1908 - 2008

We celebrate 1908 as the birth of SSA, then known as the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, but its beginnings trace back more than a decade earlier to the Chicago Commons. Founded by minister and social work educator Graham Taylor, the settlement house began offering social work lectures through its School of Social Economics in 1894. Among those who taught at the School were Jane Addams, social reformer; John Dewey, educator; and Charles Henderson, social reform and sociology. 

Taylor's aspirations to develop the lectures into a full training program dovetailed with President William Rainey Harper's visions for the growing University of Chicago. In 1903, the two created the Social Science Center for Practical Training in Philanthropy and Social Work.

In 1904, the Center became the first year-long social work educational program in the nation. An official part of the University, it was renamed the Institute of Social Science and Arts: Training for Philanthropic and Social Work. However, President Harper withdrew financial support for the Institute in late 1905, and its operations were once again assumed by Chicago Commons.

Full Circle

Soon the growing program demanded greater financial support and corporate independence from Chicago Commons in order to secure the needed funding. On October 1, 1908, with Taylor as its first president, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy opened its doors. Julia Lathrop served as vice-president and Jane Addams, Anita McCormick Blair, and Julius Rosenwald were among its trustees. These board members would play pivotal roles in bringing the School back to the University in 1920.

"...only in a university, and only in a great university, could a school of social work get the educational facilities that advanced professional students must have if they were to become the efficient public servants of democracy." -Edith Abbott

Through the decades, SSA has been shaped not only by the vision and dedication of its leaders, but also by their responses to shifting political and economic tides. Across its first century, however, the commitment to the Chicago tradition of social work education – the emphases on social research and on applying the insights of social science to solving human problems - has remained constant.

The First Decade: A Bold Experiment 

From its inception, SSA's insistence on a solid foundation in social science and social research distinguished it from other early schools of social work. In its first decade, The Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy faculty and students were investigating such issues as juvenile delinquency, truancy, vocational training, and housing in the rapidly growing city. The merger with the University of Chicago gave the students even greater access to the social sciences, early (and continuing) strengths of the University. SSA expanded its instructional space, holding classes and lectures at the University of Chicago's Cobb Hall.

The Social Service Review was founded in 1927 with the aim of opening "scientific discussions of problems arising in connection with the various aspects of social work." Like SSA itself, the Social Service Review has not only reflected the social welfare field, but helped to shape it. It remains the premier journal in its field.

Determined to make SSA the premier institution in the field, Edith Abbott recognized the need to temper her inclination toward a strictly theoretical orientation with attention to casework and practical training. By 1929, SSA was teaching courses in community organization, medical and school social work, and was one of the few schools offering courses in psychiatric social work.

The Decade of Public Emphasis 

"The best school there is." -Robert Maynard Hutchins's evaluation of SSA in his 1934-1935 presidential report.

The 1930s brought the challenges of the Great Depression while elevating social work as a profession and lifting SSA to national prominence. During this period, SSA was deeply involved with national policy, helping to erect the scaffolding for the American welfare system. For example, SSA research on mothers and children laid the foundation for the child-related provisions of the nation's Social
Security System.

A New Focus

Succeeding Edith Abbott as dean in 1942, Helen Wright (1942-56) faced demands imposed by shifts in national focus and social emphasis, including the uncertainty of world war. As social workers found their clients seeking personal guidance more than just the provision of basic needs, SSA energies turned to issues in the social work profession itself. Such faculty members as Charlotte Towle and Helen Harris Perlman applied the insights of ego psychology to casework, and developed the generic casework curriculum, which became a model for social work education.

Upheaval and Expansion 

Ushering SSA into its second half century, Dean Alton Linford (1956-69) was tasked with addressing the controversies and challenges of the tumultuous 1960s. Linford's vision, leadership, and a welcome influx of new funds allowed him to achieve many of his primary objectives for the School, including the addition of a group work sequence to the curriculum, increased enrollment, and a new, larger location for the School. On November 3, 1965, SSA's new home, designed by architectural iconoclast Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was dedicated.

Navigating Rough Waters

As the mid 1970s approached, rising inflation and a slowing economy contributed to a vicious cycle of shrinking support for federal grants, resulting in diminished student aid, leading to dwindling enrollments. Social work schools across the nation were prompted to reevaluate educational programs and learning objectives.

Deans Harold Richman (1969-78) and Margaret Rosenheim (1978-83) not only deftly guided the School through this difficult period, but also strengthened the School by enhancing the curriculum, increasing and diversifying the School's financial base, and attracting faculty from other disciplines.

Looking Forward

Dean Neil Guterman notes, "We're in the midst of an unmistakable shift in the profession, where we are beginning to work more proactively—or further 'upstream' if you will—to go after the causes of social problems, thereby preventing a downward cascade into more intractable and costly social consequences. SSA will deepen the pivotal role it already plays in marshaling this historic shift forward by elevating the eminence and social impact of SSA’s scholarship and education, strengthening SSA’s distinctive interdisciplinary approach to addressing society’s most challenging social problems, and by deepening SSA’s outward engagement both locally and in the world to more tangibly realize our impact in the field."