The Sociology Department is steadily rebuilding its faculty and has risen from near-extinct status in just a decade.
The department, administrators and professors from Yale and rival universities said, is successfully tenuring young and accomplished scholars who are near the peak of their careers. As Yale Sociology strengthens its lineup, it is becoming competitive with the nation’s more established departments.
Andrew Abbott, a sociology professor from the University of Chicago — historically ranked among the country’s top four departments, said hiring coups at Yale in recent years are likely to boost the department’s status.
“I think Yale’s made a very distinct effort here, and we’ll see how it turns out,” said Abbott, who said he has declined multiple tenure offers by Yale in recent years. “[But] building a place like Yale to be a great department in the long run is not about hiring. It’s a question of bringing people here and having it gel.”
Yale Sociology now enjoys a youthful vitality that seemed almost improbable in the 1990s, professors said.
In 1992, the administration threatened to eliminate Sociology from the University in an effort to balance the budget. In response, Sociology fought a hard-wrought battle for the right to exist at Yale.
“[Former Yale College Dean Donald] Kagan really thought Sociology must go because he felt it wasn’t enough of a discipline,” former Sociology Chairman David Apter said. “This sent shock waves through the sociology profession.”
But when Yale President Richard Levin took helm in 1993, he reversed the administration’s stance, pulling the department from the guillotine and committing to an ambitious rebuilding campaign.
In the mid-1990s, as the department recruited top professors from around the country, it received nothing but rejections.
“It was very difficult to hire people and promise them that it would be a great department when, at the time, it wasn’t,” current Sociology chairman Jeffrey Alexander said.
But in 1998, Yale tapped Ivan Szelenyi from the University of California at Los Angeles to be its new chairman. Szelenyi, professors said, breathed new life into Yale’s department and initiated a wave of successful recruiting that was bolstered by increased funding from the University.
“His leadership began the transition and the great improving task,” Alexander, whom Szelenyi recruited from UCLA in 2001, said. “The department took its own fate into its own hands to make its own senior appointments.”
But Abbott said he thinks Yale is not yet primed to compete with sociology powerhouses such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Building a great department over the long haul is not like building a bridge,” Abbott said. “It’s a sense of tradition and it’s an image in the heads of countless faculty members all over the United States — that’s what keeps a place going.”
Howard Kimeldorf, chairman of the University of Michigan’s highly-ranked sociology department, said Yale’s recruiting success will pay off in the next U.S. News and World Report rankings, which are due to be released in the coming weeks.
“They’ll be moving up in the rankings if they continue to move the way they’re moving,” Kimeldorf said. “I think that Yale has been very good at attracting a lot of junior talent, and I think that some of those people could pay off very handsomely.”
When Political Science moves into a new building on Prospect Street in a few years, the University plans to move Sociology from Williams Hall into the more stately Brewster Hall, Political Science’s current headquarters. This move, professors said, would be a physical symbol of the University’s newfound commitment to the department.
“We’re all extremely pleased with the shape of the Sociology Department,” Yale Provost Susan Hockfield said. “I think the word is already getting around that Yale is once again being a major player in the field.”