Ramona Denby-Brinson still clearly remembers the day she decided to pursue a career in academia.
She had been working as a medical social worker at an emergency room in Las Vegas and noticed a pattern of patients arriving not because they had a medical emergency, but because they had no other resources and did not know where else to go.
After seeing the same patients continue to reappear — sometimes twice within one shift — she realized she wanted to be able to help fix the root causes of their problems.
"Being a researcher and a teacher, I could be at the beginning (of a person's experiences)," Denby-Brinson said. "And I could be more on the prevention end and help through innovation come up with solutions, rather than being at the end of a person’s journey when all systems have failed them."
Denby-Brinson has carried her mission of bringing attention to vulnerable populations throughout her decades-long career in academia, and now to her role as the new dean of the UNC School of Social Work, which began on Aug. 16.
Denby-Brinson is the 13th dean and first Black woman to lead the school.
She came to UNC from a position as a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Ohio State University College of Social Work. In addition to her career as a practicing social worker, she also previously worked at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Denby-Brinson said she was drawn to UNC’s School of Social Work because of its strong national reputation and faculty doing innovative research. She said she saw the opportunity to use the school’s existing strengths to tackle current social problems — especially the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racial injustice.
Kiva Jordan, who served on the search committee for the new dean and graduated from the Masters of Social Work program in 2021, said the committee was looking for a candidate who had leadership and research experience, would provide a fresh perspective to the school and would emphasize improving diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Personally, I was definitely looking for someone who would give more than just lip service to DEI and have practiced vision and actually done some work in that field before,” Jordan said.
Jordan said when she met Denby-Brinson it was clear she fit the search committee's criteria.
"She never lost sight of believing in the intrinsic value of people," Jordan said. "And using systemic policies, and community advancement and research to bring about positive change especially for minority communities."
Paul Lanier, an associate professor in the School of Social Work who also served on the search committee, agreed that Denby-Brinson will lead the school well.
“She seemed to know our school really well," Lanier said. "Our history, our people, our students and what we’re doing in the school, and was able to really articulate a vision for what we could look like next — that kind of strong vision and bold leadership is what we were looking for."
While the School of Social Work is already at the forefront of innovative research and teaching, Denby-Brinson said there are always opportunities to improve. She said the school will be creating a new strategic plan and thinking about what to focus on moving forward, with an on emphasis on furthering diversity.
“In the future, no matter what the condition, there's certainly not a short supply of social problems, economic problems, environmental problems, and how can we use technology to try to enhance (those solutions)?” she said. “So we're asking ourselves, what is it the future needs from social work and how do we position ourselves to tackle responses to some of those."
Jordan echoed Denby-Brinson’s desire to emphasize diversity and said she hopes the hiring of the new dean will inspire the University as a whole to follow suit.
“My hope is that the University at large will be able to provide support for a first-time woman of color in this position, and that this will be a continued trajectory on how UNC selects and appoints deans in the future,” she said.
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