Abandoned in the Field

To scholars of rural communities, the elimination of a department at Washington State U. raises questions about sociology, land grant universities, and priorities.
May 19, 2009

Scan the list of academic departments at land grant universities, and you'll find units like animal science and horticulture and entomology and soil science -- units that reflect areas of study that take place elsewhere, but typically not with the cohort of scholars or depth of institutional commitment that a program signifies. There was an era when that list of departments at land grant universities also frequently included rural sociology.

These days it's far from a sure thing that you'll find rural sociology. It has been combined on many land grant campuses with other social science departments, and the name is gone from other programs. While there are many sociologists doing research on rural communities, and much of that research takes place in departments that aren't rural sociology departments, many professors in the field say that they have seen a slow erosion in support and expertise as retiring professors in these departments are replaced with sociologists who focus on other areas.

These concerns are nothing compared to the anger that has spread through the rural sociology world in the last few weeks, however, as word spread that Washington State University wasn't planning to merge its rural sociology program with another unit, but to simply eliminate it.

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline -- and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally -- stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State's decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally -- and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

"We are deeply concerned for the personal welfare of the department’s faculty members and staff, but we also believe that this action sends a powerful negative message to the land grant university system that applied research and outreach focused on problems and opportunities experienced by rural people and communities is expendable," says an advertisement published in two newspapers in Washington State Friday and signed by the president, president-elect and 19 past presidents of the Rural Sociological Society.

"The Department of Community and Rural Sociology at WSU provides trusted, empirically based information to local communities that enhances public and private decision making. What could be more consistent with the university’s land grant mission? How can this program be considered expendable? How will other land grant institutions interpret these radical actions when considering their own situations?" (Similar questions are being raised on blogs about sociology and rural life and, of course for any campus issue, on Facebook.)

Washington State -- like many public universities these days -- is engaged in the process of making deep budget cuts. The plan that would eliminate rural sociology would also cut a total of 370 jobs and several other departments -- sports management, theater and dance, and the German major. In total, the university needs to cut about 10 percent of its biennial budget. University officials have said that they respect the various departments being eliminated, and hope to continue relevant scholarship, but that choices had to be made to preserve other programs and not to water down every program.

In this period in which many colleges are cutting programs, the reaction is frequently intense on campus, and off-campus reaction depends in part on universities' larger missions. Last year, for example, foreign language professors nationwide decried the decision of the University of Southern California to eliminate German, noting that the university defined itself as an international institution.

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. "There aren't very many rural sociology programs around. There's a general perception that rural doesn't matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens," said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission -- that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. "Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don't see that at a lot of universities," he said. Pigg's work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is "a savior" for rural life, Pigg said that there's not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

He said that there is nothing theoretically wrong with having rural sociology as part of other departments, but that the discipline in its entirety doesn't pay much attention. A list of sections of the American Sociological Association includes on on urban sociology, but nothing specifically on rural areas. And while there is a section on animals and society, paper and book topics there appear more focused on pets than on farms.

The focus of Washington State's program is "problem-directed social science," said Raymond A. Jussaume Jr., the chair. The department's research priorities have been "the human dimensions of sustainability issues," efforts to promote conflict resolution dealing with environmental questions, and outreach to the growing Latino rural population in the state. "There are other people in the Pacific Northwest looking at these issues, but we are the last full program," he said.

There are five tenured and two tenure-track faculty members -- all of whom would lose their jobs one year after formal notice is given.

David L. Brown, one of those who organized the advertisements protesting the decision, said that he's been asking himself why he is so concerned, given that "I've never been to Pullman, Washington, and I don't have any close colleagues on the faculty there." Brown is a rural sociologist who works in one of those renamed departments -- in his case developmental sociology at Cornell University, which has a strong international focus. Brown is a demographer, and he said he remains proud of the contributions his department makes to farmers and agricultural areas in New York State. He has written extensively about issues of aging in rural areas and is currently conducting a study supported by the Commerce Department about how young people decide where to live.

While sociologists generally could explore those issues, there is a perspective in rural sociology (or equivalent but renamed) departments that reflects the idea of "what have you done to help New York State today," Brown said. Having that central to the agenda is different from what happens in a general sociology department, he said. "Our work is always grounded in these places," he said. "I think these issues are devalued" without specific programs.

The people who are the focus of rural sociologists "are those who are easily overlooked in the higher education system, in which the land grant universities are the only ones with a clear brief to focus on them," Brown said.

James J. Zuiches, vice chancellor for extension, engagement and economic development at North Carolina State University, was among those who signed the advertisement. A sociologist, and a former dean at Washington State, he knows the program there well. In contrast to the mergers or reductions faced by the field nationally, "I do think this is really without precedent -- to shut down a very distinguished program like this," he said.

Zuiches said he sees rural sociology as similar to the discipline of sociology as a whole in the emphasis on issues of power and class. But he said that the practical emphasis of rural sociology can't just be replicated elsewhere. "It's a very people-oriented, community-oriented discipline," he said. Zuiches compared the sociology/rural sociology divide to an agriculture college having "a molecular biologist thinking about the science of genetics, and a plant breeder thinking about feeding people." Agriculture colleges need both, he said.

Still others, however, think that the emphasis on the special situation of rural sociology may miss the larger challenge facing many public universities today (land grant and otherwise): finding a way to keep some programs outstanding when money is in short supply.

David E. Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said that he would distinguish between "having adequate capacity to understand rural sociology," which he said should matter to a land grant institution, and "having a department," which he said is not necessarily needed.

"Any time you for budgetary or other reasons decide to eliminate a department, you run into tremendous constituencies that a department has and that's exactly what is happening in this case," he said. "You can't judge whether those constituencies are right or wrong" from afar, he said, but it's important to know that "any department one chooses to eliminate, you will get this kind of reaction."

Shulenberger said it was important to consider the alternative to keeping all departments. Then every department becomes weaker, he said. "And that is a pretty costly decision when you are losing significant pieces of your budget," he said.

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