April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

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From the Executive Officer

Department Under Pressure? 
How the ASA Can Help During
Crises or Normal Times

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Many departments of sociology are experiencing pressure as higher education struggles with the impact of the financial crisis. Demands for increasing access while reducing costs move from the theoretical to the practical as sociology departments in some colleges and universities are asked to increase class sizes and teaching loads as well as manage existing programs (and develop new ones) often with less funding and fewer faculty lines. ASA is closely following a few of these immediate crises in which cost reduction strategies at the institutional level has resulted in threats to fire untenured faculty, close sociology departments, or eliminate programs. At moments such as these, the discipline’s national association can have a singular role to play.

Supporting Departments During Crises

When there are constrictions in higher education (this is far from the first time), the ASA works in collaboration with faculty to help sociology departments and programs that are threatened. Depending on the situation, that assistance might come in the form of disciplinary level information or data to help the department respond to planned cuts. Sometimes the best approach comes in the form of private letters to administrators from ASA; other times public letters or comments (such as articles in Footnotes) are the most effective. While the ASA can't tell universities how to handle budget crises, we have found that focused information on disciplinary strengths and opportunities has sometimes proven useful to departments in averting or mitigating cuts.

This type of support is available to departments at every level. Recent work by the ASA helped hold off drastic actions planned against both a respected PhD program and a small sociology program within a social science division. When administrators decided, without warning, to eliminate the PhD program at Arizona State University (ASU), the ASA worked with the faculty, students, and alumni of the program to help clarify to high-level administrators and university regents the contributions of the department and the discipline to the well-being of the entire university. According to Cecilia Menjivar, Graduate Studies Director at ASU, “I can’t speak definitely to what caused them to change their minds, but the involvement of the ASA and former ASA presidents and other colleagues was definitely very important and needs to be acknowledged.” 

In another case, a sociologist consultant from the ASA Department Resources Group helped a very small sociology program demonstrate to administrators the links between the sociology major and valued employment skills as well as alumni satisfaction. As a result, the program moved from its institution’s list of programs in danger of being cut, to the list slated for expansion and new faculty lines.

Building a Strong Disciplinary Foundation

Even for departments that are not facing immediate threats, ASA promotes sociology as a discipline in myriad ways that can positively impact the environment in which departments of sociology operate. For example, we work to bring sociological research into the public eye through our media and public relations staff. As a result of one recent ASA press release, over 130 news outlets from around the world covered Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam’s ASR article which revealed the “secret ingredient” in religion that makes people happier. While this was no doubt gratifying for the authors, the key point is that the more the general public understands the applicability and importance of sociological findings for real world concerns, the harder it will be to define the discipline as a target for cutting resources for departments.

The ASA also works to ensure that sociology is represented in debates about funding for the social sciences, and that sociological insights are brought to the table during national level social policy debates. We've seen again and again that when sociology department faculty bring in grants and are represented in national debates, administrators are far less inclined to look to sociology departments for budget savings.

The ASA also works to show the value of the undergraduate degree in sociology. ASA publications such as 21st Century Careers with an Undergraduate Degree in Sociology help students translate their sociological understandings into satisfying careers. ASA research on Bachelors and Beyond Study (now entering its fourth wave) provides nationally-normed assessment benchmarks that departments can use to demonstrate what their graduates are learning (the data are available on a CD included with the ASA book Launching Majors in Satisfying Careers).

It appears that implementing the recommendations from ASA publications like these can have a substantial impact on a departments’ institutional security during difficult economic times. At a recent Department Chairs Breakfast hosted by the ASA at a regional sociological society meeting, one of the attendees described how her department had moved from being virtually unknown to becoming the campus exemplar of effective assessment, based on its implementation of the assessment recommendations found in another ASA publication Creating an Effective Assessment Plan for the Sociology Major. All of these publications are available in the ASA Bookstore.

Supporting Departments During Normal Operations

Thankfully, most sociology departments in the United States are not in crises. As the organizational heart of the academy, academic departments’ stable operations are crucial to student and faculty success. The ASA supports sociology departments in their ongoing work in a variety of ways.

The ASA Research Department produces disciplinary data on students, departments, and the faculty within them. When a sociology chair meets with a dean, such information from the discipline’s national association with explicit sources referenced, can make the difference between an easily ignored request for resources and a well documented and supported case for departmental needs. The ASA Department Resources Group (DRG) provides expert sociologist as consultants who fully understand both the dangers and the opportunities of program review and can act as effective external reviewers. The DRG also offers a mentoring program for new department chairs.

The ASA Department Affiliates Program builds organizational links between departments and the association and among departments. It helps departments stay up to date on key developments in higher education and the discipline through the sociology-specific, concise, and timely e-newsletter Chairlink. And, of course, every year on the day before the Annual Meeting starts, ASA hosts conferences for department chairs and directors of graduate studies programs. Participant evaluations of these two conferences suggest that for many participants, the yearly opportunity to talk with their counterparts in similar departments facing similar challenges is a key source of professional renewal and strategic insight. All of these sources of support are listed under “Chairs Resources” on the ASA website under Teaching & Learning.

Sociology Departments are the Core of the Discipline

Sociology departments are at the heart of teaching the accumulated knowledge and methods of our discipline and of sending informed, critical thinkers into the social mainstream as citizens, residents, and leaders of the United States and countries across the globe. Sociology departments also have the formidable responsibility of preparing the next generation of sociological scholars and researchers. These are the tasks of the majority of ASA’s members as well as faculty who may not be members but who use the considerable resources of their national association to advance the many facets of their work—scholarship through ASA and section journals; research through grants from the ASA’s Fund for the Advancement of Sociology (FAD) among others; teaching through TRAILS and ASA’s academic publications; service through the Department Affiliates and the reports of ASA Task Forces. Supporting sociology departments is central to ASA’s mission.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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