The Steve Hicks School of Social Work (SHSSW) is already renowned among the top 10 schools of social work in the country according to U.S. News and World Reports. But we’re not done yet. Dr. Allan Cole, recently appointed to serve as the seventh Dean of the school, has big dreams for the SHSSW, namely, to develop into the nation’s school of social work with the greatest impact on research, education, practice, and effecting change in service to social justice. The Steve Hicks School of Social Work is excited to welcome Dr. Cole as our Dean.
Dean Cole joined the Steve Hicks School eight years ago, when he was appointed to serve as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and, subsequently, served as Senior Associate Dean, a position he held until the summer of 2021, when UT President Jay Hartzell appointed him to serve as Deputy to the President for Societal Challenges and Opportunities.
As a member of President Hartzell’s leadership team, Dean Cole helped the university identify, coordinate, and leverage its resources while forming and strengthening partnerships with stakeholders in the city of Austin with the goal to ameliorate challenges related to some of the most pressing social problems, including affordable housing, homelessness, and challenges to social, emotional, and behavioral health.
Dean Cole is excited about the university striving to help ease housing pressures for students, faculty, and staff alike. For several years, the UT Austin community has experienced how the increased cost of living in Austin impacts every aspect of life, including recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students. “If we provide more supply and ways to help lower the cost of housing for members of our community,” posits Dean Cole, “that’s going to have a positive effect on the larger Austin community as well. As more supply of housing comes online, this eases some of the demand pressures, and pricing follows supply and demand relationships. We’re trying to help the city by helping the campus.”
Continuing with his efforts to mobilize faculty and students to help ameliorate the most pressing social problems of the day, Dean Cole is creating the Center for the Common Good (CCG) in the SHSSW. He envisions building on the work he led in the President’s Office in ways that complement work already being done in the SHS, while also increasing the school’s footprint both on campus and in the broader community. “Importantly, the Center will provide a locus for aligning research, curricula, and community partnerships in new efforts to advance our mission,” says Dean Cole, “which is to “provide national leadership to promote social and economic justice, alleviate critical social problems, and enhance human well-being.”
When asked about his approach to leadership, Dean Cole replied, “The importance of collaboration, trustworthiness, and being steadfast in my commitment to those I’m privileged to lead are three things that really stand out. Leading with vision and by example, demonstrating a desire for collaboration, being supportive, and leading with transparency and accountability are all important to me. Leadership is fundamentally about creating spaces for people to thrive.”
In order for the SHSSW to increase its impact both locally and nationally, Dean Cole has three major priorities for the school. One of these is acquiring resources, including scholarships for students, who are “bright, dedicated, and prepared to change the world for the better,” he says, adding that “students are the reason we do what we do. They are our foremost priority.” Another priority is securing a new building for the Steve Hicks School. “We need better learning and community spaces as well as more adequate office space for faculty and staff,” says Dean Cole. He also plans to focus his energy on garnering resources for faculty and staff development and helping create pathways for their professional growth. He notes, “Together, our faculty and staff are the backbones of our school. They ensure that we deliver on our mission.”
Dean Cole also seeks to grow the SHSSW’s impact through innovation. The new Center for the Common Good will be instrumental in this effort, as will a broader focus on three domains of research and practice interests: health, behavioral health, and disability; poverty and economic insecurity; and human rights and social justice. “Our faculty, who are leading scholars and educators, work in one or more of these domains and make significant contributions to social work, a more just and equitable society, and human flourishing. It is my great joy and a privilege to support their work as Dean,” he says.
Health is an area of personal interest for Dean Cole. Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 48, this experience has shaped him in unique ways: “My experience with Parkinson’s, which began five years ago, not only informs how I see the world but also how I think about leadership, community, equity, access, and opportunities to work in solidarity with others to promote social justice. Parkinson’s has brought incredible people into my life and opportunities to see the world with more textures and colors than I saw previously, and I’m grateful for that. It’s made me a better leader and person.” Seeing the world through new eyes has also led him to share his experiences through memoir, blogging, filmmaking, and poetry alike.
Raising the question of what the new normal will be for the SHSSW in a post-COVID world, Dean Cole said he wants to focus on rebuilding the community in ways that are meaningful and substantial, for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. His leadership is clearly driven by his love and affection for the SHSSW community. Of his Longhorn pride, he states, “I believe that together we can build on real strength that we’ve enjoyed in the past, but also advance our mission in new ways that align with the many needs in our world. There’s never been a more important time for social workers to be doing what we do. It’s humbling and exciting to be a part of that effort in this extraordinary school and university.”