Dean Dorian Traube’s Installation Speech

Faculty; Public Health; Social Work

Meet Me in St Louis
Dorian Traube, PhD
Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School
February 15, 2024

Introduction + Welcome 

 Let me take a moment and take this all in. Look at you beautiful people. What a night. 5 stars, highly recommend. 

I have struggled in composing my remarks for this occasion: how can I capture all that I need and want to say? The weight of this honor and this opportunity to lead the Brown School is not lost on me, which makes it even more challenging to make a statement about myself, the history of the Brown School, and the future of the school and this profession. 

My installation as Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School is a moment of personal pride, I admit. However, it is fleeting and paltry next to the many years of patient support I have received from many gathered here today. 


It is so rare that we get an opportunity to see all the faces of the people who have supported us on our journey, but I am surrounded by my Brown School Faculty, Students, Staff, and National Council, not to mention fellow WashU deans, Trustees, Provost Wendland and Chancellor Martin. Your trust and support have allowed me to step into this role with a deep sense of responsibility. I am committed to doing everything in my power to continue making you proud of this remarkable institution. 

Tonight, I am also joined by many dear family, friends, and colleagues who carried me along this path. The list is longer than any person really deserves – my entire Columbia University PhD cohort, who I still text with on a daily basis; mentors; colleagues from the University of Southern California; colleagues from Parents as Teachers; old friends from Los Angeles; new friends from St Louis; a friend I have known since elementary school; people watching on-line from every corner of the US; my aunts who have been at every graduation, wedding, and baptism, my sister who is always my biggest cheerleader and fiercest protector, my mother-in-law and her sister who were the first and most supportive of my family coming to St Louis, and of course, my father, who believed in me before I ever knew there was anything to hope or strive for. My mother, I know, would have been in the front row tonight, but as one of the curiosities of the universe, I lost her the day after I completed my interviews here at the Brown School. As a social worker herself, and frankly a bold woman, I have felt her here, every day, and in every way. And finally, nothing I have in my life would have any meaning without my north stars, my husband Steve, and my daughters, Sadie and Caroline. You give me direction; you light my path, and you make even the darkest moments bright. 

Journey to the Brown School 

I know what you all are thinking, “How does someone go from majoring in modern dance and moving to New York City to dance at Jose Limon’s studio, to being dean of the Brown School?” If you will indulge me, let me share the most important points of my journey that brought me here. In the words of writer and composer Anthony Burgess, “It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you are going.” I believe where I come from is vital to explaining where I think the Brown School and the field should be moving in the future. 

St Louis Effect 

For most of my life I have found comfort and courage in community. As a child we moved often, but navigating the nuances of new places intrigued and anchored me, and I am already falling in love with “The Gateway to the West”. I think there is absolutely no mistake that I am in St Louis now, a place where the community reflects a blend of history, diversity, resilience, and a commitment to building a vibrant and inclusive city. As that tremendous video mentioned, I began my relationship with St Louis through Parents as Teachers. 

Parents as Teachers is a community organization that developed from one Missouri educator, Mildred Winter, who recognized the crucial role that parents play in their children’s early development. Mildred Winter, along with a team of educators, began developing the Parents As Teachers curriculum in the 1970s with the goal of creating a program that would empower parents to be their child’s first and most influential teacher. The success of the program led to the expansion of Parents As Teachers beyond Missouri, and today it is the national leader in early childhood home visitation. 

This is what I call the St Louis Effect. How does an organization started by one woman who was worried about children entering kindergarten unprepared to learn, become a driving force of the entire industry? I have been the beneficiary of the St Louis Effect myself. In 2017, I cold called Parents as Teachers with a wild idea to move their entire model to a telehealth platform. I had a plan to explain the cost benefits, the access benefits, and the innovation this could afford. I needed none of these data points or fleshed-out justifications. Parents as Teachers immediately appreciated the advantages that would come with this change, and they joined with me to develop the first virtual home-visitation model where everything from training to supervision, from personal visits to group connections would be offered online, through mobile technologies. We had some early success being chosen as a named commitment from the Clinton Foundation and winning the Early Childhood Innovations Prize from OpenIdeo out of 700 submissions. But like so many innovations, the path was not initially fast nor linear. For 4 years we labored slowly, perfecting our model, training 25 virtual home visitors, and delivering 2000 personal visits. We were constantly stymied by the federal government’s unwillingness to reimburse for virtual home visitation. After fundraising $1 million from the Overdeck Foundation and Queenscare Foundation, we were faced with some dire decisions about sustainability. 

In January 2020 I attended the National Home Visitation Summit in Washington DC with the Parents as Teachers Leadership. We had painful discussions about sunsetting the program. While in DC we started to hear reports of a highly contagious virus emerging overseas. Within two months, the U.S. had moved to COVID mitigation efforts that prohibited early childhood home visitors from entering homes. New families were faced with unprecedented isolation. Our phone started ringing off the hook. We were the only team who had any experience with virtual home visitation. Within a week we raised another million dollars and had a singular focus – to make sure our littlest learners did not fall through the cracks. We stood up a virtual training institute called the Rapid Response for Virtual Home Visitation and at the urging of Parents as Teachers, we gave away all of our intellectual property to any program that wanted it. In one year, we trained 12,000 virtual home visitors and delivered over 600,000 virtual home visits. To this day, our resources remain free and available to anyone. How does an organization in the middle of the country carry an entire industry through an unprecedented pandemic? It is the St Louis Effect: the teamwork of unrelenting people determined to shape and direct scarce resources to improve the health and wellbeing of others, simply because they must. 

That same St Louis Effect has been at play at the Brown School since its inception. It is no surprise that the Brown School is at Washington University IN St Louis. Rev William Greenleaf Elliot, co-founder, board president, and third chancellor of the university wrote a letter to the Missouri Republican Newspaper in 1859 stating, “Will you kindly permit me through your columns to appeal to the city authorities and the public on behalf of the poor? The severity of the season and the scarcity of work makes their suffering greater than usual, but no public provision has yet been made for them…”1 From this bedrock grew the 4th school of social work in the U.S, a full-fledged academic unit within Washington University.1 This school was intended to “give the University an opportunity to perform for the city a social service of the very highest utility and of most practical nature.”1 The task was daunting and an early dean of the Brown School, noted that the “task of developing a training program for social workers [was] a full-sized man’s job…”1 Yet he persisted, building a science of social work and social policy. In Dean Benjamin Youngdahl’s speech, “What We Believe”, he noted the Brown School’s philosophy. “We think it is worth doing something about given situations. We believe that progress can be made toward our goals by the intelligent application of knowledge. We are a dynamic profession, refusing to accept the cynicism and pessimism of some of our contemporaries.”1 

The St. Louis Effect, though it resists description, echoes from the actions of its practitioners. Dean Youngdahl wisely captured it thus…”make society better together.” Surely, it must also be progress through action. 

There is no mistake that the St Louis Effect originates at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. These rivers are a lifeline for the US – a moving highway that gave birth to other communities. On the way to the nation’s heartland, it collects memories, history, and the promise of this land. 

Communities at a confluence benefit from the diversity of perspectives, leading to a vibrant and inclusive social fabric. This convergence can foster creativity, understanding, and a sense of interconnectedness across different realms of human experience. And it is transmitted to communities downstream from the confluence. Put more succinctly, The St Louis Effect is the experience of confluence, the glue that binds us to a social setting, the promised reward that keeps us seeking each other out. It is not freedom, it is union. Being involved in something together, we feel safer, stronger, we transcend the limits of self. St Louis is nestled within a vital watershed. In the beautiful synchrony between person and place, I stand before you at a watershed moment for the Brown School. 

Future Vision 

The opportunity to lead the Brown School comes at a special time in my career. Joining a university with deep investment in leadership for transformative impact, academic excellence, and healthy and inclusive communities will allow me to translate my skills in socially impactful research development, academic administration, and education in new and innovative ways. I believe we can reach ambitious goals for increasing the reach and impact for our discipline. I am intensely attuned to the changing landscape of higher education, the movement toward professional training, the importance of evidence-based clinical practice, and the vital focus on justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion that we must bring to training and research. 

The past few years, marked by a pandemic, ongoing economic turmoil, an insurrection, and intersecting crises in public health, education, childcare, caregiving, work and labor, have underscored what many people have known for a long time: America’s systems of worth, stability, and achievement are broken. But, I believe moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity. Some crises result in decisions that change society for better, like New Deal measures introduced to counter the Great Depression. Other crises sow the seeds of new problems – such as the inadequate response to World War I.3 The impact of the Covid Pandemic remains to be seen. We are at a critical point where we must examine what our society owes the individual, and what the individual owes in return.3 And, in a time of great change, how might those mutual obligations need to adapt in the form of a new social contract. I contend that the Brown School, a place of geographic, historic, and cultural confluence is the place where this can occur. 

As I stand before you today, the newest leader of the top programs of social work, public health, and social policy, I am acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead in reimagining our social contract. The most formidable adversary we face in this endeavor is not external: it is our own ambition. As Rainesford Stauffer eloquently points out in her book, “All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive,” defining ambition is a daunting task. It exists as both virtue and vice, compliment and insult, a framework for empowerment, and a means to question the very nature of power itself.2 The word ‘ambition’ has an interesting origin. It is derived from a Latin word meaning ‘to go around.’ This is because in ancient Rome, candidates for elected office had to go around town to secure votes. The origin of ambition tells us everything we need to know to apply it judiciously in society. What we should focus on when encouraging ambition is not just the desire for fame or power, but the action of reaching out to people, understanding their needs, and meeting those needs. 

In our pursuit of ambition, we find ourselves grappling with societal systems that hinder individual aspirations, especially in times of crises. The popular conceptions of ambition often assume a certain level of privilege – able-bodied, financial, and personal freedom.2 The opportunity to dream has never been equally applied, creating disparities that echo through our society.2 The American dream, rooted in the belief that anyone, regardless of social class, could rise through their abilities and hard work, has given way to what some call “toxic individualism.” The myth of self-reliance perpetuates a fallacy.2 Individual achievement cannot dismantle structural barriers. 

The Covid Pandemic laid bare personal and structural crises, revealing a lack of resources to grapple with either. As Stuaffer notes, “Grieve through it; strive through it, was structurally reinforced by how much didn’t change at all […] People can’t reasonably stand next to each other on a ladder, and that’s on purpose. We’re supposed to stop for nothing. We hold ambition as a requirement of a good life. It is a justification and also a way to placate us when we’re struggling with the ways that society keeps us apart, keeps us isolated, keeps us struggling, and keeps us feeling dissatisfied.”2 How can the Brown School align our ambition with supporting a new social contract that centers safety, security, mental health, and the capacity to care for others? 

What matters to us? What fulfills us? What could we choose if we choose anything at all?2 We need a vision of community that fosters closeness, embraces vulnerability and imperfection, acknowledges grief and setbacks, promotes accountability, and fosters deep love. Ambition, in its truest form, should not negate our fundamental needs but should amplify our interconnectedness, fostering a world where everyone can belong and feel held. The myth of meritocracy and the fallacy of achieving success alone must give way to a reimagined social contract that centers on mutual obligations, collective provision, and shared risks.3 

In our quest for a reimagined social contract, let us not forget the importance of a vision of community that is both relevant and future-facing. At the Brown School, our compass will continue to be our ambitious school plan, Driving Equity 2030. We will prioritize access and affordability to our MSW degree with the ultimate goal of providing a debt free education. We will amplify social impact by making academic expertise more easily accessible than ever before, and apply academic rigor to addressing the world’s most intractable issues. Through the creation of the Public Exchange, we will connect WashU academic researchers with policy, industry, and non-profit partners that need their expertise to tackle complex challenges. We will lead by example, establishing Wash U’s first volunteer time-off program. This will allow our employees to volunteer their time with the charities and causes they believe in without making them choose between collecting a paycheck and having an impact on their community. We must have ambition to lead, ambition to solve, and ambition to serve. 

In conclusion, as I stand here, overwhelmed by the incredible support and the weight of the honor to lead the Brown School, I am reminded that this school, a place of geographic, historic, and cultural confluence, is where this transformation can occur. Let the St. Louis Effect guide us as we progress through knowledge, refuse cynicism and pessimism, believing we can make society better together. The St. Louis Effect, as witnessed in the resilience of Parents as Teachers and the founding principles of the Brown School, symbolizes progress through knowledge and an unwavering belief that we can make society better together. 

As we navigate the challenges of reimagining our social contract, we must confront the formidable adversary of our own ambition. The pursuit of ambition, often driven by narrow definitions of success, can perpetuate disparities and hinder collective progress. In a world where everyone deserves safety, security, and mental well-being, ambition must be aligned with a vision of community that values love, care, and generosity of spirit. 

Let us unite in shaping a future where the Brown School remains a beacon of progress, knowledge, and optimism as we strive for a better society. May the guiding light of the St. Louis Effect illuminate our path forward. In the immortal closing lines of Meet Me In St. Louis, “There has never been anything like it in the whole world. We don’t need to travel by train or stay in a hotel; it’s right here in our own hometown. It’s almost unbelievable – right here where we live, right here in St. Louis.” Thank you for joining me on this remarkable journey. 


  • O’Connor, C. (2008). What We Believe: A History of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work: 1909-2007. Washington University in St. Louis. 
  • Stauffer, R. (2023). All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (First edition). Hachette Go. 
  • Shafik, M. (2021). What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society. Princeton University Press