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Students express frustration over the removal of Graduate College of Social Work dean

The students, most wearing red in solidarity, gathered at the GCSW building before the protest and briefly went over plans before marching as a unified mass into Farish Hall. | Malachi Key/The Cougar

Students at the Graduate College of Social Work gathered with supporters last week to protest the removal of the college’s dean last month. 

The students, most wearing red in solidarity, gathered at the GCSW building and marched to Farish Hall in solidarity with Alan Dettlaff, the college’s ousted dean. As supportive faculty held the doors for them, they quietly filed in and took their seats.

Robert McPherson, UH’s interim provost, stepped up to the podium and apologized for canceling the previously scheduled meeting. The mass of students sat attentively and listened as he explained the process of the dean’s removal.

“The decision to ask him to step down was not reached lightly,” said McPherson. “There was information that came to light, and it reached a point where I had serious concerns about the future of the college, and I made a decision to ask him to step down.”

As McPherson explained that Dettlaff had refused to step down and was demoted to faculty, various students interjected. Several complained that the Provost had been unresponsive to their emails and felt like they were being ignored.

“You have been acting as if you were our interim dean, but in reality, we have not had an interim dean,” said social work graduate student Violet Peterson.

Other students demanded the right to participate in the process of selecting a new dean. As McPherson asked if the students had anyone in mind, one interjected to suggest restoring Dettlaff, to which McPherson noted the irregularity of their request.

“You’re asking for something that has never existed when you suggest interviewing a new dean candidate as students,” McPherson said. “We don’t have the time or capacity to incorporate all the student voices in the process.”

Some students expressed concern that Dettlaff was removed for his commitment to radical ideas like prison abolition. They said they were afraid that his successor would not share the same commitment to those ideas. 

“If the concern is controversy, will the administration choose a less controversial candidate?” social work graduate student Khadesia Nedd asked. “Will the candidate still be aligned with the goal of abolition?”

McPherson denied that Dettlaff’s removal was due to his ideology, instead alleging that Dettlaff was involved in significant conflict amongst faculty that threatened the stability of the GCSW.

He noted the multiple perspectives embraced throughout the college but said that all of that was possible only with continued funding from the state. 

“You have your futures, your money and the state’s money at play,” McPherson said. “I don’t care if the next dean is an abolitionist social worker. The governor doesn’t care, and the president doesn’t care.”

McPherson said the GCSW was searching for a new dean, but an interim dean could be put in place for up to a year. He stated that a lengthy process was needed to find a candidate aligned with the University’s values.

Several students asked for more clarification, and some demanded that they be able to have input in the process of choosing a new dean.

“At UH, we don’t follow the precedent; we set it,” said world cultures and political science senior Lauren Morton. “It’s not that hard to ask for social work students to be included in the process.”

McPherson agreed to allow one nominated student to help with the selection process. He said he would be happy to help arrange a meeting with President Renu Khator if students had further questions. 

As discussions died down, one student asked for the provost to remain open for continued conversation, and another delivered a final plea for him to understand students’ perspectives.

“I am low income, and many of these students come from the same background,” said psychology senior Melissa Martinez. “I want you to understand the weights we carry and say that you will continue to invest in these students’ goals and their mission.”

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