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Professor Dennis Falk being congratulated by colleagues.

UMD professor Dennis Falk, right, was congratulated by colleagues after the Distinguished Teaching Awards ceremony April 24.

Building strong communities

UMD garners graduate-level teaching award; 15 faculty members receive U's highest teaching honor

By Gayla Marty

Brief, April 26, 2006

In 1985, the master's of social work (MSW) program at the University of Minnesota Duluth was in a shambles. Budget cuts had eliminated a college and transferred many on the faculty. Dennis Falk, one of two remaining graduate faculty members, was undeterred. He conducted a community assessment and began to rebuild from the ground up, focusing on the needs of social workers in northern Minnesota communities.

Twenty years later, UMD's social work program is a national model, preparing leaders to work in rural and tribal communities. Building on a federal Title IV-E contract that he and others proposed and won for UMD in the 1990s, Falk has provided the leadership critical in founding the UMD Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies. The Department of Social Work now has nine full-time faculty members, five staff members, and five graduate assistants. The MSW program enrolls about 80 students and offers coursework in Hibbing and Bemidji as well as Duluth.


Morse-Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education

* Frederick Asher
, art history
* Mark Distefano, chemistry
* Pareena Lawrence, economics/management, Morris
* James Leger, electrical and computer engineering
* Donald Liu, applied economics
* Randy Moore, biology, General College
* Marshall Stern, animal science
* Barbara Welke, history

Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education Award

* Dennis Falk
, social work, Duluth
* Joan Garfield, educational psychology
* Wendy Hellerstedt, epidemiology
* Richard Leppert, cultural studies and comparative literature
* Deborah Levison, public affairs
* Jean O'Brien, history
* Michel Sanders, biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics

Recipients teach on the Twin Cities campus except as noted.

On Monday, April 24, Falk received the U's highest teaching honor and was the first from UMD to be recognized for contributions to postbaccalaureate, graduate, and professional education. The ceremony honored 15 U faculty members (see box, left) and was attended by about 350 of their family members and ardent supporters.

Falk towers above most crowds and sports a graying beard that camouflages a warm smile. He is soft-spoken, but in a clear voice he thanked UMD's College of Education and Human Service Professions--home of the UMD Department of Social Work--and the campus as a whole.

"We've always wanted to reach out to students and professionals in rural communities," Falk says. "We see ourselves as serving the needs of social workers across northern Minnesota."

Falk grew up in Duluth. His father taught psychology, and Falk received his Ph.D. in educational psychology at the Twin Cities campus.

"What attracted me to social work was the value system," he says, "its attention to social justice and working with people who are vulnerable."

Many of the students in the MSW program--and all of those taking courses in Bemidji and Hibbing--continue in their jobs while in graduate school. Many are what Falk terms child-welfare scholars, those employed in about a dozen counties and several tribal communities who investigate child maltreatment and intervene as appropriate. Others hold jobs such directing a mental health clinic or working in schools.

The UMD staff delivers courses through distance learning technology, with some components taught on intensive weekends. Falk and his colleagues at UMD, Hibbing Community College, and Bemidji State University have driven lots of miles through the north woods and the iron range over the past 10 years to make connections, build the program, and keep serving students and communities.

One of the things that makes UMD's program distinct is that it offers an "advanced generalist" program, which provides broad expertise in contrast to the specialization required for many positions in high-population areas. UMD's program excels in its rural emphasis and is oriented toward meeting the needs of American Indian students and their communities. About 20 percent of students in the distance education program and 8 of this year's incoming students are American Indians.

"As an American Indian woman, I am especially appreciative of Denny's sensitivity to diversity," said one of those who supported his recommendation for the award. "He has made a point over the years to develop his own cross-cultural competencies. His concern for fairness and his commitment to affirmative action is apparent in his personal demeanor as an administrator, educator, and public-minded citizen."

Over his 30 years in graduate education, Falk has served as an academic adviser to 165 students and a research adviser to 160. Many wrote to give their testimony of his listening, guidance, and challenge to think critically. Falk, in turn, thanks his students.

"I have tremendous admiration for MSW students who work hard to graduate and then go into the community to effectively serve the most vulnerable members of our society," he says.

Students as teachers

That was a common refrain from the 15 teachers honored at the 2006 celebration: they continue to learn from their students--undergraduate and graduate--and their students inspire them.

All recipients of the outstanding achievement awards for undergraduate education--the Morse-Alumni Awards--and for postbaccalaureate, graduate, and professional education become members of the University's Academy of Distinguished Teachers. The academy was established in 1999 to foster excellence in teaching and advocate for resources toward the University's teaching mission. Morris faculty member Bert Ahern welcomed the "class of 2006."

"I found out about this award when I got here a few years ago," said Randy Moore, a recipient who teaches biology in General College. "I learned about its importance when I found out who among my colleagues had won it."

Moore, Falk, and their colleagues inducted this year join about 200 other faculty members who continue to make teaching a top priority in the University's practice and aspirations.

Further reading

Making economics fun U professor wins national award for excellence in biology education