Rising from ruins: Sociology recovers

Once a department that was slated to join Yale’s list of extinct majors, Sociology is now nearing the end of a massive rebuilding project that could eventually propel the department to first-class status.

After years of institutional neglect, the department now enjoys generous support from the administration. Sociology chairman Ivan Szelenyi has initiated an extensive hiring campaign to restore the department’s senior ranks and create a solid base of junior faculty.

“It’s the beginning of the resurgence of sociology,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.

But the revitalization of sociology has not been restricted to faculty members. Acting Sociology chairman Jeffrey Alexander — who is filling in for Szelenyi during a leave of absence — said the department wants to make sure that undergraduates also feel the effects of an expanding faculty roster.

With more personnel, the department is currently evaluating its undergraduate curriculum and looking to create a more structured program, Alexander said.

While professors within the department praised the recent slew of faculty appointments, Andrew Abbott, the chairman of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, said Yale Sociology must make several structural improvements if it wishes to compete with the nation’s premier sociology departments.

“It’s not just the names and reputation of faculty,” Abbott said. “There needs to be a spirit of tradition; a sense of self.”



A tumultuous past

Following the retirement of several star senior professors in the late 1980s, the Sociology Department’s troubles reached a height during the fiscal crisis that crippled the University in the early 1990s.

With a lack of resources, former University President Benno Schmidt planned to ax sociology, along with linguistics and engineering, from Yale’s curriculum.

“We were on a hit list,” sociology professor and former department chairwoman Deborah Davis said.

Although current Yale President Richard Levin reversed the decision in 1993, the department’s troubles were far from over.

In a time that Davis described as “very, very difficult,” the University placed the department under the control of a holding committee that oversaw the department’s hiring activities and administrative tasks.

Stigmatized as an ailing department by many outsiders, the department continued to have trouble recruiting the senior professors it needed to restore the department’s dignity.

“Nobody wanted to come because a vision couldn’t be set,” Alexander said. “It just wasn’t an attractive place to be.”

The department offered Abbott a position in 1993 — an offer Abbott said he did not consider too seriously.

“I’m in a much better department,” Abbott said. “Why should I go to one that’s not as good?”



The “resurgence”

Although Abbott recently turned down another Yale offer, Roger Gould, Abbott’s colleague at Chicago, did not.

Gould’s appointment was one of the first made by Szelenyi after he arrived in 1999. In addition to Gould, Szelenyi lured several other top scholars, including Alexander in 2001 and noted German sociologist Karl Ulrich Mayer just last week.

Szelenyi said the prospects of rebuilding a department may have been influential in the decisions of Gould, Alexander and Mayer.

“Rebuilding a department creates a sense of excitement,” Szelenyi said. “So for them to come to a new department which is in their building mode with a chance to make it one of the leading departments in the country can be very appealing.”

While Szelenyi has largely focused his efforts on hiring senior faculty, Abbott said appointing top-notch junior faculty is the way to build a strong department.

“In my view, the great mistake in the hiring approaches of Harvard and Yale is that they try to build departments by getting people in the late or middle stages of their career when most of their work is done and all that’s left is their reputations,” Abbott said. “The reason Harvard and Yale do not have top sociology departments is that they won’t take risks on younger people.”

But Szelenyi said the department must first build a solid base of senior faculty members if the department is to enjoy success at the junior level as well.



Undergraduate investments

The recent slew of faculty appointments has benefited the department in many areas, from its reputation to its graduate program. But Szelenyi said he would like the undergraduates to be one of the main beneficiaries of the department’s revitalization.

“We’re paying a great deal of attention to the undergraduate major,” Szelenyi said. “Our ambition is to be the college which is producing the best students for sociology graduate programs.”

Although nothing concrete has been outlined yet, the department has begun rethinking its undergraduate program, Alexander said.

“Right now, we don’t have a structure,” Alexander said.

In order to improve the curriculum, the department is currently discussing plans to develop a set of tracks within the major and to improve the honors track.

Sociology major Christopher Potter ’03 said he would support the institution of a track system because it could highlight the specific interests of the student.

“When someone tells you they’re a sociology major, that’s never the whole story,” Potter said. “So when sociology majors are applying for jobs, I think it’d be helpful to officially show what within sociology they studied. Formalizing the tracks would give sociology majors a leg up.”

On the other hand, sociology major Colleen Carey ’04 said she enjoys the freedom and does not think a track system is necessary.

“One of the great things about sociology is that the department has been more than willing to let me define what I want to do,” Carey said. “I like this freedom. I don’t feel the need for any more structure.”

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