment.”

Dettlaff underscored this point in an interview: “I don’t think social workers should be collaborating with police, and I’ve been really vocal about that.”

In addition to speaking out, Dettlaff organized a speaker series and study groups on abolition within his college. In May, the college also adopted seven racial justice principles to guide its work, including that that racial justice is a journey that requires intentionally centering the experiences of people of color, and that “structural, systemic, interpersonal, and internalized racism, colonization and white supremacy create and sustain harm.”

Perhaps most significantly, from a policy perspective, the college stopped placing student interns in law enforcement organizations. Dettlaff said that these types of placements numbered about five out of hundreds at any given time, but that the change was nevertheless significant—and contentious among a small group of professors.

“As a college were trying to work on that, because I really did think it was a misunderstanding of what abolition is about. And I’ve told my faculty on many occasions, ‘You don’t have to be an abolitionist to work here. But I hope that you will try to understand what that is. Because the reality now is we have students that come from across the country to this college of social work specifically because of our focus on abolition,’” he recalled. “Students told me that all the time. So I wanted our faculty to be prepared to have those conversations in class and felt that through more education through conversations, some of the resistance to the topic would go away.”

Yet, in the end, Dettlaff said, “As I understand it, four of my senior faculty members went to the provost with concerns that my abolitionist views were harming the college, harming our relationships in the community.”

None of the college’s four full professors responded to interview requests.

Asked how many of the college’s graduates work in the child welfare system, Dettlaff said the share is relatively low, at about 4 percent in 2021.

Abolition and Social Work

Dettlaff said there’s a consensus within social work that racial disparities exist in the child welfare system and that family separations for poverty-related issues of neglect—which, unlike instances of physical or sexual abuse, make up the majority of system cases—harm children. There’s division, however, as to whether the child welfare system can be reformed or if it needs to be rebuilt into something new and better. Dettlaff, as a child welfare abolitionist, falls into the latter camp. And while abolishing the child welfare system may be more palatable to some than abolishing the police, Dettlaff said that he can’t separate these ideas.

“Nearly 70 percent of children in foster care are in foster care because of poverty-related concerns. Abolition looks like responding to those situations by meeting the direct material needs of families, rather than inflicting an intervention on them that is separation and foster parents,” he said, adding that the state of Texas pays foster parents hundreds of dollars per month to take care of a child.

He continued, “We often talk about carceral logic that undergirds all of these systems, this idea that the system is focused on individual problematized individuals, rather than focused on … these broader societal structures.”

Dettlaff said that he continues to believe that abolition is “something that’s misunderstood by a lot of people, even in social work. There’s not a universal agreement that social workers should be abolitionists, or that social workers should remove ourselves from policing. But I felt that as dean, particularly at a college that was focused on racial justice, that we should really lean into understanding what abolition means, what it looks like, particularly the idea that it’s much more about building new systems and structures to meet people’s needs than it is about the tearing down of existing systems.”

He also said he thought worried that his ouster as a dean would put a chill on racial justice and abolitionist work within academe.

Laura Abrams, professor and director of social welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, with whom Dettlaff co-wrote his 2020 open letter, told Inside Higher Ed that abolition “is a stream of thought and praxis in social work that challenges the status quo of our current array of government-funded social services, often those that partner with carceral systems and the police state.” While abolition is not new to organizing or academe, she said, “it is newer to social work as a growing movement,” and Dettlaff is a “leader in thinking through what abolition means for social work and a new way of envisioning how we want to embody our values of social justice and antiracism.”

Regarding their 2020 letter, Abrams said that both she and Dettlaff believed that social work needed to support the Black Lives Matter movement, “which was calling for defunding the police. With this stance, we raised awareness of calls for abolition within the profession, and we also caused some controversy. I see those debates and discussions as healthy for our field to better understand how we want to situate ourselves in this moment.”

Somewhat similarly, Abrams said the “backlash against child welfare abolition is strong, in part because social workers are highly invested child welfare as a domain of our profession,” and it’s hard for many to “envision a world without government child protection.”

“The arguments are complex,” Abrams said, “but again, I see these as discussions that need to be had in our field.”

While Dettlaff’s removal has come as a “shock” to colleagues, Abrams said, “I don’t think this move will deter people from abolition work. There are numerous new scholars who are abolitionist thinkers, theorists and organizers who are finding their platforms.”

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