KU’s dean of social welfare resigns, citing financial concerns and student unrest

Paul Smokowski became dean of the Kansas University School of Social Welfare on July 1, 2015.

The dean of Kansas University’s School of Social Welfare submitted his resignation Wednesday, after less than a year on the job, citing “daunting” challenges at the school.

Paul Smokowski said key factors included dwindling financial resources dating to the previous administration, his desire to maintain the “high level of research productivity” he came to KU with, and — the factor that’s been most visible on campus and social media recently — student diversity protests that targeted him personally.

Paul Smokowski

He called those “obstacles to moving the school forward.”

Smokowski said, in a letter addressed to the School of Social Welfare community, that during his brief tenure at KU, he tried to contribute to the well-being of the school by identifying and dealing immediately with “areas of concern that can no longer be left unaddressed” but at times fell short.

“It is clear that the best way for me to contribute to the future health of the university is to refocus my energies on building our federal research portfolio,” he wrote.

Smokowski said the decision to resign was his alone.

On July 1, he will officially step down from the dean’s role and return to the KU faculty as a full professor, he said.

In the meantime, he will step aside from his typical dean duties to focus on special research initiatives in studying child and family resilience, he said.

Stephen Kapp, social welfare professor and associate dean of academic programs, has been appointed acting dean for the remainder of the academic year, acting KU Provost Sara Rosen told the Journal-World by email Wednesday night.

“Paul Smokowski requested to be relieved of his administrative duties effective immediately so that he can focus on his research,” Rosen said. “I appreciate Dean Smokowski’s leadership and look forward to his relaunch of his productive research program.”

Smokowski came to KU in July from Arizona State University, where he served as Distinguished Foundation Professor in Child and Adolescent Resilience. Before that, he spent 16 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he and his wife, Martica Bacallao, were both research professors. Bacallao also joined KU’s social welfare faculty last year.

The School of Social Welfare, like other KU units, has faced budget pinches because of state funding cuts, Smokowski said. In addition, more social welfare programs popping up — including online — have created competition that makes it difficult for KU’s school to increase enrollment.

The school lists 30 faculty members. Smokowski said he chose not to do a national hiring search for more this year because of budget concerns.

“Our enrollment was very stable,” Smokowski said. “But with increasing competition it isn’t mushrooming in growth as much as previous times.”

In recent months, a student group calling itself the Social Welfare Student Activist Committee has protested, generally citing “inequities” within the school affecting students of color.

In recent weeks the group demanded Smokowski’s resignation, and on Wednesday — along with members of another group of mostly black students calling itself Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk — staged a protest on Wescoe Beach followed by a “study-in” at Twente Hall, home of the School of Social Welfare.

Regarding diversity, the school has initiated a number of measures since KU’s town hall forum on race in November, which are outlined on the school’s website.

One was creating the Toni Johnson Office on Race and Social Justice, in honor of the recently deceased social welfare professor. Other steps included faculty participating in “micro-aggression” training and forming several task forces to explore diversity, inclusion, mental health resources and social justice projects.

Smokowski said the school had no official complaints of racism during his tenure. He said he agreed with students who said the school should be inclusive and that any incidents of racism or discrimination should be investigated.

“We had done a number of things to work on that in the school,” he said. “This is where I felt a point of divergence with the students; I found the school to be a place that was working on social justice issues deeply every day, it’s ingrained in our curriculum … so it was a bit ironic that we were targeted for these protests, but we were.”

Smokowski said, with 20 years of investment in social welfare work, the student protests were not a major part of his decision.

“But at the same time since it was targeted on me specifically, on me personally, I believe that me stepping aside may help the school move forward on that particular issue,” he added.