Longtime faculty members retire after decades of service to the School of Social Work

by | Jul 10, 2024

Shirley Porterfield, Uma Segal and Patricia Rosenthal contributed significantly to the school's growth from a program in the College of Arts and Sciences to a freestanding academic unit.
Social work faculty members

Longtime faculty members (from left) Shirley Porterfield, Uma Segal and Patricia Rosenthal celebrate retiring with colleagues from the UMSL School of Social Work. The three contributed significantly to the school’s growth from a program in the College of Arts and Sciences to a freestanding academic unit. (Photo courtesy of Uma Segal)

When Founders Professor Uma Segal accepted a faculty position with the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1986, the social work program was a modest operation.

“It was very small,” she recalled. “There were five of us.”

It’s grown considerably over the past 38 years, evolving from a program housed in the College of Arts and Sciences to the School of Social Work, a freestanding academic unit that reports directly to the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. The faculty and staff ranks have swelled, as well.

All the while, Segal and fellow longtime social work faculty members Shirley Porterfield and Patricia Rosenthal not only witnessed but played integral roles in that transformation. Now, after more than 80 years of collective service to the School of Social Work, the three are stepping down. Rosenthal and Segal have already retired, in March and June, respectively, while Porterfield will officially retire on Sept. 1.

Their departures mark the start of new chapters in their lives and a new era for social work at UMSL.

“I’m really hopeful with the junior faculty,” Segal said. “They really are energetic; they have a variety of focus areas; they’re very excited about teaching. This is what they prepared for, and I think they’re pretty excited students are learning from them.”

Different paths

Rosenthal said that she probably had the most traditional path to a career in the social work field.

“It sounds like what everybody says, but I was still in high school and I wanted a profession where I could help people,” she said. “I had an aunt who was a school social worker. So, I visited with her, and I thought, ‘OK, I think this is something that I might enjoy doing.’”

After earning a BSW at Gannon University and MSW at Washington University in St. Louis, Rosenthal worked in the field doing child abuse and neglect intervention work. She went on to serve as executive director of Kids in the Middle, a nonprofit child welfare organization, for 10 years.

However, leading a nonprofit and raising a family eventually became incompatible, and Rosenthal left the organization and began teaching as an adjunct instructor at Fontbonne University, St. Louis Community College and at the Social Work Department at UMSL. That led to a full-time teaching position at UMSL in 1998.

“They were looking for a director of field education, and so I was encouraged to apply for that position because I had so much community work and community experience,” Rosenthal said. “It was a really good fit, so that’s how I ended up here.”

In addition to teaching as a clinical professor and coordinating field education, Rosenthal also served as associate dean of the School of Social Work and sat on several non-profit boards of directors and advisory boards.

Initially, Segal didn’t plan to go into social work. She had earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, but she, ironically in retrospect, didn’t want to teach. Like Rosenthal, she also had an aunt in social work, who suggested she pursue it.

Segal took her advice, earning an MSW at the University of Texas at Arlington and then a PhD from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at WUSTL.

“I found a practice position in ECHO, which was a short-term emergency shelter for abused and neglected kids,” she said. “I kept applying to UMSL for a job every year, whether they had an opening or not. Finally, in 1986, they had an opening.”

In nearly four decades at UMSL, Segal rose through the ranks from assistant professor to Curators’ Distinguished Professor. Her scholarship has primarily focused on immigrant and refugee studies, and she has published six books on the subject.

Segal has lent her expertise to professional conferences and research initiatives in countries across the globe, including Brazil, China, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Scotland and Turkey. She has also served as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, whose mission she redirected, making it an international and interdisciplinary journal dealing with all areas of human migration.

Porterfield joked that she was the outlier of the group.

“I’m the convoluted one,” she said with a laugh.

Porterfield earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in agricultural economics at Oregon State University, the University of Arizona and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, respectively. She had begun teaching political science courses at WUSTL when she was invited to teach part time in the Brown School.

Her position there eventually led to a full-time position with UMSL in 2003. In addition to graduate-level courses in program evaluation and health care policy, Porterfield has also held affiliated positions in the public policy administration and economics programs.

Porterfield’s research has focused primarily on health policy as well as work, family and retirement issues associated with disabilities in children and working-age adults, with a particular focus on issues facing low-income families.

A growing impact

Gradually, the trio was joined by more faculty members over the years. Rosenthal traces that growth to a pivotal development 25 years ago.

“The most significant thing that happened was in 1999, we were able to begin a master’s program and went through that whole accreditation process,” she said. “That helped us to grow significantly because we were able to add more faculty. We were able to attract master’s-level students and really expand as a department.”

Lois Pierce – then director and later first dean of the School of Social Work – was instrumental in establishing the graduate program and pushing for further expansion. Segal added that Pierce consistently advocated for greater autonomy on campus, as well.

With the aid of faculty members like Porterfield, Rosenthal and Segal, she succeeded in that endeavor. In 2015, the School of Social Work became a freestanding academic unit, which made it easier to respond to the unique demands of the field. In particular, the school was able to expeditiously update curriculum to satisfy accreditation standards and build a team of academic advisors attuned to the discipline’s distinctive academic and professional challenges.

The milestone also provided increased visibility for the school.

“We were then able to be represented on all the major faculty senate committees,” Rosenthal said. “We were able to be much more involved in the campus and governance and what was happening.”

As the School of Social Work grew, so too did its impact on the community.

Community roots

Porterfield, Rosenthal and Segal are proud of the culture of community engagement that social work faculty and students have cultivated over the past several decades. Segal pointed to faculty members’ applied research in the St. Louis community, while Rosenthal noted that many faculty members sit on community boards and also help social service agencies evaluate the efficacy of their programs.

Segal also successfully lobbied to create a course on human service organizations to give students hands-on experience with local agencies.

“They pair up with an agency and write a grant proposal that they submit for funding at both the graduate level and the undergraduate level,” Segal said. “They do it in groups, so each class might have anywhere between five to seven groups. Most semesters, at least one group gets funding for the agency, which is pretty exciting. Then they leave at least knowing how to do a proposal, which most students or most graduates don’t experience.”

For the past 15 years, UMSL social work students have also been involved with the 100 Neediest Cases, an annual campaign led by the United Way of Greater St. Louis in partnership with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to deliver goods and cash assistance to thousands of local families facing hardships.

“Our students actually review those applications and make allocations,” Rosenthal, who spearheaded the program, said. “So, they’re getting real-world experience as a part of their coursework. They learn about issues they didn’t even know existed in families – how scare resources are. I think it’s been great in terms of the community too, because it’s been a way for the university to give back to the community and to support the United Way.”

Providing those opportunities for students and playing a role in their academic and professional development has been one of the best parts of the job.

Lasting legacy

Porterfield and Rosenthal both fondly recall helping the students who needed extra guidance or allowances, such as the ability to bring children to classes.

“I do often have people come up and say, ‘You know, I know I wouldn’t have finished if it wasn’t for you kind of holding my hand through this process,’” Porterfield said.

Rosenthal said that’s what kept her at UMSL for so long. Segal cited the atmosphere of academic freedom for her long tenure, while Porterfield noted her coworkers made for pretty inspiring company.

“My colleagues are amazing,” Porterfield said. “I mean, Uma has several books and has traveled all over the world. People used to always say, ‘Where’s Uma?’ Because she’d be off in Japan or Vietnam giving lectures.”

In retirement, Segal intends to keep working on immigration issues and also has plans to write a textbook on social service organizations. Porterfield has been filling her new free time with the St. Louis Master Gardener Program, a collaboration between the University of Missouri Extension and the Missouri Botanical Garden. She’s also engaged in volunteer work at a community garden in Ferguson and Forest ReLeaf, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees. Rosenthal is looking forward to spending more quality time with her family.

After decades of service, the three are ready for their third act.

“I just feel like it’s time,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve loved – absolutely loved – my time here. I love my colleagues. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my work with students. But sometimes you just know within yourself, it’s time. I feel like I’m leaving in a good place, while I’m still energetic. There’s good leadership here, people who are very capable, so I feel really good about it.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe