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Longtime dean of University of Utah College of Social Work retires

April 14, 2015 — Jannah Mather found herself drawn to social work through an unconventional path: Her father was a social worker, but not the type most associate with the profession.

“He was a professional gambler,” said Mather, who will retire as dean of the University of Utah College of Social Work June 1 after 15 years in the position. “And he did well.”

It wouldn’t be until years later, growing up in the small town of Attica, Indiana, that Mather fully understood her father’s role in a local gambling operation. But what stood out to her is that he used many of his earnings to help others.

“My father was what I would call an informal social worker. He did a lot of things for a lot of people —whether it was money for food, education, or other help financially,” said Mather. “He gave back to the community and he taught me that giving back was important.”

So when Mather graduated from high school she found a fit in social work at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, then went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Michigan and a doctorate in social work at the University of Illinois.

Her career would take her across the country —and across the border— holding academic posts at Indiana State University, the University of Missouri, Florida State University and Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada before she arrived at the University of Utah in August 2000.

Along the way she built a reputation as an expert on child welfare, family therapy and on social work education, authoring many journal articles and several textbooks over the years. One book she co-authored, “Direct Social Work Practice with families,” is a staple used by universities on how to introduce students to real-world social work situations.

Although life in academia has been central to her career, Mather has always found human interaction to be the most important part of her work.

“I see myself as a social worker first and as an academic second. I couldn’t have chosen a better career or worked with better people than I have here in Utah,” Mather said.

Many of her colleagues are quick to return the compliment.

Bill Farley, faculty emeritus at the College of Social Work, praised Mather for fostering new ideas when she became dean.

“Jannah is a great innovator— an ideas person who can put those ideas into practice.  She’s creative, she conceptualizes well, and she follows through in a magnificent way,” said Farley. “She’s tough and straightforward, but has a great spirit and really cares.  I’ve appreciated her.”

Mather’s accomplishments while at the University of Utah are numerous.

She has been instrumental in encouraging the development of partnerships between the university and the community, and has served on a number of university, professional and nonprofit boards and committees.  Recognizing the need for community meeting space and a specialized, state-of-the-art training facility, Mather helped raise more than $5.7 million for the Wilford W. and Dorothy P. Goodwill Humanitarian Building, which was completed in 2008.

Mather is also responsible for a huge expansion of the College of Social Work’s Global Social Work initiatives. To date, there are faculty engaged in research and students who have participated in learning abroad activities on nearly every continent. Under Mather’s leadership, the college in 2001 established the Bachelor of Social Work Program, which is now being offered at the university’s Asia Campus. Mather helped to steer the college’s W.D. Goodwill Initiatives on Aging and in 2006 oversaw establishment of the Katie L. Dixon Women & Girls Leadership Endowed Fund, which supports in-school leadership development workshops for girls in grades 3-12.

“Dr. Mather has brought much to the University of Utah through strategic leadership and hard work,” said David W. Pershing, president of the University of Utah. “Her colleagues will miss her excellent work ethic and fair demeanor.”

Hank Liese, an associate professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the college, will serve as interim dean.

Mather said it’s hard to pin down a favorite memory after 15 years at the U, but she’s excited about the next chapter of her life, which includes splitting her time between Wisconsin and Florida, where her children and grandchildren reside.

And while she’ll hang up her hat as dean, she still has goals for the college as it moves forward as she departs.

“I’d like to see the college move into the top 20 schools of social work in the country,” she said. “I think that will happen.”

Invited colleagues and guests will honor Mather at a reception at Red Butte Garden on Thursday, April 16.