Summer 2018
Cover Story

The Dean Retires: Larry Davis Helped School Reach New Heights

With the click of a mount, Larry E. Davis signaled the beginning of the end of an era by formally announcing that he would retire as dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work at the end of the 2017–18 academic year.

It was October 16, 2017, and responses to his e-mail began arriving immediately— including job offers from two major universities within 24 hours, which Davis politely declined. He was serious about retirement, as in no teaching, no full-time work, no sitting on boards, more volunteer community service, and more time savoring life with his wife.

“I’ve been cranking at 150 percent for 17 years,” he says, “and now it’s time to step back.”

If the law of the harvest is sure, then the school’s bounteous yield under Davis’ leadership is no surprise. When he arrived at Pitt in July 2001, the school already had a strong reputation, boasting the first community organizing program on any college cam- pus in the nation and the second-largest child welfare program in higher education.

Davis shored up those assets and introduced new initiatives, from founding Bridges magazine to creating a trailblazing study abroad course in Cuba for graduate social work students through the school’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP).

It is CRSP, in fact, that has become Davis’ signature achievement. Now in its 16th year, it is a pioneer and a national rarity in its focus on researching the role of race in social issues and promoting serious dialogue about one of the nation’s most persistent problems.

In a school already known for its emphasis on community service, Davis recognized a need for more emphasis on research. Com- pared to when he arrived, faculty members are now winning more grants, conducting more research, and publishing more articles.

As the school celebrates its centennial this year, it finds itself in an enviable position, having climbed from 14th place into the top 10 among graduate social work programs as ranked by U.S. News & World Report—and doing so with a significantly smaller faculty than those ranked higher.

In enhancing the program and building an impressive team of faculty and staff, Davis at one point was working seven days a week and traveling 100,000 miles a year. He has written dozens of reports and media commentaries, authored scores of articles and papers, de- livered numerous lectures and presentations, penned more than a half a dozen books, and traveled to 60 countries.

He has received prestigious recognition along the way, from Pitt’s Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Award in 2007 to the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Leadership Award in 2011 to the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Michigan School of Social Work in 2014.

Davis credits constant support from faculty, staff, foundations and University leaders for the school’s advance during his tenure.

“I got lucky,” says Davis. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I came to a school that needed the talent I have, and Pitt allowed me to use all of my skills. They backed the Center on Race and Social Problems and never looked back, and they never wavered in their support. It’s one thing to have an idea, and it’s another to have a backer. Pitt backed me all the way.”

Helping to recruit Davis to Pitt, supporting him when he arrived, and watching the school of social work reach new heights were highlights of Mark A. Nordenberg’s 19 years as chancellor.

Davis “really is a person who has made a difference,” says Nordenberg, now chancellor emeritus. “He has been determined in his efforts to elevate our school of social work within the ranks of the top American schools. He was always focused on how to keep the momentum going. He crafted a personal record of excellence, and his determination to do the same thing with the school really was a powerful factor in the enviable record that he forged as dean.”

Davis’ approach to social work in theory and practice is unapologetically informed by race. He is as much a race scholar as a social work scholar, though he describes himself as “a social psychologist for social work.” He suggests that if you delve deeply enough into any intractable social issue, you will find race at its heart.

In the United States, race influences the lives of minorities from childhood, and Davis was no exception. In his semi-autobiographical 2015 book, Why Are They Angry with Us? Essays on Race, Davis discusses his family’s struggle with racism in the South, where his light-skinned mother— the child of a Black woman and a White man—frequently was mistaken as White.

Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Saginaw, Mich., and vacationing in the South in the 1950s, Davis watched racial dynamics play out through the unseasoned eyes of a child. But even at the age of 6 or 7, his mind sought clarity. One morning as he walked to church, a thought occurred to him: If Black people were the slaves of White people, then why were White people angry with Black people? In the book, he writes:

I think it was this question that began my lifelong curiosity about race and how it worked. I wanted to know why things were as they were for me and other black people, but also why race dynamics worked for white people as well as they did. Ultimately, my curiosity resulted in my becoming a scholar of race. It has been my academic and personal focus virtually all of my life.

When Davis was 12, he and a friend were hanging out in their neighborhood when a White police officer drove up and ordered them into his cruiser. Instead of telling them why they were being detained, the officer called the police station about bringing them in. When he was told there was no room, he drove them around for about two hours before finally releasing them.

Nearly 60 years later, sitting in a handsomely appointed corner office high in the Cathedral of Learning, nattily attired and clearly comfortable in his own skin, Davis believes that a different outcome that day could have been disastrous for him.

“I often think about that: What would have happened had I gone to the station and gotten a record? My life could have taken a completely different trajectory.”

After a reflective pause, he continues.

“Over the years, I’ve had some White people say to me, ‘You made it,’ and proceed to question why so many other Black males have not. My answer is, ‘I hit the lottery.’ I’m the only one of my friends who graduated from high school. But why is it that Black people have to be exceptional to live a normal life?”


Dean Larry E. Davis, David Shribman, John Wallace Jr., Don Cravins Jr., Jessica Ruffin, Sammie Dow, and Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson at a CRSP event

Pictured from left to right are Dean Larry E. Davis, David Shribman, John Wallace Jr., Don Cravins Jr., Jessica Ruffin, Sammie Dow, and Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson at the Julian Bond Commemoration in 2015.


By the time Davis graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to study and write about race. As an undergraduate at Delta College in Bay City, Mich., he found the vocabulary that fit his passion: social psychology.

Davis transferred to Michigan State University after two years, receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1968. Then it was on to the University of Michigan later that year to earn a master’s degree in social work.

After his first year of graduate school, Davis decided to participate in the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program for one year in New York, N.Y. Enthralled by the fast- paced, multicultural metropolis, he ended up staying three years.

It was, Davis recollects, one of the most formative experiences of his life. He met and interacted with Black luminaries and civil rights voices such as writer James Baldwin and singer Mahalia Jackson, returning to his studies “more sophisticated and with a more cosmopolitan worldview.”

Back at Michigan, he resumed his studies and graduated in 1973. He earned a second master’s degree in 1975—this one in psychology—and two years later was the first Black student in the school’s history to receive a PhD in social work and psychology.

Doctorate in hand, Davis accepted a job as an assistant professor of social work and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. He was promoted to associate professor in 1983—becoming the first Black faculty member to be granted tenure at Washington University—and then full professor in 1996. Two years later, he was named the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity.

Three years later, Pitt called.

Robert Pack, who at the time was vice provost and chairing Pitt’s search committee for a new School of Social Work dean, says that the committee’s preliminary research put Davis on its radar.

“The more I talked to people,” recalls Pack, “the more his name came up. He had exactly the kind of credentials we needed. He seemed like a perfect fit.”

Davis wasn’t interested. He was happy at Washington University, where he held an endowed professorship at one of the nation’s premier schools of social work.

But Pack persisted, and after about a month Davis agreed to visit.

“I had been to China,” says Davis, “but I had never been to Pittsburgh.”

Nordenberg, who met privately with Davis during the visit, says Davis was “an exceptional candidate in terms of the things he had already accomplished. As we talked, I believed the same levels of professional ambition that fueled his record of individual accomplishment and impact could be applied to the school as dean.”

After a meet-and-greet dinner at the chancellor’s residence, where Davis and key individuals from the University and wider community “connected enthusiastically,” Nordenberg felt that Pitt had found the right candidate.

Davis was offered the position and accepted, leaving behind 24 years at Washington University and coming to Pittsburgh “kicking and screaming,” he says jokingly.

“I never planned to be a dean,” he says. “I am really an academic posing as [a] dean. But I was impressed with their desire to have me although I had never been an administrator. They told me later that I had been in good schools, so they assumed I knew what one looked like. The confidence in me is what sold me the most.”

Pack, now vice provost emeritus, praises the results of what turned out to be a great fit.

“We thought he would do a wonderful job and take the school to the next level, and there’s no question he did. He’s been an exceptional dean, an incredible success. He’s be- come even more a national figure, and as a result, he’s great- ly enhanced the reputation of the school and the reputation of the University.”

Davis counts participating in VISTA and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro among his most monumental decisions. But “coming to Pittsburgh,” he says, “was the best decision I ever made in my life.”

One of the first initiatives Davis began working on was his vision that would materialize the following year as the Center on Race and Social Problems. Based in the social work school and funded by the University—and gaining financial support over the years from outside the University—the center routinely presents lectures and teach-ins that attract students, faculty, community leaders, researchers, and race scholars from across the nation and abroad. The center engages across disciplines and intersects with public health, criminal justice, and numerous other fields. CRSP hosted a national academic conference on race in 2010 that was believed to be the largest such event ever held in Ameri- ca. The center also maintains an online database of hundreds of publications and videos of lectures by race experts and publishes a national academic journal titled Race and Social Problems.

Ralph Bangs, who coedited a book with Davis titled Race and Social Problems: Restructuring Inequality and was CRSP’s associate director until 2014, lauds the nationally re- spected center’s “major impact” on the school, the University, and the region.

“The center benefited the University by giving faculty, staff, and students a place to share and discuss research, publications, and other information on race,” says Bangs, a Pitt study abroad professor currently teaching in Prague, Czech Republic. “In addition, the center provided seed money for new lines of research on race by faculty each year. Further, center projects provided research assistantships to many students. The center benefited the community through its reports on racial conditions, public lectures at the center by national and local race experts, and the online database. Today, the University and local community are much more focused on racial issues and much more willing to discuss race in a rational manner than before Dean Davis came to Pitt.”

Cross-cultural dialogue about race tends to be difficult, particularly in the Pittsburgh region, where racial disparities and tension are relatively high.

Nancy Bolden, a racial justice advocate, routinely attends CRSP events and notes Davis’ positive impact on the discussion. The center, she says, “has been a real addition to the conversation about race. I think it’s institutionalized at this point.”

Part of the reason for CRSP’s success is the tone Davis sets in race dialogue.

“Among the many things that distinguish Larry is his ability to raise difficult issues in ways that invite further conversation, even from people who might be uncomfortable and might turn way if the issues were raised by someone else and in a different fashion,” says Nordenberg. “He has a unique touch in raising difficult issues in ways that has everybody thinking, ‘We ought to be talking about this and we ought to be doing some- thing about it.’”

James Maher, who was provost at the time Davis came to Pitt, says that this ability became evident in the search process,

“Davis’ name kept coming up not just as a very good researcher ... but one who also had a marvelous skill at taking extremely sensitive issues and studying them so carefully that his results couldn’t be assailed. He had one issue after another connected with race. You just look at the issues and you want to run for cover. But his work was so careful, when he produced results, people didn’t know how to attack him.”

Mary McKay, dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, lauded Davis’ im- pact on the race discussion.

“Davis has demonstrated great leadership throughout his career by raising racial equity as a central focus for the social work profession,” she says. “His commitment to addressing how structural racism is embedded in a range of systems has resulted in programs and policies that have improved the lives of children and families of color.”

While building CRSP, Davis acted to reinforce the school’s strengths. Faculty members with wide-ranging specialties were recruited, becoming part of an all-star cast of scholars who moved the school from 40th to fourth place nationally in terms of publications—despite being one of the smallest faculties among the top schools.

The School of Social Work had long enjoyed a reputation for educating students who would become social work practitioners and even activists. At the same time, there was a desire to make the doctoral program more rigorous and to forge ahead as a leader in applied research.

Once on campus, Davis began to lead decisively in that direction, and the results have been impressive, Maher says.

Davis “has built a very strong PhD program, and he has recruited faculty that are doing exciting work in applied social science research in the areas that are of interest to social workers,” he notes. “It’s a marvelous faculty and a marvelous set of graduate students working there. People are being hired by good universities that want good professors. We’re having an impact on the way social work is being done around the country. The Center on Race and Social Problems is, of course, at the very center of that research program. It has attracted to it not just faculty in social work but faculty in other part[s] of [the] University for multidisciplinary discussions about social work problems. That enriches student education. It excites faculty about things they can be working on. It’s influencing the attitude of faculty in other professions toward social problems. And so I think it’s been a marvelous success.”

As the school moved forward, raising the bar for tenure and making research a priority, results began to appear rather quickly. And they attracted people like Shaun M. Eack, who entered the doctoral program in 2004.

“I had people there I wanted to do research with as a graduate student, and I wanted a department that would be supportive of that,” says Eack.

His primary research interest was in mental health, and he hoped to land a job in a school of social work that would sup- port such research and allow him to build a strong social work research portfolio. He found the environment in Davis’ school so favorable that, after graduating, he turned down job offers from Harvard University and Pitt’s psychiatry department to join the social work faculty in 2009.

Today, Eack is the David E. Epperson Professor in the School of Social Work, a professor of psychiatry, and a social worker specializing in research on new treatments for autism and schizophrenia. He teaches doctoral students about research methods and since 2011 has served on the mental health research advisory panel at CRSP. In March, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for the second consecutive year as the first social worker on a selection panel that reviews research proposals for $20 million in U.S. Department of Defense grants.

“If Larry was not at our school, I would not have gone there,” says Eack. “I would not have gone to graduate school there, and I would not have joined the faculty.

“I’m so glad I stayed,” he adds, laughing. “He’s transformed the school. In no other words can you say it. Its not only a great school that strives for social justice and wants to be part of the community but one that wants to and can compete in research.”

It was Davis’ efforts to maintain a strong faculty—and a lot of persistence—that brought Jerry Cochran on board in 2013.

Cochran rejected Davis’ first job offer. Later, when Cochran was doing postdoctoral work in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Davis reached out again. This time, Cochran said yes.

“It was a good fit,” says Cochran, who sits on CRSP’s board and manages health-related research and training collaborations across the campus and city. He compares Davis to a quarterback.

“His leadership style is to hire good people, people you can trust; give them resources and encouragement; and let them go out and do great things,” says Cochran. “He helps to make the connections that you need. He helps you see the vision of what he wants to accomplish in the school. He helps you be successful.”

Cochran recalls there being about a dozen active research grants when he arrived at the school; today, that number has more than tripled. He says that Davis supports faculty efforts to secure research dollars, one of the things that has created “very eager junior faculty.”

“Making that top-10 ranking—I really believe that was Dean Davis,” says Cochran. “He had the vision that he wanted to break that precipice. He built a team and kept beating the drum. I really believe this: We all could have been doing the great work we were doing, and without Dean Davis, nobody would ever have known about it.”

Exceptional organizational leadership and exemplary achievements in research and scholarship are among the key factors evaluated by the Council on Social Work Education in bestowing its Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award. In 2016, the selection panel chose Davis.

“Dean Davis distinguished himself above the others through his scholarship and research on diversity and racism—a very wide reach, with high impact,” says Darla Spence Coffey, the organization’s president and CEO. “One reviewer noted that Dean Davis ‘exemplifies an exceptional and long-term commitment to social work research, peda- gogy, and service that warrants such an honor.’ A nominator said, ‘Dr. Davis is a leading thinker, activist, and academic on the subject of race in America and its role in social justice.’ I couldn’t agree more.”

Coffey has observed, as have many others, Davis’ gift for fostering productive conversations about tough subjects.

“Dean Davis has distinguished himself as a leader in areas that are sometimes uncomfortable for people to enter —even for a profession that ‘prides’ itself on commitments to openness, transparency, and social justice,” she says. “In every circle that I share with Larry, he is willing to ask the hard questions and challenge his peers to examine assumptions, think deeper, and bring our professional values to our actions. He has mentored scores of scholars, particularly scholars of color, and I admire this in him very much.

In January, Davis was honored with the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the international for Social Work and Research, making him the first person to receive career awards from both professional organizations.

“If I had been someplace else,” declares Davis, “I never would have won both of those awards.”

Thanks to opportunity and support at Pitt, he says, he was able to think large and long term and do something he enjoyed so much that he never considered it to be work.

“My goal in life was to address injustice of any sort— foremost, racial injustice of any sort,” he says. “I got paid to do that. It wasn’t heavy. It’s what I wanted to do.”

Davis isn’t the only one who finds his retirement to be a time of reflection. Maher’s thoughts turn to a big difference he has seen Davis make in the Pittsburgh community.

“Often, people like to say the world was ready for something, and if this person didn’t do it, somebody would have. But in a place like Pittsburgh, if you want to make some progress and somebody really good comes to town and throws in his lot with you, and you look back after 17 years and see that a lot of good things came about, you have to give credit to that person. I’m just so glad that Larry Davis came and decided to throw in his lot in Pittsburgh.”

Lynn Videka, dean of the University of Michigan School of Social Work, met Davis in 1989, when he coauthored the book Race, Gender & Class: Guidelines for Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups.

“The original edition of the book was a first for social work—an evidence-based review of the effects of practitioner-client diversities and social work intervention outcomes,” says Videka. “I got to know Larry personally over the years, especially as fellow deans. I have always admired Larry for his commitment to a better humanity; for his dedication to understanding race; and for his commitment to ... deep, social science-based inquiry for the purpose of better contemporary solutions for social inequality in the United States.”

Davis, who turned 72 in May, will give commencement addresses that month at Boston College and Case Western Reserve University—and at Pitt for the School of Social Work.

After that, he will continue as director of CRSP for a year, helping to identify his successor. He departs with many hopes: that CRSP’s success expands along with the school’s; that CRSP remains within the school; that the social work faculty grows; that the school climbs even higher in national rankings; and that the University redoubles efforts to continue its legacy as a leader in diversity hiring, particularly of African Americans as faculty members, department chairs, and administrators.

“I’m a little nostalgic,” Davis acknowledges. “I’ve loved being the dean. It’s been a wonderful run.”

Dean Davis waving his hat as a farewell