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The first building that housed the Nashville School of Social Work in 1942.

In 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, a bottle of Coca-Cola cost a nickel, and tuition for a quarter of study at UT was $80. That’s also the year UT’s College of Social Work—originally known as the Nashville School of Social Work—opened its doors.

The college will celebrate 75 years this weekend during UT’s Homecoming festivities. Below is a decade-by-decade timeline of the college’s evolution.


In the early 1940s, the United States was entering World War II and young men were leaving their homes in large numbers to serve in the military. There were personnel shortages in social work and social service agencies; more women were entering the workforce than ever before.

In June 1942, a $40,000 grant from the General Education Board, a Rockefeller Foundation, allowed Lora Lee Pederson to find a location, equip it, recruit students, and hire faculty. Three months later, a school of social work opened in a house on 21st Avenue South in Nashville with five full-time faculty and 40 students. It offered only master’s degrees, a practice that would continue until the 1960s. Pederson, a former faculty member at Scarritt College, became the school’s first director.

First class and faculty of the Nashville School of Social Work. Pederson is on the top left.
First class and faculty of the Nashville School of Social Work. Pederson is on the top left.

The first brochure for the school claimed, “At no time in the history of the country has the need for professionally prepared social workers been greater than now.” Pederson continued at the school as director until 1950.


By the 1950s, the school had experienced strong growth but faced financial crisis. Sue Spencer, former executive secretary of the American Association of Schools of Social Work (now the Council on Social Work Education), became director. She had worked with Pederson on the school’s development and understood its importance in the community and the country. Spencer began the process of rounding up support and initiated negotiations with Vanderbilt University, UT Knoxville, and state government in order to rescue the school. She helped to create a vision for the school to become a part of UT. In 1951, the school officially became UT’s School of Social Work.

Sue Spencer and Clyde Linville discussing plans for opening UT School of Social Work in the 1950s.
Sue Spencer and Clyde Linville discussing plans for opening UT School of Social Work in the 1950s.

In 1952, UT’s Board of Trustees adopted a policy allowing the admission of black students to certain degree programs, including social work. In 1953 three full-time African American students enrolled, and in 1955 Lucille Dean Evans became the school’s first African American graduate when she received her master’s degree. The College of Social Work presents an award named in her honor to one student each year.


By the late 1960s the school had campuses in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville, and had begun offering a bachelor’s degree curriculum along with master’s-level studies. In the spring of 1973, Spencer was named dean. By the time she retired in the summer of 1973, plans were in progress to move the dean’s office to Knoxville.

The 1970s

Ben Granger
Ben Granger

The first dean to work in Knoxville was Ben Granger. He led the school in developing a PhD program, which launched in the late 1970s. Several leaders in the college expressed a concern that the practice of social work in the rural environment needed to be studied from an academic perspective. In 1976, the college hosted the first Rural Social Work Conference. In 1979, the college produced a professional journal called Human Services in the Rural Environment. The publication’s purpose was to serve as an information exchange and communication forum among those working in rural service settings by focusing on legislative developments, program models, research and evaluation projects, and innovative efforts to document aspects of rural life.

The 1980s

Lou Beasley
Lou Beasley

During the 1985–86 academic year, the school became the College of Social Work, offering three degrees. Three new associate deans were named—Nellie Tate in Memphis, Lou Beasley in Nashville, and Roger Nooe in Knoxville. Beasley brought particular honor to the college by becoming UT Knoxville’s 1986–87 Macebearer, the campus’s highest faculty honor. She was the first social work faculty member to receive the honor.

In 1988, Eunice Shatz became dean and the college’s fourth leader. She was chosen because of her interest in research and continuing education. During the ’80s and early ’90s, the college developed two centers. One, originally the Office of Continuing Social Work Education, worked to provide continuing education for social workers across the state. That center is now the Social Work Office of Research and Public Service. The second new center, the Children’s Mental Health Research Center, focused on cutting-edge child-related social work research. It is now the Center for Behavioral Health Research.


Karen Sowers
Karen Sowers

In 1992, the college celebrated its 50th anniversary. The faculty of the ’90s included many of the leaders who are still making a difference in the college and community today. Shatz left as dean in 1996, and in 1997 Karen Sowers was named to the position. She recently retired after serving the college for 20 years.


One of the highlights of Sowers’s tenure was the establishment of a new partnership with UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine with the development of the Veterinary Social Work program in 2002. The program was first envisioned by Elizabeth Strand, who was then a PhD student and is now its director.

In 2008, the Nashville branch took leadership in developing one of the college’s most dynamic programs, the online Master of Science in Social Work.


In 2012, the college began offering its online Doctor of Social Work in clinical leadership and practice. This was an important step forward in the college’s efforts to harness the power of communications and technology to educate social workers for the 21st century. The program brought together experienced clinical social workers in online and in-person settings for a three-year program without interrupting students’ work lives. David Patterson is the program’s director.

Doctoral students - class of 2018
Doctoral students – class of 2018

“Since its inception in 1942, the College of Social Work has had an impact on social service agencies across the state of Tennessee,” said David Dupper, interim dean of the college. “At the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the school, the first director of our school called early faculty members and students ‘hardy pioneers.’ Today I want to say that our faculty and our students have become guardians of excellence and defenders of social justice in a world that needs such leaders more than ever. I congratulate every graduate of our college and thank them for the critical and important work that they perform each and every day.”

The college will celebrate its anniversary with a homecoming gala from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, November 3, at Rothchild Catering Center, 8807 Kingston Pike. Dean Emerita Karen Sowers will be honored during the ceremony. Tickets are available for the event by contacting Tony Murchison at or 865-974-2349.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,

Betsy DeGeorge (865-974-8638,