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Rino J. Patti, 85, USC Social Work dean and professor emeritus

  • In Memoriam

The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is deeply saddened by the loss of beloved dean emeritus and professor emeritus, Rino J. Patti. A double Trojan, receiving his Master of Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work from USC in 1960 and 1967, respectively, Patti passed away on September 16, 2021.

Patti was dean of the school of social work at USC from 1988 to 1997, and then the Driscoll-Clevenger Professor of Social Policy and Administration until his retirement in 2001. From 1991 to 1993 he served as president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Social Work (NADD) and the first board president of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR) from 1993 to 1995. He was inducted into the inaugural class of Fellows to the prestigious American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) in 2010.

“In addition to his importance to our field and our school, Rino was an exceptionally thoughtful, kind and decent man, and his leadership style reflected that in all ways,” said John Brekke, professor emeritus of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Fellow of the AASWSW. “I always felt that I could talk honestly with him about very complicated or difficult situations. I am very saddened by his loss.”

A nationally renowned educator and scholar, Patti was a fervent supporter and contributor to the expansion of scholarship in social work, a career mission that helped him translate research into sound social policy and advancements to the profession of social work. His prolific research in social policy and social work administration helped human service agencies to become better providers and practitioners to elevate their advocacy for disadvantaged and disenfranchised individuals and communities. In 1996, he received the Presidential Award for the Advancement of Research from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

“Rino was a rare combination of a broad thinker who saw the big picture of social work policy and practice, an astute researcher and scholar, a talented administrator, and above all, a good person with a big heart. It made him an admired and beloved leader, teacher, mentor, and colleague,” said Michàlle Mor Barak, Dean’s Professor of Social Work and Business at USC, and Fellow of the AASWSW.

During his tenure as dean, he enhanced the prestige of the school of social work by redesigning the PhD program to prepare students for academic careers and fostering a substantial increase in faculty research. He was also instrumental in forming a seminal collaboration between the school of social work at USC and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which established in-service training and degree-granting programs for DCFS employees. This collaboration earned him a commendation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and served as the basis for the statewide California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) that Patti helped found.

“Rino’s leadership style was so collaborative and supportive that you almost couldn’t see how he made the magic, you just knew he did,” said Jacqulyn McCroskey, the John Milner Professor of Child Welfare at USC Social Work. “In the case of establishing the DCFS-university partnership in Los Angeles, he brought all of the universities with MSW programs together with DCFS to create a different way of doing business that laid the groundwork for decades of statewide investment in professional social work training for child welfare. Rino helped set the stage for this and so much more with his ability to connect with people, to see the best in us, to respect, honor and invest in his students, colleagues and partners. He was a man of modest demeanor with a great intellect and wry sense of humor.”

Patti received the USC Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the university’s most prestigious faculty honors, in 2006. During his remarks at the Academic Honors Convocation he humbly stated, “I’m very honored to be recognized by the university. In my case, much of what I was able to do in my professional life was accomplished in collaboration with faculty, staff and colleagues at USC and elsewhere, so this award is for them as well. Most of all, I am happy that we were able to do a few good things for the school, community and profession during my time.”

Mor Barak and Ferol Mennen, associate professor, came to USC the same year that Patti became dean of the school of social work. Both feel incredibly fortunate to have begun their academic careers under Patti’s nurturing leadership. “He was the kind of ‘boss’ that everyone wishes they could have, but few do. He was ethical, collaborative, a wonderful scholar and inspiring leader who cared deeply about the faculty and staff of the school,” Mennen said. “He was proud to be a social worker and worked diligently to better the profession to more effectively serve its clients.”

In 1997, Patti was the recipient of the George D. Nickel Award from the California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA), bestowed annually to individuals who have made distinguished contributions to the field of social welfare, and in 2012 the CSWA inducted him into its Hall of Distinction. In his oral history interview with Frances Loman Feldman for CSWA, Patti reflected on what motivated him to become a social worker — a combination of his childhood experiences as the son of immigrants from Sicily and an inspirational professor during his undergraduate studies at San Diego State University, where he graduated with honors in 1958.

Prior to returning to USC as dean, Patti was a faculty member at the University of Washington for 20 years where his teaching and research focused on organization, management and policy development in the human services. He served as chair of the National Institutes of Mental Health Implementation Committee and co-founded and edited the journal Administration in Social Work.

Patti’s leadership and commitment to excellence in research and teaching guided the school of social work to one of its most productive and respected decades. His work greatly influenced the field of social work and inspired a generation of social workers to push the boundaries of their profession.

Patti is survived by his wife of 62 years, Nadine. They met at USC while both pursuing their Master of Social Work degrees. He is also survived by his two children, Laura and Christopher, one grandson, Joshua, and two great-grandsons, Sebastian and Elias.

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