New Social Work Dean Is Expert on Child Welfare


The Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building is home to the UNC School of Social Work. (UNC photo)

UNC has appointed as dean of the School of Social Work a national expert on how services are provided to the most vulnerable children and their families.

Ramona Denby-Brinson

Ramona Denby-Brinson (UNC photo)

Provost Robert Blouin announced the appointment of Ramona Denby-Brinson on Aug. 5 after she was approved for the post by UNC’s Board of Trustees. She began work Aug. 16 as the 13th dean of the century-old school and the first Black woman to hold the post.

Denby-Brinson will lead 134 faculty and staff and more than 300 graduate and doctoral students.

“A dynamic academic leader with more than 25 years of experience in higher education, Denby-Brinson brings a demonstrated commitment to social work values, an impressive research portfolio and an exciting, inclusive vision for the School of Social Work,” Blouin said in a statement announcing the appointment.

Denby-Brinson told the school she was looking forward to “the opportunity to work with other transformational leaders, preeminent scholars, excellent instructors, dedicated and talented staff and forward-thinking students who are changing the practice of social work.”

“Our future is boundless and bright. Learning from our past and leaning into our professional value base, we will transform systems by leading the profession vis-à-vis our research, community engagement and teaching,” she said. “The future requires our profession to lead boldly, collectively and without compromise.”

Focused on the most vulnerable

Denby-Brinson most recently has been a professor, associate dean for academic affairs and graduate studies chair at The Ohio State University College of Social Work, where she has worked since 2019. During her tenure, Ohio State increased enrollment in undergraduate and graduate social work programs by 14 percent, applications to its master of social work program by 40 percent and enrollment for underrepresented minority and first-generation social work students by 22 percent.

Previously she was at Arizona State University as a professor in its School of Social Work and associate dean for research with the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, where she directed a research enterprise averaging $30 million in annual expenditures and oversaw operations of 23 centers and an institute.

Denby-Brinson had been director of social science research and senior resident scholar at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where she worked with the Lincy Institute in exploring how social services are provided to the most vulnerable children and their families, especially those in the child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems. She began her career at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she was an assistant professor and researcher at the first National Institutes of Health-funded social work research center on children’s mental health services.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work from Arizona State in 1989, her master’s from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990 and her doctorate from Ohio State in 1995. She has held social work positions in Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona, and she maintains Licensed Social Worker and Academy of Certified Social Workers credentials. She has been treasurer of the Society for Social Work and Research, president of the National Association of Social Workers Nevada Chapter and a board member for the National Family Preservation Network, among other offices.

Increasing access, supporting success

Denby-Brinson has made access to social work education for diverse students and advancing their success one of her personal missions, Blouin said. In addition to increasing enrollment of underrepresented minority and first-generation students at Ohio State, she also led a redesign of graduate-level education to prepare social workers by using an inclusive, antiracist, social justice-oriented curriculum.

“The path ahead of us energizes me,” Denby-Brinson said. “It is a way forward, a way where diverse people and collective voices are at the center of our innovative programming. I am eager to reaffirm our shared goal to foster social justice, create equitable spaces and enable living conditions where individuals, families, groups and communities thrive.”

Denby-Brinson’s scholarly interests involve policy, programming and treatment issues relevant to children and families, child welfare, children’s mental health and culturally specific service delivery. She was the 2014 recipient of the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award in recognition of her research.

She has published and presented extensively on the need to train child welfare workers to provide a culturally responsive approach when working with families to ensure they receive appropriate services and to help improve outcomes. She authored the book Kinship Care: Increasing Child Well-Being Through Practice, Policy, and Research and has co-authored three additional books, including African American Children and Families in Child Welfare: Cultural Adaptation of Services.

Denby-Brinson has received more than $34 million in research funding from federal and state agencies, foundations and university awards and has applied her research and academic collaborations toward advancing the well-being of larger communities. At UNLV, for example, she convened a 12-member community advisory board — comprising partners from health, education, social science, technology, philanthropy, government and industry — and led it in coordinating university and community efforts to build needed programming, policy and research infrastructure to address major social problems affecting vulnerable populations.

Denby-Brinson succeeds Gary Bowen ’76 (MSW), who joined the faculty in 1985 and has been dean since 2016. He announced at the beginning of the year that he planned to return to his faculty position as a Kenan Distinguished Professor in July.

During Bowen’s tenure, the school increased federal contracts and research funding, recruited the most diverse student body in its history and has been a leader in hiring and retaining a notable and diverse faculty. In 2017, the school was ranked as the fourth-most influential school of social work in the world by the Center for World University Rankings, reflecting the quality of research articles authored by its faculty and published by top-tier academic journals. In 2019, the school advanced from No. 7 to No. 3 in the U.S. News & World Report national ranking of schools of social work, its highest ranking ever.

“Dr. Denby-Brinson is an accomplished scholar, an effective administrator and a highly respected leader in social work,” Bowen said. “I am confident that she will lead the school to even greater heights in its mission to advance equity, transform systems and improve lives.”

“Social work is critical to advancing every aspect of society,” Denby-Brinson said. “The UNC School of Social Work has tremendous capacity and is critical to the advancement of the University’s Carolina Next plan. I look forward to building on the incredible momentum established by Dean Gary Bowen and leveraging his multiple accomplishments into our new, shared goals.”

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