case western reserve university



Addressing the City's Needs

The second half of the 19th century was a period of rapid population growth and industrialization in Northeast Ohio , as immigrants arrived from Europe and the South. By 1900, Cleveland was one of the nation's major urban centers. The economy of the region was booming and jobs were plentiful, but overcrowding, poverty, poor housing, lack of access to health care, child labor, and other issues clouded the horizon. Religious and nonsectarian charity groups tried to help, but their efforts were largely ineffective. There was a need for a program to prepare people to address these ills.

Western Reserve University President Charles Franklin Thwing was already established as a visionary. After launching a number of new graduate and professional schools in the 1890s, he had in 1907 created a Department of Sociology, recruiting as its first leader James E. Cutler, formerly of the University of Michigan. Within two years Cutler was pressing Thwing to found a school of social work. "The removal of the University from Hudson to Cleveland [in 1881] had already determined that its work must be governed by considerations other than those which apply to educational institutions in rural areas," he wrote to Thwing in 1909. "Clearly Western Reserve is now a city university and must accept the responsibilities of such an institution. The policy of the broadest possible direct service to the community should be followed to its logical consequences."

Thwing was sympathetic, but the competition for available resources within the University was fierce. He orchestrated a series of discussions that included community leaders, heads of public service agencies and other area institutions, and clergy, and Western Reserve received a mandate from the community to develop a professional school for "public and social workers." With little funding, but bolstered by training contracts with some service agencies, the School of Applied Social Science opened for classes in fall 1916.

Child worker, c. 1915. From "Franklin Circle," Rachelle DeRubeis, Tim Kassouf, in Crooked River, March 2000.

The University's decision to proceed with the new school has been called an act of faith because it went against the prevailing notion that social work did not meet the criteria for a profession. That verdict had been issued in 1915 by none other than Abraham Flexner, author of a famous 1910 study of medical education (which had identified Western Reserve's medical school as second only to that of Johns Hopkins in quality and effectiveness). In fact, James Cutler had worked hard to ensure that SASS's curriculum would reflect university-level approaches, often to the dissatisfaction of agency directors who preferred that students concentrate on hands-on work. It was the first graduate school of social work to be established within a university.