Reflections from the Department Head

Manisha Desai

We find ourselves again this summer in the midst of the continually challenging pandemic and racist and hate inspired mass shootings. Additionally, we have rising inflation, even as wages for most workers have been stagnant for decades leading to a resurgence in unionizing around the country; the hearings of the “Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol;” and with the overturning of Roe v Wade the curtailment of the already restricted reproductive rights for all genders, again with disproportionate impact on people of color. All reflections of the systemic inequalities and injustices built into our institutions, that call for sociological analysis and actions. Our faculty and students have all responded to this urgent call in myriad ways as our newsletter highlights.


This past academic year began hopefully with in person classes in the Fall after over a year of remote learning, that was tough for everyone. But, in the Spring we had to migrate to online learning and teaching for the first two weeks of the semester. We have all had to become more flexible and accommodating in responding to a pandemic that might be with us in varied forms for years to come and rise to the specific challenges that it has created.


For example, through her Sociology of Food course, Dr. Bunyan, Associate Professor in Residence at our Stamford campus, worked with students to address the growing concern of food insecurity among our students. From a pop-up food pantry a couple of days a week, Dr. Bunyan and her students have established a permanent space at the Stamford campus with support from the local community (read more here)! This project demonstrates the kind of experiential and service learning that happens in several classes on all our campuses. Also at Stamford, Dr. Semaan, Associate Professor in Residence, was instrumental in creating a double major in Sociology and Psychology. Along with the minor available at Hartford and Stamford this provides more students with a sociological lens necessary for social justice.


At Storrs, our colleagues once again responded to the ongoing systemic racism in our society. Professor Purkayastha taught in the large Anti-Racism course offered by the University which enrolled 1300 students. Professor Bernstein continued her work with the preventing gun violence project which led to her receiving the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Engaged Scholarship. Our Anti-racism committee continued to gather documents and best practices to address racism and conducted a workshop for faculty and staff at our annual retreat. Our new webpage related to the work of the committee is under construction and will be a resource for the whole campus.


Colleagues have also been active in engaging undergraduate students in research, a life transforming experience for many. Prof. Braunstein’s Democracy Lab, Prof. Wrights work with undergraduates on charting well-being on campus, and Professor Bernstein’s work with undergraduates around preventing gun violence have provided meaningful learning experiences and awards. Another evidence of the engaged undergraduate experience is the second edition of our student produced journal, The Mirror. 


Even with funding cuts our graduate students continue to excel. We graduated 5 Ph.D.s this year all of whom are gainfully employed. Congratulations and best wishes to them all and we hope you will keep in touch and let us know the paths you chart. Bryan Greene won a Fulbright Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for research in Poland. Congrats and good luck Bryan as you begin your travels. We will welcome a small but energetic new cohort. 


Faculty continued to be productive scholars and dedicated teachers and elected to offices in professional organizations. Congratulations to Associate Professor in Residence Phoebe Godfrey for her promotion to Full Professor in Residence and her dedication to innovative and engaged teaching. Congratulations are also due to Professor Bernstein for her appointment as Associate Dean in the Graduate School, to Professor Munsch for her Fellowship at the Centre for Advanced Studies at Stanford University, and to Professor Hughey who will finally be able to travel for his Fulbright Fellowship.


Many colleagues stepped up to take on interim leadership positions in addition to their usual service to the department. My deep gratitude and appreciation to: Professor Purkaysatha for serving as Interim Head while I was on sabbatical in the Fall; Associate Professor Liz Holzer for serving as Interim DGS for the Spring semester; Professor Wright who will step down as DUS after extending his term by a year; and Professor Braunstein who will serve as DUS effective Fall 2022. We are all beneficiaries of their dedication to the department. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Associate Professor Ralph McNeal for his service to the UPC in which he went above and beyond the work of a committee member to shepherd the renumbering of nearly 30 courses through the CLAS Courses and Curriculum Committee.


I wish you all a restful summer even as we will need to redouble our efforts against the decline of democracy and rights that we’re currently witnessing all around the world.