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After Nearly 25 Years, Washington U. Will Bring Back Sociology

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University
Brookings Hall at Washington University in St. Louis.

Depending on who is telling the story, Washington University dropped its sociology department in 1991 because it was filled with radical thinkers or because it was not strong enough academically.

Or maybe it was a little of both.

Either way, the university announced this week that it will be bringing the department back, with some classes in the field possibly offered as early as this fall.

Declaring that sociology “is an essential academic discipline that investigates important issues of human social structure and function — issues that are at the heart of many national and global challenges,” Barbara Schaal, the university’s dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, said the decision will strengthen the school in many ways.

She noted that sociology touches upon many top issues in American society, from economics to immigration to education to social inequality.

“It’s important that our undergraduate students have world-class scholars who talk about those things,” she said in an interview.

Credit Washington University website
Barbara Schaal

And, Schaal added, the return of sociology will help strengthen other academic areas, like political science, anthropology and the social work school.

Discussions on the return of sociology had begun seven or eight years ago, Schaal said, but they were derailed when the recession hit. A campus committee on the topic eventually reconvened, and an open campus forum on sociology was held in December.

She said that sociology will be a particularly good complement to the university’s Brown School of Social Work. There, she said, the work is more applied, where in sociology it is more academic.

“For me,” Schaal said, “the two go hand in hand. To have both components is really exciting for us.”

The head of the American Sociological Association, Annette Lareau of the University of Pennsylvania, said she could not think of any schools with the status of Washington U. that do not teach sociology, and the university’s decision to abolish the department was unusual.

“I think it’s good news,” Lareau said, “but also it’s sort of correcting an omission. It’s filling a hole in the university by bringing it back.”

From distinguished to depleted

Lareau said that at one time, the sociology department at Washington U. was one of the strongest in the nation.

“In its heyday,” she said,  “Washington University had a very distinguished department. At one point in its history, it was one of top five departments.”

When its reputation began to fade, and why, is a matter of dispute.

Some trace the beginning of the end to campus radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period marked by the burning of the campus ROTC building in 1970. A month later, a group of students briefly seized control of the main administration building, Brookings Hall, and barricaded themselves inside.

From then on, the political climate on campus was often highly polarized, and sociology was often seen as the center of things.

Jan Whitaker, who was working on a Ph.D. in the early ‘80s, recalls a very definite attitude of antagonism.

“The administration did not like the department at all,” she said in an interview from her home in Massachusetts, “and the trustees did not like the department. They saw it as a hotbed of radicals.”

The antipathy toward the sociology department, she said, was one reason she decided to leave Washington U. and head east.

“I concluded this department was too weak to survive,” Whitaker said.

Danny Kohl, an outspoken biology professor who now has emeritus status at the university, said that as the ‘80s progressed, the department dwindled. Some members of the faculty failed to get tenure, and by the time the decision was made in 1989 to shut the department down two years later, just four professors were left, and only one of those had tenure.

Kohl said that the rationale given for the decision at the time was budgetary, but he thinks the reasoning goes deeper than that. He recalls sitting next to a member of the physics faculty at a meeting where the issue of sociology was discussed and saying that if a department like mathematics was perceived to be weak, the university would spend the money needed to build it up.

The physics professor responded that mathematics was a real academic discipline, with the strong implication that sociology was not.

“If sociology was weak,” Kohl said in an interview, “the administration was responsible for that.

“They didn’t have any respect for sociology as a discipline, and it was an easy way for them to save money. If it was mathematics, they would have rebuilt it. Rather than committing to rebuild a small and excellent department, they got rid of it.”

And, he adds, there was an easy answer for those who may not have liked the political leanings of the department’s staff.

“If you didn’t like who you had,” he said, “don’t give them tenure, and you could rebuild it in any image that you want.”

Even at the time, Kohl said, many on campus expected the university to bring sociology back. At one point, officials instituted a program, not a department, called social thought and analysis, “but that clearly wasn’t going to work. You can’t recruit a good sociologist and put him in the political science department.”

Martin Israel, who headed the faculty of arts and sciences at the time the decision was made to drop sociology, recalled it being a weak department by the time he became dean. From a purely economic point of view, he said in an interview, the decision was clear.

“The question was what would it take to bring it up to the kind of standards we like to have as a department,” Israel said. “I spent some time looking at that, and I was convinced that to do the job reasonably well would require a number of hires that I simply didn’t have in my budget.

Credit Washington University website
Martin Israel

“It was question of spending money I didn’t have or closing it, because it just wasn’t a department that was anything like the quality we wanted to have here.”

He said he couldn’t speak to what had happened before he became dean in 1987, but from his point of view, there was no political slant to the department’s demise.

“This wasn’t a political issue, at least as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “The decision I had when I became dean in 1987 was that I had to go with academic quality, and what it would take to bring it up to appropriate standards. It was nothing in my mind with this kind of politics or that kind of politics.”

A welcome return

Has Washington University been a lesser school because it has not taught sociology? Israel put it this way:
“For more than 20 years, we haven’t had a sociology department, and and I think it’s fair to say that overall, we are a highly respected university doing lot of good things. We obviously have survived very well without it.

“But I’m not saying we shouldn’t bring it back. That’s a different story.”

Lareau, the president of the discipline’s national association, says she can’t think of any institution with the size and scope of Washington U. that doesn’t teach sociology.

“For a research university -- and Washington University is a very  impressive university where the faculty makes important contributions to research – it was very surprising it did not have a department of sociology for over two decades. So we certainly welcome the decision to bring it back.”

Its return is particularly welcome at times like these, Lareau added.

“We live in an era of increasing inequality, and also tremendous social change in gender and race relations,” she said. “Having a sociology department really offers an opportunity for students at Washington University to be exposed to important ideas.”

Psychology professor Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, who has been active in the return of sociology, says its presence on campus will broaden the opportunities for students.

“When I was chair of psychology,” he said in a statement released by the university,  “students would sometimes approach me about my department offering courses on topics like criminology. However, I had to tell them that we had no faculty members capable of doing so.

“Criminology is a hugely important topic, but one that is usually covered in sociology departments. We have an obligation to both our students and our faculty to bring this important discipline back to campus.

Schaal, the current dean of the faculty, says it will take time to build the department to the strength she thinks it should have, though some courses could be offered this fall in conjunction with other disciplines.

She expects Washington U. to make a few hires each year in sociology, bringing the department gradually up to a strength of 10-15 faculty members.

Where will the money come from? Schaal said it will be a combination of new funds plus dollars reallocated from other areas of arts and sciences. The university’s fund-raising drive, now in the midst of an effort to bring in $2.2 billion, will help, she hopes.

“We’re in the middle of a campaign,” she said, “and I’m hoping to attract support for sociology from that

“At the same time, by very carefully using our budget, we can accommodate adding a department.”

Schaal said the rebuilding effort will begin with the selection of a department chair, most likely someone from inside who is familiar with Washington U. and with sociology.

“We want someone who really understands the university,” she said. “Then I’d like an endowed chair -- and bring in a superstar.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.