homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home
The Executive Officer’s Column

Rumors of Departmental Decline Are Greatly Exaggerated

Washington’s emerging cherry blossoms make it an especially nice time to linger in DC, but the ASA staff sociologists are still on the road as this Footnotes goes to press, participating in the vibrant meetings of regional sociology societies. We enjoy these opportunities to meet with colleagues on their own “turf” because, for us, these are relaxed settings that give us an opportunity to share current ASA initiatives and hear first hand from sociologists outside the Washington Beltway about not only the pressures and concerns they face, but more impressively the many accomplishments and innovations of sociologists across the country.

Our experience is often in stark contrast to what we hear as we represent the Association on the governing bodies of other learned societies and professional associations and act as the voice for sociology on federal advisory bodies and social science and humanities advocacy groups. I serve, for example, on the Executive Committee of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, as a member of the National Humanities Alliance, and the Commerce Secretary’s Advisory Committee for the Decennial Census. Other ASA staff sociologists also represent sociology on the advisory bodies of professional associations working on issues in higher education, scientific workforce diversity, research, scholarly publishing, and executive management. When we introduce ourselves as sociologists, however, we often elicit off-the-cuff responses that can be very telling about other professions’ casual impressions of the field of sociology. An all-too-common response, particularly from colleagues in other disciplines, is an offering of sympathy for the “pressure” sociology is under or the perceived frequent closing of its departments.

Setting the Record Straight

Hearing these assertions requires the skill, and momentary pause to regroup, of a 60 Minutes interviewee, as we prepare to set the record straight about these unsupported beliefs that sociology departments are in decline. The Association tries to track departments that are at risk of closing or downsizing. And we work with them to present their contributions to the institution and its students in the context of strong evidence about the national and international vitality of sociology as a discipline. ASA has a consulting service—the Department Resources Group—comprised of trained sociology colleagues who engage in program reviews to help departments identify strengths and remediate weaknesses before problems escalate.

The rumor of departmental demise is most toxic when it spreads within the circle of academic deans. In the 1980s, when the national political climate weighed heavily on higher education and social science, two sociology departments did close—the University of Rochester and Washington University-St. Louis. The latter school’s situation was particularly contentious and public, and it became an urban legend among deans. Later, the sociology department at Yale was highly scrutinized and considered for downsizing, but in the end, the department hired new faculty to replace senior scholars who had retired and continued to strengthen as a center of scholarship and learning. When our staff sociologists travel to visit departments, we still see yellowing newspaper clippings about Washington University and Yale University posted on bulletin boards. The odd, death-defying shelf life of these cases seemed to skew the view of the health of the field. In the last decade, a few sociology departments have lost their PhD programs and a few small departments have closed, primarily because the schools themselves closed. In a few other universities, sociology (and other) faculty have dispersed into specialized programs or institutes but have retained the sociology degree programs at all levels.

Enrollments Rising, New Programs

Sociology departments in reality are doing quite well. Enrollments are steadily rising, if not rapidly, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Graduate degrees awarded continue to climb. Several departments have regrouped and started up again, such as Southern Methodist University. The University of Central Florida (see November 2004 Footnotes, p. 7) will start a new PhD program. Over a dozen departments are experimenting with new professional MA degree programs to offer an improved degree for students wishing to engage in sociological practice in a wide variety of public, non-profit, and private organizations that are vital to their communities. The ASA Council has formed a new Task Force on the MA degree to explore these possibilities and assist departments think through the role of the MA in our changing economic and academic environments. A second new Council Task Force (see March 2005 Footnotes, p. 9) will consider in depth the role of sociology in general education, including how the discipline attracts student majors early in the pipeline and how it contributes to the liberal arts experience of students in every major. The inclusion and centrality of sociology across the undergraduate curriculum can only strengthen the understanding and more accurate appreciation of the discipline’s contributions to knowledge and to the advancement of science.

Last month, the Alabama/Mississippi Sociological Association held its annual meeting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, which had closed its sociology department many years ago. The theme of the meeting was “Toward a Positive Sociology.” The energy, high attendance (including students), ideas, and presentations met the test of the theme and intellectual vibrancy of the discipline overall. It is not surprising, therefore, that the sociologists on the Alabama campus are organizing an effort to re-establish the department. Without ignoring the challenges faced today by the social sciences in the United States and in the ever-changing world of higher education, we need a “search and replace” function on all those bulletin boards across the country to display how positive sociology’s current reality really is.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer