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An award, and a farewell, for social services scholar Michael Lawler

By Dave Jones on November 10, 2010 in University News

Next week’s Academic Federation dinner is, first and foremost, a celebration of Michael J. Lawler as the recipient of the 2010 James H. Meyer Distinguished Achievement Award, the federation’s highest honor.

But Lawler, director of UC Davis Extension’s Center for Human Services, whose work has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in every one of California’s 58 counties, will no doubt hear fond farewells, too.

Because, after 18 years at UC Davis, this scholar of social services has moved on to the University of South Dakota, as a professor and the new chair of the Social Welfare Program in the School of Health Sciences.

The Meyer award, named after a former chancellor, is given annually to one of the federation’s own — from among a membership of more than 1,000 lecturers, researchers, Cooperative Extension specialists, academic coordinators and academic administrators. The federation announced last spring that Lawler would be receiving the award — and since that time, he took the South Dakota job.

“The faculty in social work at the University of South Dakota are very fortunate,” said UC Davis’ Gail S. Goodman, distinguished professor of psychology. “Those of us who worked with him here are all still in tears.”

Lawler’s dean at UC Davis, Dennis Pendleton, said: “We are delighted about his new opportunity to serve as full professor and department chair at the University of South Dakota, but we'll miss him greatly.”

Lawler started work in Vermillion, S.D., in September, but his last official day at UC Davis — after he uses up his accrued vacation — is Nov. 19, the same day as the award dinner (reservations are due by Nov. 12; see details below).

Pendleton cited Lawler’s “distinctive personal scholarship, leadership in national associations and professional forums, and university service, including leadership roles over many years in the Academic Federation.” He served as a member of the federation’s Executive Council for six years, two of those as vice chair, and he co-authored the federation’s 2005 paper on shared governance.

In nominating Lawler for the Meyer award, Goodman wrote: “It will be difficult to find a more perfect recipient. He is an intellectual powerhouse, an incredibly successful PI (principal investigator) and department chair, and a tremendous university resource and citizen.”

Goodman also noted “the depth of Dr. Lawler’s humanity,” describing it as worthy in and of itself for an award. “There is no kinder or more generous or charming person,” she said. “Unlike me, he never seems to have a bad day and is always available to help others.”

He began his career on the streets of Portland, Ore., working with homeless children. “What struck me about those early experiences were the relatively small differences between the lives of children living on the streets and my own, yet we were in very different places,” Lawler said in an e-mail interview. “It seemed that the love and support I had received was not usually available to the children with whom I worked.

“And small problems in their lives became larger, and seemingly insurmountable, when no one was there to guide them or tell them that someone believed in them.”

In making the move to higher education, Lawler said, he works on the same issues of social and economic justice, but from a broader view of county, state and international policies and practices. “UC Davis Extension has been a very supportive place to extend the land-grant mission to human services and to help address important social welfare issues,” he said.

‘Exceptional programs and services’

Dean Pendleton said: “Dr. Lawler contributed enormously to the senior leadership of UC Davis Extension over the past 16 years as department chair and director of the Center for Human Services, nationally known for its exceptional programs and services for human services professionals.”

He became the center’s associate director in 1994 and moved up to director, and chair of the Department of Human Services, in 1997.

During his time as an administrator, the center grew to include the Northern California Training Academy, which Lawler founded in 1995 to help standardize post-graduate education and training for child welfare social workers in the 33 counties that comprise Northern California.

“And, with my wonderful colleague, Gail Goodman, we built the Center for Public Policy Research to help bring the considerable research talents of UC Davis and other UC campuses to better inform public policy for social welfare issues,” Lawler said.

In 1997, Lawler worked with the Department of Pediatrics in the UC Davis Health System to establish the California Medical Training Center to improve the health care response to family violence, creating new protocols and curricula for cases of domestic violence, adult sexual assault, elder abuse and child sexual assault.

The Center for Human Services, through direct partnerships, has provided continuing and professional development courses in all human service disciplines (law enforcement, mental health, health, psychology, social work) to all 58 California counties, in person and, increasingly, online.

This outreach includes the Inter-County Training Consortium — comprising 41 small and medium-sized California counties whose human services agencies share education and development resources. With the consortium’s participation and support, Lawler and colleagues have been conducting the first known study in the country on transfer of learning from classroom to the field for public welfare professionals.

In 2009, the university’s Fully Engaged newsletter credited Lawler with giving thousands of social services professionals the opportunity “to learn, network and re-energize their careers” — which, in turn, allows the professionals to better serve their communities. That issue of Fully Engaged, from University Outreach and International Programs, celebrated the UC Davis Centennial by profiling 100 “talented, renowned and engaged faculty.”

Besides his work with the Center for Human Services, Lawler belonged to the Community Development Graduate Group, serving on thesis and ad-hoc curriculum committees, and the governance committee. He also belonged to the steering committee for the professional Master of Science Degree in Sustainable Community Development.

As for his own degrees, he holds a UC Davis doctorate in human development, a master's degree in social welfare from UC Berkeley, and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Ore.). He is also a licensed clinical social worker.

Love, support, resources

On the global front, Lawler worked with his colleagues in the Department of Human and Community Development to help found the International Child Protection and Rights Consortium, in which UC Davis is a research partner along with the Catholic University of Golaz State, Brazil; Oxford University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, London; and UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, Florence, Italy.

Here at home he is an affiliate of the American Public Human Services Association, for which he co-authored the most recent book of field standards, A New Key to Success: Guidelines for Effective Staff Development and Training Programs in Human Services Agencies, published this year.

Along with numerous reports to state government, Lawler has authored and co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters related to child welfare services and foster care.

One of his articles, a 2008 piece about children who go into foster care after being mistreated elsewhere, put Lawler in the running, as a finalist, for a 2010 Pro Humanitate Literary Award. The Center for Child Welfare Policy of the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare gives the awards to authors who “exemplify the intellectual integrity and moral courage required to transcend political and social barriers to champion ‘best practice’ in the field of child welfare.”

He served as a consultant for the 2007 stage play and documentary film Someone’s Somebody, based on Regina Louise’s bestselling memoir of the same name, about growing up in foster care.

Lawler’s interest in foster care extended to UC Davis’ Guardian Scholars, a support program for students who have transitioned from foster care to college. In 2007, he co-authored a successful mentoring grant proposal for the program, “leading to campuswide engagement with this important group of young scholars,” Goodman wrote.

Said Lawler: “Vulnerable people in our communities need the same things we all require to be successful — love, support, resources. Foster children, in particular, are vulnerable and need extra support as they transition from childhood to adulthood, expected to do all the right things while generally equipped with fewer emotional and material resources.

“Like all young adult children, they also need emotionally responsive relationships and people who believe in them.”


Other centers and programs residing in or in partnership with the Center for Human Services include the following:

Center for Excellence in Child Development — translating research into developmentally appropriate practice, with early child development training programs in almost every county in California

Resource Center for Family Focused Practice — supporting communities by enhancing the ability to provide safe, stable and healthy environments for children and families

Tribal TANF (referring to the federal government’s Temporary Aid to Needy Families) — professional development for tribal
social services professionals who serve individuals and families in American Indian tribes

During Lawler’s career at UC Davis, the programs for which he has been director, department chair, principal investigator or co-principal investigator have enrolled nearly 500,000 participants, produced more than 100 professional and academic reports and evaluations, and generated more than $130 million in extramural contracts and grants, according to Goodman.


The Meyer award dinner is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Nov. 19 in Ballroom A at the Activities and Recreation Center. The deadline for reservations has been extended to Nov. 12, and they can be arranged by contacting Nancy Kilpatrick, (530) 752-2220 or The price is $35 per person; checks payable to "UC Regents" should be delivered to Kilpatrick in 402 Mrak Hall.


Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,