Bidding Farewell to our Beloved Dr. Manisha Desai

manisha, bandana, and rianka

Professor Desai, Professor Purkayastha and Rianka Roy at the ISA in Melbourne

We bid a very bitter-sweet farewell to Manisha Desai who will be joining Stonybrook as the Endowed Chair of Global Citizenship and Executive Director of The Center for Changing Systems of Power in the Fall. On behalf of your colleagues, the grads, undergrads, and community members we want to congratulate and thank you for your contributions that have enriched our department and the UConn community. Below are some heartfelt and special messages for Manisha as she embarks on this next stage of her journey.

I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with Dr. Manisha Desai since the beginning of my doctoral journey at UConn. In fact, one of the reasons I chose UConn is because I was inspired by her intellectual brilliance, commitment to feminist sociology and social justice. She has always been enormously supportive of my decisions and shows deep kindness and sensitivity. I am grateful for her influence on my life both in terms of research and everyday sociological praxis.

Dr. Desai is my dissertation chair and I have not only learned from her how to do sound sociological and feminist research but also the qualities of a good mentor. Over the years, she has helped me navigate graduate work and encouraged me to start writing and presenting papers at academic conferences. As I look back, her commitment to advising has had a formative effect on my thinking, writing, and doctoral experience.

Taking graduate seminars with Dr. Desai opens a world of scholarly writings beyond the sociological canon and reflects her deep commitment to decolonizing the curricula and discipline. I have always cherished opportunities to correspond or meet in person and value our conversations where she would gently push me to think against the grain. She has inspired me to pursue academic research with dedication, passion, nuance, and sensitivity.

During my doctoral journey, I’ve explored different directions in my research, and this has been possible because of Dr. Desai’s faith in me. She has made me believe that people would care about what I am studying and finding and that those people would include not only sociologists and scholars across disciplines in academia, but also lay persons, care industry stakeholders, senior citizens and their families, and policymakers. She inspires faith not only by having faith in her students but also through her willingness to talk about the messy bits of academic life. For me, this kind of honesty and vulnerability was and still is reassuring, because it means that perfection isn’t possible, but also that it is possible, even without perfection, to have a meaningful impact and a fulfilling career.

Dr. Desai’s popularity and the respect she has garnered across departments, universities, and professional organizations are a testament to her being a wonderful colleague, fearless leader, and compassionate feminist, who has contributed to making workplaces more equitable and just. She has established herself as one of the most visible advocates of transnational feminist sociology, social justice, and praxis with an inspiring record of service, activism, and scholarship. While I am sad that Dr. Desai is leaving UConn, I am confident she will be just as successful in her new role at Stony Brook. My best wishes for the journey ahead!

Asmita Aasaavari

Although Manisha and I have only worked together for a short amount of time, she has provided me with incredible learning opportunities to engage in the world of feminist and human rights scholarship. Additionally, her seminar on Gender and Human Rights was instrumental in clarifying my research passions and introducing me to important literature and key concepts regarding gender and human rights. Manisha created a classroom environment that was grounded in community and allowed for generative and rich discourse. Manisha will definitely be missed at UConn!

– Lauren Danielowski

Manisha will be joining Stonybrook University as Endowed Chair of Global Citizenship and Executive Director of Center for Changing Systems of Power in Fall. She joined UCONN as the Director of WGSS in 2007.  I recall the excitement among search committee members because we were getting the first woman of color as the Head of Women’s Studies (as it was known then).  From 2007 to 2010 Manisha was fully immersed in WGSS; in 2010 she requested a joint appointment with Asian and Asian American Studies to reflect her important work in India.  She became Full Professor in 2015, and Head of Sociology in 2016.  In addition to her UCONN responsibilities, she has been a Senior Research Fellow, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, in Geneva, Switzerland, since 2021; she has been working on emphasizing the gender aspects of translating Research into Policy and Practice program around a New Eco-Social Contract.

Manisha brought her formidable intellectual accomplishments and people skills to our department.  Her commitment to building equitable networks and friendships were hallmarks of her time as a faculty member and Head of the department.  It is remarkable to reflect on the other tasks she took on cheerfully over the past years.  Among her many service contributions to the university, she served on UConn’s AAUP from 2019, the Gladstein Committee of the Human Rights Institute from 2017, on the Senate from 2009, and she worked on and then chaired the Senate’s Diversity Committee.  

Manisha was awarded the CLAS Academic Leadership award this year (2023).  In their letters to support this nomination members of the department—the staff, faculty and graduate students– have repeatedly mentioned Manisha’s kindness, her openness, and her ability to build bridges.  She also made it possible to invigorate our graduate student profile to include BIPOC students as well as students of a variety of gender identities. While these efforts met with a lot of opposition before, Manisha basically fostered a broader climate of collaboration so that the opposition to these efforts lessened.  Manisha consistently articulated that diversity and inclusion was not enough, we needed to model equitable and just practices.  Several people from around the university mentioned that she always spoke out and insisted the university had to do more to live up to their values of diversity and inclusion.   

Manisha’s research on gender and intersectionality, using a critical transnational feminist approach, has been a significant contributor to the scholarly conversations on global feminisms.  Her focus has been on feminisms and social movements; she has consistently shown how the most marginalized people have continued to challenge structures of injustice.  Her 2002 co-edited book, Women’s Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles to Transnational Politics (and especially her own theoretical chapter in this book) is a classic. Her recent book Subaltern Movements in India: Gendered Geographies of Struggle Against Neoliberal Development (2016) as well as her numerous articles are equally important.

Manisha also built communities within the profession.  I first met her in 2006 when she was President Elect of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS).  In 2007 as President of SWS she organized SWS’s annual meeting in post-Katrina New Orleans and she brought together activists from India, Honduras, and Florida who had worked on post-tsunami and -hurricane rehabilitation, to work with African American, Vietnamese, and Indigenous community activists in New Orleans to share best practices and build solidarities across borders.  As Chair of SWS’s International Committee, she launched a Global Feminist Partnership initiative, to build feminist collaborations of mutual learning across borders.  

There is so much to more to write about Manisha’s contributions.  I am very grateful for her presence and friendship over the decades.  Your contributions are best reflected in the words of your students.

-Bandana Purkayastha

If there is one thing I am grateful for in my academic career, it is the enormous support from my mentors. Among them, Professor Desai holds a special place, not only as my advisor, but also as someone who has unconditionally supported me whenever I made some crucial research decisions. When I joined sociology, having spent over a decade in the humanities, I needed an advisor who would facilitate my transition to the discipline. I lacked the sociological vocabulary, I read theory differently, my writing style was different, and on many occasions, I was reminded that I was a misfit. But Professor Desai valued me for who I was, and encouraged me to hone in on my strengths. She has also been extremely patient with me through the transition, especially while reviewing several drafts of my papers. Working with her, I never had to hesitate while I chose my research topic and explored new directions in my research. I could count on her support for academic freedom. Some may prosaically suggest that she just did her job. But as an international student doing research on critical issues like labor, gender and migration, I realize how difficult it would have been for me to survive without her relentless support in a politically polarized and racially divided country (which has historically been unwelcoming to immigrants of color and suppressed their voices). 

From Professor Desai, I found the courage to challenge and expand epistemological boundaries both in my research and teaching. In my long student life, I have done several theory classes with esteemed scholars and professors. But among them, only Professor Desai had been intentional about decolonizing sociological theories and including women theorists of color in the syllabi, some even from the Global South. With her, research has been an exciting adventure, full of pleasant surprises and mind-blowing discoveries. And most importantly, she has always centered this process around human values and relations. Starting from organizing virtual happy hours during Covid, to bringing snacks to graduate seminars, from celebrating student achievements, to sharing memes and poems, she has always shown how a mentor can also be a trusted friend. I am obviously sad that she is leaving UConn. But I know how deeply committed she is to her students; so I know my mentor and friend will always be with me, with us, whenever we need her. I wish her all the best.

-Rianka Roy

“The first day I met Dr. Desai, I was caught in the middle of a somewhat lengthy season of applications. As I walked around UCONN’s campus for the first time, I was still considering which university would provide the most fitting environment for future studies, still quite unsure of the path I would take. Dr. Desai offered compassionate and critical discussions about the field of Sociology and in particular, my field of interest. As an incoming student, this meeting was crucial in solidifying my choice of university and also helped to nourish the anxious yet curious academic inside of me. In this meeting, it was clear that not only did she care about the well-being of students – both academically and personally – but also in fostering a more creative and deep analysis within Sociology as a whole.”

These words are an excerpt of a faculty mentorship nomination letter I wrote in 2016. And… the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As a Black, queer, trans, sort-of first-gen student who deeply cares about their community – I’ve always held tensions with higher education, its exclusivity, and institutional imperatives that often ask people like me to shrink or transform themselves to be “successful.” While working with Dr. Desai, for nearly a decade now, I’ve been endlessly impressed by her ability to reach across difference, honor experience, and think strategically about who and what is impacted by her own work; and, by extension – the wider discipline. At every turn, Dr. Manisha Desai has been a model for what I hope academia can be: empathetic, honest, intersectional, critical and rigorous, full of joy, humor, principled care, and deeply human.

To Dr. Desai, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your service as my committee chair, advisor, and mentor. From my first year on campus, to SWS meetings in California, New Orleans, or DC, to sociological theory in Cuba: you’ve offered mentorship that has transformed my sociological practice in deeply meaningful ways. Thank you for caring deeply about your students, our communities, the department – and beyond. UConn was so lucky to host your brilliance and your impact will be felt for years to come.

-Chriss Sneed