August 2012 Features

GSSWSR: Taking the Lead

Darla Coffey embraces advocacy at a national level as president of the Council on Social Work Education.

By Molly Petrilla

Darla Spence Coffey, Ph.D. ‘99, is the new president of the Council on Social Work Education. Photo by Bob Laramie.

One of the more memorable challenges Darla Spence Coffey, Ph.D. ’99, tackled as a clinical social worker arose in her work with the Delaware County Domestic Abuse Project, guiding children who had been affected by domestic violence toward proper counseling services.

“I asked mothers affected by abuse to describe behaviors they had noticed in their children so that we could figure out how to help them,” Coffey recalls. “But they said to me, ‘Tell us how to help them. We’d rather be the ones to help our own children.’” Based on that experience, she went on to create a curriculum for social-work students and practitioners on parenting after domestic violence. The goal was simple, she says: “Figure out a way to empower the parents, if they’re ready—and many of them were.”

In the years since, Coffey’s experience has shifted from practitioner to academic, first as a professor of social work and then as associate provost and dean of graduate studies at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. But her devotion to social work rested on what initially drew her interest: “It was always about standing alongside and advocating for people, but not doing for; really helping people learn the joy of being able to do for themselves and removing obstacles that others had placed in their way.” On July 1, Coffey left academia for an opportunity that would allow her to resume her passion for advocacy—except this time on a national scale. As the new president of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), she now leads the accrediting body of all social-work programs in the country.

“I’m not at all surprised that she has assumed this position that will lead social-work education nationally,” says Cheryl A. Parks, Ph.D. ’97, one of Coffey’s peers at Bryn Mawr and associate dean for research at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work. “Darla knows how to bring people together to act on their commitment to a shared goal.” Darlyne Bailey, dean of Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, says, “Darla is the perfect embodiment of what we want for all of our graduates. This move to leadership requires that someone not only have intellectual acumen, but also a deep understanding of the values of our profession and the ability to pull together seemingly disparate perspectives and approaches.”

Coffey has spent her first few months at CSWE getting to know the “talented, smart, and dedicated staff,” and thinking about priorities such as increasing the visibility of social work and social-work education in the federal arena and developing collaborations that will strengthen the connection between the profession and research and teaching.

Coffey has identified some challenges as well. “There’s increased demand for transparency and accountability in higher education,” she says, “and as the accrediting organization in social-work education, CSWE has to take it seriously and incorporate it into our standards. But, because we engage in a professional peer review accreditation process, we also have to figure out appropriate places to maintain autonomy.”

She’s also concerned with what she calls “pipeline issues,” particularly as they relate to increasing the diversity of students and faculty in social-work education and the alignment between master’s and doctoral programs in the field. “We need to strengthen avenues into the profession at the baccalaureate level,” Coffey says, “as well as find ways to bring more graduate students into the professoriate to prepare the next generation of practitioners.”

Although she is no longer in a university setting, Coffey especially looks forward to working with the faculty volunteers—social-work scholars from around the nation—that serve on CSWE’s commissions and councils.

“I love social work; I love social-work educators,” Coffey says. “They’re such a deeply committed, passionate group of people doing really good things in the world. I’m thrilled to be right there in the middle of it again.”

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