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Columbia Mourns the Death of Social Work Professor Howard Polsky

Howard W. Polsky

Dr. Howard W. Polsky, professor of social work, died on Sunday, October 19, in New York.

A distinguished educator, researcher and prolific author, Polsky has been teaching at Columbia University's School of Social Work since 1961. His research interests focused on: juvenile delinquency and treatment; organizational development; staff training; corrections institutions; family life education; children's services, and more. In 1998 he created a popular new research course, Social Work and Ethnography.

In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the pioneers who used social science knowledge, particularly sociology, to improve social service programs. Throughout his career, Polsky played an important role in defining social advocacy for segments of the population who are confronted with inequalities in everyday life.

Polsky's seminal work "Cottage Six, The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment" is regarded as a social work classic. The book has been translated into four languages and, more than 40 years after its initial publication in 1962, influences research and practice throughout the field of children's institutions. His formulation of youth and adult peer structures in the book, known as the "Polsky Diamond," is still used as a diagnostic tool.

"Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories" was a best-seller. Its popularity prompted Polsky to conduct seminars about the book in libraries throughout New York City and in Jewish centers and homes for the elderly.

For Polsky, the capstone of his career came with "Mainstreaming Institutions: From Custodialism to Community in Residential Care," written with his wife Dr. Roni Berger. The thesis of the book, according to Polsky, is that it is as important for social services to change their normative and social structures as it is to "heal" or "empower" clients.

Among his other contributions, Polsky was the principle investigator of the Child Welfare League of America's Odyssey Project at Edwin Gould Academy in Westchester from 1994 to 1998. The project was a national study of children and teenagers living away from home in residential treatment centers, group homes and foster care.

From 1987-1989 Polsky was a member of the New York City Fire Department Project planning and management team. The team's goal was to establish a workplace climate conducive to gender integration. He analyzed and diagnosed FDNY culture; and designed, trained and implemented the action programs. The project allowed him to fulfill a childhood dream of riding on a fire engine.

Polsky received a B.A. from University of Chicago, 1949, and an M.S.W. in Group Work (1954) and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Wisconsin (1957).

He is survived by his wife Dr. Roni Berger, son Joshua Polsky, daughter-in-law Jacky Sung, stepson Dan Berger and brother Milton Polsky. The cause of death was complications following emergency heart surgery.

Published: Oct 24, 2003
Last modified: Oct 24, 2003

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