Labor Studies at IUSSW: Did Dean Patchner Steal My Idea?

In 2004, I enrolled jointly in master’s degree programs in social work and parks & recreation at the University of Missouri – Columbia.  The following year, I continued those studies by commencing pursuit of a double PhD major, in social work and leisure behavior (within the parks & rec department), at Indiana University (IU).

I did the leisure behavior coursework first.  Thus prepared, upon arriving at IU’s school of social work (SSW) in fall 2007, I sought permission from Hea-Won Kim, one of my professors, to study the effects of individuals’ occupational time allocation decisions.  She doubted that this topic had relevance to social work.  Given the account provided elsewhere in this blog, it may not be too surprising that, by contrast, Hea-Won saw no irrelevance, for a profession oriented toward helping people in need, in a Chinese PhD classmate’s study of the adaptation of elite Chinese PhD students to life in American universities.

In Hea-Won’s defense, occupational social work has long been a backwater, when compared to much more frequently discussed areas of social work, such as mental health and services to children and families.  Social workers do not seem commonly aware that the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers cites unemployment, an occupationally oriented form of need, as a kind of social injustice.

Given that tendency toward ignorance where labor studies are concerned, it seems somewhat remarkable that IUSSW would immediately vault itself into the world of occupational social work – such that, at this writing, IU’s labor studies program dominates in a generic search for social work and labor studies, eclipsing the likes of Washington University.

The SSW achieved that presence in occupational social work by absorbing wholesale the university’s labor studies program.  Again, my view was that social work and labor studies should be together; but in practice they are generally not, and that was certainly not what I was getting from professors like Hea-Won.  So how was it decided that labor studies, located predominantly on the Bloomington campus, should be merged into the SSW in Indianapolis, instead of being joined with any of several relevant and established programs in Bloomington (e.g., sociology)?

Presumably someone proposed the idea to someone else.  What would their presentation have said?  One possibility is that it would have drawn on the paper that I had to write for Hea-Won in January 2008 – an extra paper that none of my classmates had to write, to justify my choice of topic to her satisfaction – on this question:  “Is Apprenticeship an Appropriate Topic of Study for Social Workers?”  That paper pointed at the University of Michigan SSW – reportedly beloved in faculty hiring circles at IUSSW – as the seat of a joint PhD program in social work and economics.  The paper suggested that, if apprenticeship were as common as elementary school in the United States, there would likely be a subfield of apprenticeship social work, just as there is a subfield of school social work.  The paper pointed out that social work training itself entails multiple quasi-apprenticeships, in its mandatory field education component.  For these and other reasons, the paper contended, “[S]ocial workers have powerful reasons to ask questions and learn about apprenticeship.”

The apprenticeship paper contained the seeds of my presentation in IUSSW’s spring symposium in April 2008, several months later.  Meanwhile, I was also working on a 73-page paper for Bob Bennett’s S740 course, assigned as a dry run for IUSSW’s grotesque qualifying paper requirementThis paper, submitted April 18, 2008, was titled, “The Employment Transition Model [ETM]:  Social Work Best Practices for the Employment Problem.”  It discussed employment in the context of the NASW’s Code, and presented the ETM as a response.  A representative quote from the abstract:  “The central problem of employment is its tendency to prioritize goals other than the human well-being that lies at the core of social work ethics.”

Now, did Dean Michael A. Patchner get copies of my papers and trot them off immediately to IU’s chancellor?  We won’t know.  His own vitae speaks of casework in mental health and substance abuse, but not of any experience in employment or labor.  Nor, as far as I could tell, was anyone on the SSW’s faculty doing much work in areas related to labor studies.  One might expect that a student with long-term interests in this area – starting with “A Theory of Labor Peace,” my senior thesis at Columbia College in 1979 – would have been a welcome addition at that time of transition.  I could have become a part of a proof of concept — an illustration that labor studies should indeed be linked to IUSSW.  It seems odd that Patchner would instead demonstrate an eagerness to get rid of me in fall 2008 – unless, possibly, it would have been inconvenient to have me hanging around and claiming credit for the labor studies merger idea.

It is certainly possible that my sense of the chronology may be mistaken.  I was not privy to administrative discussions; I cannot say how long this merger may have been kicking around. But I hope it does not seem too strange, under the circumstances, that I would ask whether my dean jettisoned me in order to prevent me from obscuring his glory as a sudden convert to, and promoter of, the idea of mixing social work and labor studies.

What brings such a possibility to mind?  Well, my own experience, of course:  Patchner’s eagerness to terminate my social work career has never been explained.  But beyond that, there is the trajectory of Patchner’s own career.  When he arrived at IUSSW in 2000, IUSSW ranked 54th.  By 2008, IUSSW ranked 26th.  One might assume that Patchner was brought in to make a material difference in IUSSW’s standing; he seemed to do that; and then things stagnated.  In 2012, IUSSW was still at 26th.

That trajectory raises a couple of thoughts.  One is that Patchner may have felt he had to come up with ways to demonstrate continued initiative.  Another is that, upon closer inspection, it becomes doubtful that the rise from 54th to 26th is primarily due to Patchner’s efforts.  Consider:  by 2004, IUSSW had already risen to 33rd.  That is, from the U.S. News perspective, IUSSW experienced significant improvement between approximately 1999 and 2003, after allowing for data collection and reporting time lags.  That improvement appears likely to derive from work done before Patchner arrived:  there were apparently a number of key initiatives in the late 1990s.  For example, IUSSW’s PhD program was inaugurated circa 1995, and the school’s in-house journal, Advances in Social Work, published its first issue in May 2000, with a message from Interim Dean Sheldon Siegel.

If anything, those sorts of initiatives seem to have faltered under Patchner’s stewardship.  In other posts, this blog explores the decay in the PhD program.  Regarding the journal, consider the situation when I arrived in 2007.  At that point, the journal was groaning under the editorial tenure of James G. Daley, with his eye for detail.


For instance, one journal issue (vol. 8, no. 1) contained no less than four pieces authored by Daley or co-authored with his students.  Some of these drew on a prior piece (Daley, 2006, p. 2), which itself began with the following illogic:

Payne (1997) believes that theory is invaluable but, as theory is deeply intertwined with its social construction, there is “no agreement about what ‘theory’ or social work practice ‘theory’ is” . . . . Regardless of the ongoing debate about whether to value theory or not, one could easily assert that theory is important to knowledge development. . . . Several authors have discussed the definition of theory. . . . Each author seems to be reinforcing our belief that theories aim to explain social phenomena in a clear and concise way.

In those words, Daley would have us believe the following:  Payne thought that theory was invaluable without being quite sure what theory is; the possibility that theory has no value is easily countered by an assertion that theory does have value (but see e.g., Rapaport, 2001, p. 147); and those who have tried to define theory have concluded essentially that theory aims to explain social phenomena clearly and concisely – that is, their scholarly efforts have produced a definition inferior to that which one might find in, for example, The Free Dictionary.

This illustrative bit of lame cognition cannot convey the stunning incoherence encountered by Daley’s students, but it does support an extension of Holden et al. (2007, p. 69, point 34):  from the advice that “Editors should not abuse their position to publish lengthy editorials in each issue,” one might infer that competent editors will be even less inclined to pad issues with their own full-length articles spouting drivel, lest serious readers abandon their journals.

Fortunately for IUSSW’s journal, Daley departed from the editorship, after strutting and fretting his year upon that stage, and has been less frequently heard there since. The larger problem nonetheless sketched here is that Patchner needed to rein in numerous faculty members similarly inclined to inflict themselves upon students and the profession unhelpfully, and he did not rise to that challenge.  Multiple posts in this blog – for example, the one on remarkable faculty behavior – demonstrate just how far off the rails such individuals could go and have gone during these years.

It is not obvious, in other words, that Patchner inaugurated a new and better era for the SSW.  To the contrary, he seems to have presided over something of a circus.  He may have gained a bit of traction via skillful manipulations selected with an eye toward the U.S. News methodology.  But it would not be immediately obvious that his prior experience as a dean at West Virginia School of Social Work (U.S. News rank:  82), and a few years as an assistant dean at the University of Pittsburgh, would qualify him for the big time, with a quarter-million-dollar salary continuing over a long tenure.  (For purposes of comparison, Stoesz et al. (2010, p. 96) report a far lower mean salary nationwide ($158,155) for deans and directors heading public university SSWs with PhD programs.)


It seems – my own experience with him would certainly suggest – that Patchner was out of his league.  He did have some relevant abilities, and was no doubt politically astute, in the sense of keeping his job despite reported intrigues against him among female faculty.  The question here is whether he earned that high salary by bringing, to the SSW, the kind of dynamic leadership that would position it as a contender in the top tier of American SSWs.  For those who have met him, “dynamic” is perhaps not the first word that springs to mind.

So I find myself wondering whether Dean Patchner would be in the habit of appropriating ideas and initiatives suggested by others, in order to portray himself as something of a visionary.  It happens all the time in graduate school, some may point out.  My present impression is that Patchner absorbed labor studies with the aid of ideas that I brought with me, that nobody in the SSW seemed to be discussing before I got there.  But perhaps there is some other explanation for this remarkable coincidence.  As always, I welcome clarification on such matters.


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