He says his legacy will be that he built a door.
Richard Gelles, outgoing dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, did in fact advocate for the construction of a new entrance to the school. But after 13 years as dean, his contributions to SP2 have truly opened the door to a new era in the school’s history.
“The school is in a much better shape today than when he took it over,” said Ram Cnaan, a professor at the graduate school since 1986. “Academically, student-wise, budget-wise — on all fronts, much better.”
When Gelles became interim dean in 2001, University administrators were questioning the viability of the school, he said. SP2 was overspending its financial aid budget and struggling in the face of fluctuating numbers of applications from year to year. These fluctuations could make a difference of $1.2 million in tuition money coming — or failing to come — to the school each year.
“You couldn’t plan, you couldn’t do anything. You were paralyzed,” Gelles said. “You couldn’t hire new faculty because you didn’t know whether you could afford them. You didn’t know what to set for your financial aid budget because you didn’t know what you could afford.”
When then-Penn President Judith Rodin informed Gelles that she and a committee analyzing Penn’s future were considering closing the school or merging it with a different part of Penn, he told her with confidence, “It can be made viable with some very simple steps.”
A path to viability
During Penn’s Making History Campaign, Gelles spearheaded fundraising efforts that raised $33.6 million for SP2 between 2005 and 2012 — a substantial achievement considering that the school had only raised $16 million total in its previous 97 years of existence.
But in reinvigorating SP2, Gelles did not rely only on donations. He felt he had to make systematic improvements that would guarantee consistent income for the school.
His first goal when appointed dean in 2003 was to create new degree programs that would attract a wider range of students.
At first, Gelles looked at the work of the 19 faculty members at the school and realized that most of them specialized in social policy — areas such as welfare reform and mental health policy — as opposed to social work. However, at the time, SP2 — then called the School of Social Work — only offered a Master’s in Social Work and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare.
“Light bulb number one: What if we offer a social policy degree?” said Gelles, recalling his thought process. “I said, ‘We’re not taking advantage of what our faculty have, we’re not taking advantage of what their strengths are.’”
One of his first ideas was to implement a Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership program at Penn’s School of Social Work, following his negative experience on the board of a nonprofit in Philadelphia that he felt was organized poorly.
The program launched in 2005, and one year later the school began offering a Master of Science in Social Policy as well.
“We expanded the portfolio of degree options, which has benefited the school because it brought in a broader set of students,” SP2 professor Dennis Culhane said. “This was a very critical period to transition to a multiple degree school, and Dean Gelles provided excellent leadership during that process.”
Putting the ‘2’ in SP2
While discussions for the master’s in nonprofit leadership were still underway in 2004, Gelles felt it was imperative to change the school’s name from the School of Social Work to the School of Social Policy & Practice.
“[The need for a new name] was confirmed when the program was debated by the University’s Academic Policy Committee,” Gelles said. “In the course of that discussion, one of the members of the committee said, ‘Well this is a very interesting degree program. What’s it doing in a school of social work?’”
Gelles said social work is associated with a “strong brand recognition” — people often associate it with low salaries, working with the poor and the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. Although he said these “brand” perceptions are often incorrect, having “social work” in the title of the school was limiting the types of applicants it received.
“The single most controversial, difficult part of being the dean here was to change the name of the school and not have ‘social work’ in it in any clear fashion,” Gelles said. “Professional social workers in and outside of the school felt that to change the name and not keep ‘social work’ in it was disrespectful to the profession.”
Culhane, who was a professor at the school throughout Gelles’ term as dean, said changing the school’s name was a “difficult process to navigate” because “there was a concern that the identity of the school was changing.”
Nevertheless, Culhane feels Gelles succeeded in maintaining the school’s central identity despite the change.
“I think it’s important that we continue to always reassess who we are and try to preserve that identity going forward,” Culhane said. “And I do believe the values of the school as they were before remain at the core of the school.”
Although the Master’s in Social Work remains the largest degree program at SP2 — with about 250 more students than any other program — Gelles said the new Nonprofit Leadership and Master’s in Social Policy programs provide a buffer from the fluctuations in MSW applications that previously debilitated the school.
Enrollment in the new programs has consistently increased since their introduction in 2005 and 2006. Currently, the nonprofit leadership program hosts 43 students, while the social policy degree has 34.
At the time when the nonprofit leadership program was created, it was the only freestanding degree program of its kind. After it proved successful, Harvard and La Salle universities both adopted similar programs.
In 2007, the school added one more degree — the Doctorate in Clinical Social Work, which was also the first of its kind in the country. Gelles expected the degree to attract about five students each year, but instead it accrued 18 students in its first year — and that was without offering financial aid. Currently, the program boasts 38 students.
Following Penn’s adoption of the program, Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee created similar programs.
Gelles said the idea for the program was not his own, however.
“It came out of a staff meeting where two of the associate deans walked in with this idea, and I thought, ‘Well, what the heck, let’s give it a shot,’” he said.
Cnaan praised Gelles’ willingness to support potentially risky ideas.
“He was what I would call an ‘enabling dean’ — in the sense that if you had an idea, you needed seed money for something, you wanted to start a program ... his approach was ‘why not?’” Cnaan said. “Many people in his position would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to take a risk.’”
Students also valued Gelles’ leadership style, including Britney Thornton, a second-year MSW student and president of the SP2 student body.
“He’s been really good about helping students navigate SP2 as an institution,” Thornton said. “If students have any complaints, he helps them with the correct protocol to advocate for ourselves and actually get things addressed.”
Thornton also appreciated Gelles’ laid-back personality and Boston accent. His office is filled with Red Sox paraphernalia, and he even owns a bright red “Yankees Hater” hat — a gift from one of his students. Cnaan recalls countless conversations with Gelles, discussing their shared passion for sports, while other professors remember him fondly as well.
“Dean Gelles’ keen observations and dry wit have broken the tedium of many meetings,” Susan Sorenson, a professor at SP2 since 2006, said in an email.
Gelles’ leadership has taken him beyond Penn into the realm of advocacy as well.
In 1997, Gelles published “The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives,” which led him to advocate for change in federal policy. He worked with advocacy groups, United States Senators and members of the House of Representatives to help pass the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which shifted legal priorities from keeping families intact to an increased importance on the safety and well-being of children.
Throughout his years at SP2, Gelles shared his expertise on child welfare with MSW students. Becca Stern, a second-year student who is interested in pursuing a career in child welfare, has taken two courses with Gelles. She praised him both as a teacher and a mentor.
“He’s really shaped the direction that I’m hoping to work in,” Stern said. “He helped me find an internship last summer that was really life changing. ... He introduced me to the organization, he encouraged me to apply and he’s been really supportive.”
Gelles enabled Stern’s internship experience at a law firm in New York that works on foster care reform. But he also helped establish SP2 professor Johanna Greeson with child welfare connections that she felt were crucial to her career. He arranged meetings for her with the deputy commissioners of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, which allowed her to receive critical research grants.
Even before Greeson accepted a position at SP2 in 2012, Gelles told her he would be able to get her access to the local child welfare system.
“He was very clear from the get-go that yes, that would be possible and he would assist. And he’s completely followed through on all of that,” Greeson said. “That is so important — that makes or breaks your career.”
Gelles’ talents at opening doors in the careers of his faculty and students translated to his decision to literally reposition the door of SP2’s Caster Building in 2008, which now opens onto Locust Walk. Since the building’s construction in 1962, the main entrance faced a courtyard isolated from Locust, which he felt posed a visibility problem for the school.
While he jokingly claims this will be his greatest legacy, professors and students believe he has truly opened many doors for SP2, widening its opportunities for the future.
“He financially established our school so that we can be in a good position to grow in the future,” Thornton said. “He really set up the next dean to build on what it was he was able to solidify.”