Edward F. Lawlor, Dean, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, and the William E. Gordon Professor

Combining People, Policy, & Advocacy

By Susan C. Thomson

Edward Francis Lawlor learned young about growing old. From his boyhood, he fondly recalls a great aunt who lived hearty into great age. At Bowdoin College, inspired by a teacher in the then-emerging field of social gerontology, he wrote an honors thesis on the health-care needs of older people in Maine’s poorest, most rural county.

A generation later, Lawlor is a nationally known expert on health-care policy, Medicare in particular, and in his fourth year as dean of Washington University’s internationally known George Warren Brown School of Social Work. To take the job, he gave up its equivalent at the University of Chicago, where he had launched his academic career 20 years earlier, as an assistant professor. He was not looking to leave.

But along came Washington University, looking for someone Brown School Professor and Associate Dean Enola Proctor imagined as “an energetic, visionary leader that could take our school from a great place to an even greater place.” She chaired the search committee that zeroed in on Lawlor as exactly filling the bill, and refused to accept his first, flat refusals. With an able assist from Chancellor Mark Wrighton, they persuaded Lawlor to seize what he finally came to envision as “a generative experience” and “an effective way to recharge and do some new things.”

A key attraction for Lawlor was the Brown School’s great faculty in the field of aging, as well as the University’s Center for Aging.

So Lawlor came to St. Louis with his wife, Betsy, and their three children, Matthew (a senior at Yale University), Abigail (a freshman at Yale), and Casey (a high school sophomore), as well as the accoutrements of an active and varied private life, including two sled dogs, several brass musical instruments, and, displayed on his office windowsills, dozens of die-cast, scale-model cars and trucks. Among the originals, built by Lawlor over the years “just for fun,” stand some prized gifts—a police car, for instance, from a Chicago colleague. He explains with a smile: “I used to have a metaphor that working in the dean’s office is like seeing the world from the inside of a police car. What you mostly see are mayhem and problems.”

He jests—and quickly turns a conversation to the joys of his job, which he describes as combining, ideally for him, his interests in people, policy, and advocacy with the opportunity “to move an institution along.” Washington University, where deans report directly to the chancellor instead of through a provost, offers them an unusually “liberating environment to do a lot of things,” he says. “You can take the initiative.”

Among his own initiatives these last three-plus years have been partnerships with Hong Kong Polytechnic University and China’s Peking University, a program in Jewish studies, and a joint degree with St. Louis’ Eden Seminary—all additions to the Brown School’s existing list of joint-degree programs.

He views his fellow Washington University deans, many also relatively new, as similarly “driven to find ways we can build programs across the University.” Such programs are a priority for Wrighton, who commends Lawlor as an accomplished teacher, researcher, and administrator who is also “a great collaborator … working to bring people together across disciplinary lines.”

He views his fellow Washington University deans, many also relatively new, as similarly “driven to find ways we can build programs across the University.” Such programs are a priority for [Chancellor] Wrighton, who commends Lawlor as … “a great collaborator … working to bring people together across disciplinary lines.”

Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, who worked with him there and earlier at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (where Lawlor was a research assistant between Bowdoin and a Ph.D. at Brandeis University), fleshes out the man’s portrait. “He is a warm, easy-to-meet, easy-to-get-to-know guy, no pretenses, down to earth,” Lynn says of his longtime colleague and good friend, known to all as Eddie. “…I think his effectiveness as an administrator has much to do with his combination of intelligence and likability.”

As a researcher, Lawlor is best known for Redesigning the Medicare Contract: Politics, Markets, and Agency, published four years ago by University of Chicago Press. In the book, he presents Medicare as a contract between its beneficiaries on the one hand and U.S. taxpayers on the other, with Congress and the Medicare administration muddling away in the middle. “I think we still have a long way to go in toning up Medicare, particularly as the baby boom generation grows old,” says Lawlor, now 52.

He continues to write, most recently one paper on strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health care and another that may become a book on the future of Medicare—always on topics that bridge the complex intersection of health care, economics, and politics. So the current presidential campaign season finds him listening—and hoping—for the candidates to put forth proposals for “real reform.”

Always commanding his attention is the changing landscape for social work education, marked this past decade by a 60 percent increase in master’s programs. The Brown School has managed to increase its share of the applicant pool, in part by deliberately recruiting alumni of organizations like the Peace Corps, Teach For America, Americorps, and the Jesuit Service Corps—“very specific pools of really talented students that we feel have leadership potential,” Lawlor says. Together, they account for about 20 percent of incoming students.

“To succeed in this environment for social work education, we need to find new career lines and professional opportunities for our students,” Lawlor says, “and create a modern educational program that is preparing them for leadership.”

Looking ahead, Lawlor is especially excited about the opportunities provided by the University’s planning process. New initiatives in the community, in health, and in international social and economic development are gearing up at the School. “We have great conversations going on among the deans to enhance our joint-degree programs and interdisciplinary research. The people, schools, and community partners at Washington University are ripe for new research and training programs in these fields,” he says.

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.