July-August 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 6

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Sustaining Sociology in a
Bad Economy

The University of South Florida introduces a new
PhD program in sociology.

by Maralee Mayberry and Donileen Loseke, University of South Florida

We were told to expect the phone call at 1:00 pm on January 29. Sure enough, it came: The Board of Governors of the State of Florida had approved the sociology department’s new PhD program. While we had heard that this would happen, we had a hard time believing it. After all, the most common topic in the news was the horrid fiscal shape of the state so certainly they wouldn’t approve new programs for a state university now. And, after winding its way through the multiple University of South Florida (USF) channels of approval, the proposal had awaited legislative approval for over three years. Was it luck, or, were there characteristics of our university, department, and proposed PhD program that worked in our favor? We like to think that program approval was more than a matter of luck because, if so, then others might benefit from our experiences. We offer some reflections on what might be associated with state approval.

Strengthen the MA

We’ll start with patting ourselves on the back: For several years we had been working to strengthen our MA program, acting as if the Ph.D. program would be approved. For example, we started organizing many of our classes so that they would lead to papers suitable for professional presentation, we helped students craft these papers, and we made it a budget priority to help them defray the costs of attending conferences. We also strengthened our efforts to place our MA graduates in excellent doctoral programs and were successful in sending our students to programs at universities such as Rutgers, Boston College, University of Colorado, and University of Missouri. These and other such efforts yielded statistics about our MA program that cast us in favorable light on the PhD proposal.

Be Interdisciplinary

Second, and more importantly, rather than a general PhD program in sociology ours is formally linked to PhD programs in both history and government. Doctoral students in all three disciplines will begin and end their studies with seminars facilitated by core faculty from these linked departments. Designed to provide settings in which students and faculty meet as a community, these seminars will allow students to work together in exploring relevant epistemologies, methodologies, and theories that inform interdisciplinary research. Such "cross-training" will be an invaluable addition to the more traditional grounding in sociological research provided by the required coursework in the department.

In addition to the interdisciplinary approach, our program also has a particular focus: Building sustainable communities in global and urban environments. Issues of sustainable communities unite scholars from a wide variety of social science, natural science, and humanistic disciplines who have developed substantial theoretical and empirical literatures that extend across multiple disciplines and transcend the boundaries of academic departments and the nation state. It is likely this program characteristic was attractive to state legislators. Rather than the traditional argument that "knowledge is good," we emphasized how students graduating from our program will be prepared to train future community and urban researchers, problem solvers, and other specialists engaged in building and sustaining better local, national, and global communities.

Gain Administrative Support

Lastly, probably the largest reason for our success: Clearly our chances for approval were greatly helped by the fact that USF is a university on the move. According to USF Provost Ralph Wilcox, "The University of South Florida is committed to growing its graduate program offerings, both the quality of existing programs as well as introducing new programs that are relevant to the needs of a global society." Such organizational goals are echoed by President Judy Genshaft who believes that "expanding USF’s doctoral-level programs is an investment in the future of the university, which is certainly no small feat given the state and national economic climate. Together, the new programs in sociology, history, and government support integrated, interdisciplinary inquiry and will position USF to become the university of the future."

We were the beneficiaries of administrative support. Critically, this support included more than making statements about the importance of new PhD programs. The support was tangible. The most obvious indicator is that the department had grown from 10 faculty members to 18 in the past three years. On the record, our program would not cost much other than graduate student stipends because most faculty already were in place. This did not simply happen but rather was the result of administrative support, including the President, the Provost, and the (several) Deans of our College of Arts and Sciences.

Although we were surprised that, after all the years of waiting, the State of Florida approved our PhD program in Sociology, there was far more than good luck involved. Packaging the program in ways emphasizing outcomes linked to local and state causes, producing indicators that the department was ready for a doctoral program, and consistent administrative commitment came together to give us the opportunity to contribute to sociology’s future and to the strategic ambitions of our university.

The program is a minimum of 60 credit hours beyond the MA and includes an interdisciplinary professional seminar, disciplinary core requirements (Advanced Research Methods and Study Design, Advanced Sociological Theory), disciplinary and interdisciplinary electives, a capstone interdisciplinary seminar, and a dissertation. For further information, see sociology.usf.edu/ or contact Donileen R. Loseke, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, at dloseke@cas.usf.edu. logo


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