Earl Davis had a 50-year career, which began and ended with New York University. He received an MSW in 1957 from the Graduate School of Public Administration and Social Service, and practiced social work in the field until 1972, when he joined the Silver School of Social Work (SSSW) staff as assistant dean for admissions and student affairs. He directed NYU’s Institute for African American Affairs from 1979 until 1994, and returned to the SSSW part time from 1995 to 2008 as a special recruiter with the mission of attracting minority students.
How did you get into social work?
I grew up in Harlem and attended North Carolina College in Durham, North Carolina, on a basketball scholarship. Upon graduating, in 1951, I was drafted into the Army and sent to Officers’ Candidate School. After my tour of duty, I left the Army but lacked a sense of direction. A former psychology professor advised, “You’re good with people. You should go into psychology or social work.” I attended [NYU] with financial aid from the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration.
What was the School like when you were a student, and later when you were on staff?
The class of 1957 was small, and the students were older and had more life experience than the average student now. They were from all over the country—even North Dakota and Hawaii—and included veterans like me. I majored in case work, the faculty was excellent, and we students were a close-knit group. My first-year field placement was at the Travelers’ Aid Society; second year was at the Veterans Administration.
The School has changed dramatically over time. During the 1970s, when I served as assistant dean of admissions and student affairs, the student body was smaller than it is today, but the faculty was large due to “soft money”—federal grants from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. The atmosphere among faculty and staff was very warm and intimate. Now the School has a small full-time faculty and a large student body—the reverse. It’s more business-like.
How did you go about recruiting minority students?
I went to colleges and universities nationwide and made a general presentation about the School to all students, not just minorities. Using my own career as an example, I stressed how versatile an MSW degree is and what a broad variety of opportunities it can lead to. Ultimately, I said, it helps you learn to deal with people, whether a social work client or a business entity.
I also started a black alumni association, which was a useful networking resource for the alumni and a recruiting tool for the School. Engaged alumni are more likely to encourage their associates to choose the SSSW.
What roadblocks did you see for recruitment of minority students?
NYU’s reputation for high tuition makes many people dismiss the SSSW out of hand. They don’t even consider the possibility of scholarships. The School needs to keep getting the word out that we have financial aid, for minority students in particular.
Also, in the past, minorities who wanted a profession were pretty much limited to teaching, social work, and nursing. Now all sorts of opportunities have opened up for minorities. I think they find social work less attractive; they want more lucrative careers.
In your long career, what was your most challenging and enjoyable experience?
When I was director of social services at Lutheran Community Services (1968 – 1970), we began setting up group homes for teens who had been in foster care. I worked with SSSW Professors Eleanore Korman, Sumiko Hennessy, and George Frank to set up “student units,” supervised groups of MSW interns, who provided case work and group work services. It gave me the greatest joy and fulfillment to work with those boys and girls. Years later, I ran into a few of them on the street and was so happy to see that they had jobs and families and hadn’t gone down the wrong path.