How Goutham Menon Impacted Social Work Education: Ideas to Implementation
There are two words at the heart of almost everything Goutham Menon has accomplished in the last five years: accessibility and affordability. As dean of Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work, Menon has worked tirelessly to make a degree in social work attainable for many who previously never considered it.
Menon steps down from his position on July 1, but his leadership will continue to impact the school for years to come. He came to Loyola as the dean of the School of Social Work in 2017, having previously served as director and professor of the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno. But even before being hired at Loyola, he knew how he wanted to reshape the school.
“Goutham spoke a lot about where social work and higher education was going. He is a very future-thinking person,” says Jim Marley, the school’s associate dean throughout Menon’s tenure. “Even before he was hired, he talked about accessibility and affordability.”
Menon pushed the school to think differently from day one. He immediately introduced the idea of creating an Online Bilingual Master’s of Social Work (MSW) program–a first of its kind in the country. The school already had faculty and staff who were bilingual, but looking at the student demographics of the school and the university, Menon felt drastic steps were needed to introduce more diversity.
“One thing that really caught my attention when I looked at the data before coming here was in the School of Social Work, we were about 97 percent white students,” said Menon. “And in Chicago, that is troubling. So, during the course of my interview [at Loyola] and through conversations with faculty, I soon came to realize that was an area we needed to focus on.”
Menon put together a team charged with developing the program from the ground up.
“This was just a monumental step forward,” says Maria Vidal de Haymes, a professor in the school and part of the team that developed the program. “One of the first steps was making sure we had the resources and personnel to develop a high-quality program. Goutham was really committed to not only developing this program, but having it be of the best quality and following the best practices for online education.”
This process came years before the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the world to move classes online. Vidal de Haymes recalled a couple classes in the School of Social Work being taught online prior to the Online Bilingual MSW, but online learning was still a new process for many of the students and teachers to that point.
But the online aspect of the program was essential. Students would hypothetically be able to complete their degree from anywhere in the country. And better yet, those students would likely graduate and stay in their community, rather than moving to Chicago for their studies and staying beyond graduation, as many often do.
Just two years after launching the Online Bilingual MSW program, 24 percent of the student body within the School of Social Work were Latinx students. And race/ethnicity was not the only way the new program diversified the student body.
“Having this be online, having it be bilingual gave it so much more of a reach,” says Vidal de Haymes. “I don’t think we could’ve reached folks who are working full-time. You can’t just pick up and move. I think it’s made it a lot more accessible that way. It’s richer too, because you hear the regional differences. Students from rural areas can interact with those in coastal cities to talk about the differences in the communities they’re working in. You get a really rich discussion. So there’s diversity on a number of different levels.”
Across the country, two other schools of social work have created bilingual MSW programs in Loyola’s wake, and many more are exploring incorporating bilingual education. The ripple effect of Menon’s leadership and vision will continue providing opportunities for aspiring social workers across the country, even if those students don’t enroll at Loyola.
Reducing Credit Hours
In addition to diversifying the student body through the creation of the Online Bilingual MSW, Menon wanted to make education cheaper for social work students. So he made it another day-one project to reduce the number of credit required to achieve a Master’s degree in the School of Social Work.
“It’s crucial that our students not graduate with so much debt after their undergrad and masters that they take 20-25 years to pay back loans,” says Menon. “And when you factor in that a lot of MSW students are older, they’re paying back loans until the time they retire, which is not fair for the type of impactful work they are doing.”
Menon explored ideas like finding more scholarship money through donors and cutting tuition prices per credit hour, but neither was a feasible option.
“The only other alternative was to seriously look at building out a rigorous curriculum with fewer credits,” said Menon. “With fewer credits, students graduate with less debt, and in turn, we get more students.”
The affordability of a social work degree is something Menon feels very strongly about. It’s a common opinion in the field that social workers are underpaid considering the value of the work they do. Lower salaries mean more time in student loan debt and less incentive for students to actually explore a social work degree.
“He raised the issue about revamping the MSW program and asked why it has to be 60 credit hours,” Marley recalls. “He backed it up with a lot of information about student debt and debt-to-earnings ratio and how long it takes students to pay off their debt. It was eye-opening for a lot of faculty who hadn’t thought about that.”
Again, Menon assembled a team of experienced faculty members to rewrite the required curriculum for a BSW/MSW degree. At the time, that degree required 60 credits for graduation.
“When Goutham and I talked about this, we said we’d see where the faculty get and as long as it’s less than 60 we would feel like it’s been successful,” says Marley. “And they got it to 49 and we thought, ‘That’s very good.’ It’s a significant decrease. It shaves probably $12,000–$13,000 off the [cost of a degree].”
Under Menon’s leadership, the 49-credit-hour MSW program became a reality, making a degree in social work at Loyola more affordable and accessible for students.
“For two years, the team worked on reconceptualizing social work in terms of what an early-career professional needs without overspecializing–that’s where the extra credits come in,” says Menon. “And they worked extremely hard. I’m extremely proud of them.”
Just like the Online Bilingual MSW, many colleges and universities are following Loyola’s lead by looking to reduce their own credit requirements for a social work degree. Deans at social work schools across the country reach out to Menon asking for advice how they can make similar changes. He’s also presented at national conferences outlining the steps Loyola took to make an MSW degree more affordable.
Next year is the 125th anniversary of the social work profession. Menon hopes to kick off that celebration by publishing a special issue of the journal Advances in Social Work this summer, titled “Reimagining Social Work and Practice.”
The special issue will include several articles, edited by Menon and three other social work industry leaders, attempting to push the envelope and analyze the social work profession in today’s terms.
“How do we look at the value of a social worker in keeping a family together? In not incarcerating somebody? In keeping kids at home? How much does it save a city or a state if you hire a social worker with a higher salary who stays in the job for a long period of time?” Menon asks. “Lawmakers always want to see how much the state can save. We’re trying to flip that and say if you invest in professionals who can actually hold these families together, help these communities, keep these kids in school, keep folks out of drugs and alcohol…if you really invest in that, the cost associated with not doing something will be far greater in the long run.”
After a six-month sabbatical, Menon will return to Loyola and spend time working with other social work leaders researching that question and many others. He’ll also return to teaching, which he hopes to do at the undergrad level.
“I’ve not taught for a long time, but interacting with students is the piece that most academic leaders miss,” Menon said. “Because that’s where the action is in terms of engaging them and getting them excited about their work. And at the undergraduate level you can have more healthy, honest conversations that can lead to meaningful outcomes.”
Marley will step in as interim dean while the University searches for a permanent replacement. He said the school is in great shape, in large part thanks to Menon’s leadership. U.S. News and World Report recently named the school the 28th best graduate social work program, up from 53rd in 2016.
“When Goutham presented in front of the faculty and staff before he was hired, it was about affordability and accessibility. He never really lost that thread throughout his time here,” Marley says. “And it was not, from my perception, a top down kind of leadership, but more of a leader who had a particular vision around affordability and accessibility and would plant ideas, but then give faculty the space to figure out how to make those ideas whatever we wanted the school to do with them.”
Menon’s constant focus on making social work education more affordable and accessible has defined his tenure as dean of the School of Social Work. It makes sense that even after his time as dean, he would still work to advocate for those that represent the future of his profession.
“It’s been a journey,” says Menon. “There are good days and bad days, but end of the day, it has to help the student, nothing more nothing less.”