Butler named 2024 UMaine Distinguished Professor 

A long-time educator and leader in social work, whose research and advocacy influenced state and federal policy, has been named the 2024 Distinguished Maine Professor, the University of Maine’s most prestigious faculty accolade.

Sandra Butler, professor and director of the School of Social Work, will be honored at the Alumni Achievement Awards Dinner and Celebration, alongside other alumni award honorees, on Friday, April 26 at Wells Conference Center. 

I am profoundly honored to receive this award, especially at this stage of my career at the University of Maine. The award resonates as validation of my research about and advocacy for low-income individuals and families in Maine and of my focus on preparing social work students to be agents of change toward a more economically, socially, racially and environmentally just world,” Butler said. 

The annual Distinguished Maine Professor Award honors a UMaine professor who exemplifies the highest qualities of teaching, research and public service. It is sponsored by the UMaine classes of 1942 and 2002, and administered by the University of Maine Alumni Association. Diane Rowland, dean of the College of Earth, Life and Health Sciences, nominated Butler for this year’s award. 

“Dr. Butler embodies the best of what UMaine values in our faculty — an inspiring educator, an impactful researcher and a change maker for the betterment of society,” Rowland wrote in her nomination letter. “Dr. Butler has achieved all this while being a champion for the most fragile populations of our state and nation. Our college is especially proud of Dr. Sandy Butler’s dedication to helping others through all aspects of her work.”

Butler joined UMaine as an assistant professor in 1991, and has played many critical roles in the School of Social Work over the years. 

In 2020, Butler became director of the school after intermittently serving as interim or acting director for several years. She became the coordinator of the Masters of Social Work at UMaine in 2006 — the same year she was promoted to professor — and has served as its coordinator ever since. The program has become one of the largest graduate programs the university offers. Butler has also participated in several service and research projects as a resident scholar and associate with the university’s Center on Aging since its inception in 2001. During her tenure, she has served on numerous committees for the school; the College of Earth, Life and Health Sciences; the university and the University of Maine System. 

While Butler has taught many undergraduate- and graduate-level courses over the years, she primarily focuses on instruction related to social welfare policy. As UMaine’s lead educator in this field, Butler also provides guidance to other instructors and works with them on updating course content. 

Butler said her teaching philosophy “is strengths-based and inclusive.” She provides prompt and extensive feedback on students’ work, is attentive to their concerns and suggestions and demonstrates her strong passion for the field. 

“Sandy is the reason I am a licensed social worker today, and she was the most significant factor in my decision to pursue both MSW (Masters in Social Work) and doctoral studies at the University of Maine,” wrote Amy Frankel, who is now a lecturer in social work at UMaine, in her letter of support for Butler’s nomination. “I am grateful to have this wonderful professor and scholar as a role model in my life and for all of us to have her as an example of the kind of compassionate greatness that universities rarely celebrate in appropriate measure.”

Over the past 32 years, Butler has authored more than 100 scholarly articles, books, book chapters, policy briefs, legislative testimonies and newspaper op-eds pertaining to the health needs and social welfare experiences of low-income individuals and particularly women of all ages. 

Her scholarly publications focus on poverty, direct care workers, public assistance, older workers, rural aging, the impact of higher education for low-income mothers, LGBTQ+ aging, lesbian health, homelessness, teen parenting and pregnancy and policy practice. Her ability to research issues related to aging expanded when she served as a Hartford Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholar from 2001-2003. In 2010, she became a Hartford Faculty Research Mentor. 

“She exudes as a quintessential social work professional speaking clearly in her words and deeds in keeping with the core values of the profession of social work and leading research with over 30 years of scholarship in areas of financial insecurity and elevating the voices of low-income populations and older adults,” wrote Noell Rowan, professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, in her  letter of support. “This volume of research speaks to her unwavering commitment and devotion to rigorous scholarship about too often hidden voices in society.”

Dedicated to equity and justice, Butler has used her research and expertise to advocate for social welfare policy changes in Augusta, Maine and Washington, D.C. 

She has worked in collaboration with the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Equal Justice for years by researching the impact of state policy on low-income populations. Her research on families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the early 1990s contributed to the launch of a statewide Parents as Scholars program (PaS), which helps low-income parents afford college degrees. With her University of Southern Maine colleague, Dr. Luisa Deprez, she carried out a longitudinal study about the experiences of student parents in PaS from 1999 through 2006. Her research has also focused on the impact of time limits for families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and recently, again with Dr. Deprez, the effects for low-income student parents of receiving unrestricted cash assistance for financial emergencies through the Build Hope Fund. Her research on aging has included a longitudinal study examining recruitment and retention of home care workers in Maine. 

Her service also includes advising state and national groups that advocate for social welfare policy changes, particularly as a member of their boards. She is affiliated with the American Society on Aging and the Gerontological Society of America, where she is a fellow. She has served on the Maine Women’s Lobby and Policy Center Advisory Boards, the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s Advisory Board and Development Committee, the Maine Long-term Care Ombudsman Advisory Committee, the Family Connections Advisory Committee, the Spruce Run Steering Committee and the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center Board of Directors. 

Butler is not only a tireless advocate, but also an educator who encourages her students to fight inequity and help those who are underserved and underrepresented.

“As a former policy maker, I want to relay that Sandy Butler’s work was imperative for lawmakers to successfully do their work and to lift families up. We simply cannot make policy without data and research,” wrote former Maine House Speaker and State Rep. Sara Gideon in her letter of support for Butler’s nomination. “Professor Sandy Butler is so incredibly skilled in doing this.”

The instruction, research and community service Butler has provided over the years have earned her several honors and accolades. They include receiving the Leadership Award from the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work, being named a Fulbright specialist, earning the Influencing State Policy of Council on Social Work Education Faculty Award and being given the Feminist Scholarship Award by the Council of Social Work. She received a Rising Tide Career Award from the UMaine Rising Tide Center in 2015.

“Dr. Butler is an extremely effective and productive scholar,” wrote Sue Steiner, a professor with the California State University Chico School of Social Work, in her letter of support. “Her work is well-respected and influential within and beyond social work.” 

Contact: Shelby Hartin, shelby.hartin@maine.edu