Academics

Meet Ramona Denby-Brinson, social work dean

The Nevada native talks about her school’s priorities to train more professionals and use data to improve systems.

Ramona Denby-Brinson
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

This story launches a series of Q&As with Carolina’s newest deans. Look for more stories in the coming weeks.

Ramona Denby-Brinson is the dean and Kuralt Distinguished Professor of Public Welfare Policy and Administration in the School of Social Work. The incoming president of the multinational Society for Social Work and Research, she has been a licensed social worker since 1989. Denby-Brinson has more than 30 years of experience in social work education and 18 years in university administration. Her work on child and family well-being has garnered extensive federal funding and made an impact in communities across the nation. She began her work at Carolina Aug. 16, 2021.

What’s something you’ve learned about Carolina and/or North Carolina since you arrived?

I have been struck by the natural beauty of the state, its lush landscapes, and even the wildlife that my family is delighted to see maneuvering about our own neighborhood. My mobile phone contains hundreds of random photos of nearby tree-lined streets, beautiful flowers, ponds and waterways, and the deer that frequent our patio early in the morning.

Two of our three children are still at home with us and attending local public high schools. My husband and I are happy to see them adjusting so well after our move in August 2021.

I’m a Nevada native, one of 10 children, and twin to my brother, Ramon. My family has never lived in the South, so we are taking some culinary adventures together. My youngest son, a high school junior, loves to cook and handled big parts of our Thanksgiving meal this year. Each year, his main Christmas gift is a kitchen appliance and this year it was an air fryer. He is also treating us to healthy fries and other treats at home! Our daughter, a high school senior, was recently crowned queen in her debutante program. Our oldest son, a 2020 Morehouse College graduate, is continuing his education at UNC-Greensboro.

How is your school fulfilling Carolina’s mission of teaching, research and public service?

I am honored to lead a team that includes social work researchers long-recognized for their contributions to the field. Together, their discovery work garnered over $31 million in funding support in calendar year 2022.

We are proud to be considered the No. 1 school of social work in the South and No. 7 nationally, based in no small measure on the strength of our research in five key areas: child, youth and family well-being; economic security; health, mental health and behavioral health; older adults and long-term care; and system- and service-level research.

Our reputation for educational excellence relies on those researchers as well as the commitment of our dedicated clinical professors and staff. They help prepare our students who, through their practicum experiences, provide 900 hours of service each to the state of North Carolina.

We’re creating a new position of director of community engagement and outreach to further strengthen our ties to the community and help translate research discoveries into practice and policy impact. Best practices encourage us to align our values with those of the community, working in partnership both to define the problems that most need solving and to determine the most effective solutions.

What’s one example of how you are addressing a current top priority for your school?

Can I give you two?

Our mission — advancing equity, transforming systems and improving lives — articulates the top priorities for our school. It compels us to look for solutions to the societal problems that we are all reading and hearing about and living with in our communities today.

For example, Associate Professor Paul Lanier is a principal investigator for North Carolina in a National Institutes on Drug Abuse collaborative called “MODRN” that allows participating states to retain and analyze Medicaid data and share aggregated results in real time with their data partners. Lanier and Assistant Professor Orrin Ware are working with a collaborative team that is using that “big data” to analyze and assess the effectiveness of opioid use disorder policies in North Carolina and beyond.

Another example: UNC-PrimeCare4Youth is training future behavioral health professionals to provide behavioral health services to children, youth and their families. The organization is a partnership between our school under the leadership of Associate Professor Lisa de Saxe Zerden and colleagues from Carolina’s School of Education and the School of Medicine’s department of allied health sciences. By the end of this academic year, 315 master’s students in social work and school and professional counseling will have graduated from PrimeCare programs.

Can you talk more about some short-term plans for the future at the school?

Through an online Master of Social Work program, we seek to harness technology to make our top-notch Carolina MSW education more accessible to North Carolina residents. Pending review and approval from The Graduate School and our accrediting body, our online MSW program will launch in January 2024. It’s an ambitious goal propelled by the growing workforce shortage in our nation, where it is estimated that we’ll need 13% more social workers over the next decade.