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UTPA a stop on 11-campus tour by American Sociological Association President Erik Olin Wright
Posted: 03/26/2012
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The significance of the discipline of sociology and the opportunities available to students in the field were in the spotlight March 22 when Dr. Erik Olin Wright, president of the American Sociological Association (ASA) visited the campus of The University of Texas-Pan American.

Pictured left to right during the American Sociological Association's visit to the UTPA campus March 22 are Dr. Jean Shin, director of ASA's Minority Affairs Program; Dr. Kenneth Buckman, UTPA associate provost for Student Engagement and Experiential Learning; Dr. Walter Diaz, dean of UTPA's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Dr. Erik Olin Wright, ASA president; Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, UTPA provost and vice president for academic affairs; David Enrique Rangel, University of Wisconsin graduate student in sociology; Dr. Miguel Diaz-Barriga, interim chair, UTPA Department of Sociology; and Dr. Kristin Croyle, UTPA vice provost for Undergraduate Education.
The visit to UTPA to talk with administrators, sociology department faculty and students is part of a spring tour by Wright to 11 schools - including nine minority serving institutions - around the south and southwest. Wright was joined by Dr. Jean Shin, director of ASA's Minority Affairs Program, and San Antonio native David Rangel, who is now a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

"I am visiting sociology programs in each place ... I want them to know that the American Sociological Association is really interested in being inclusive, therefore drawing them into more activities, events, and programs that the ASA organizes," Wright said.

Wright, who is the director of the Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin and one of the world's most preeminent sociologists, described why the study of sociology matters.

"This might sound provocative, but much human suffering and many deficits in humans flourishing are the result of the way we organize our society. So if that is true - if you actually believe that much suffering is the result of how our institutions are designed - then sociology is absolutely at the center of trying to make life better for people," Wright said.

During an ASA Opportunities Forum, undergraduate and graduate students in sociology or related disciplines were able to learn about resources the ASA offers including scholarships, fellowships, an honors program and other information available to better prepare them for admission into graduate programs and careers in sociology. Shin said the study of sociology opens up many doors to students.

"In addition to making contributions in academia as professors and researchers, students who study sociology often go on to become difference makers in a variety of other fields, " said Shin, who, along with Wright and Rangel, talked to students about the preparation and skills they needed to enter top graduate and Ph.D. programs and encouraged their interest.

Sociology graduate student Cynthia Cantu said the visit by ASA officials made her aware of the organization and its resources.

"This opens doors for students and informs them what is out there. I didn't know about this organization and they are going to start working with other schools as well. Now this campus can talk to another campus about what they are doing. I think that is a good first few steps they can take to help us communicate with other sociology departments," she said.

During a lecture following the opportunities forum, Wright spoke on "Envisioning Real Utopias," the title of his book published in 2010 and theme of the ASA's 2012 annual meeting scheduled for August in Denver.

He said the idea of Real Utopias is exploring designs of alternatives to existing institutions that would help realize moral ideals of justice and human flourishing. As an example, Wright described the structure and success of the worker cooperative called Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain, which is a conglomerate of 270 cooperatives with 100,000 workers. He said the highest to lowest paid at Mondragon is 6 to 1 rather than 400 to 1 in American corporations, managers are elected by the workers, and in the recent economic crisis only had one cooperative dissolve with its workers being absorbed into the remaining ones.

"So, Real Utopias is meant to provoke a discussion of how to make our institutions, social structures and social practices move in the direction of the ideals of fairness, democracy, sustainability and other values that we would care about," Wright said.

Their Rio Grande Valley trip also included a visit to a colonia and the Hidalgo County Pump House to view the border wall. Planning for ASA's agenda in the Valley was the result of a collaborative effort of the Office of the Provost, Office for Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Sociology, said Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, UTPA provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. It was the first ever official visit by ASA to the campus, which has a small but thriving sociology program, Rodriguez said.

"This visit allowed UT Pan American faculty and students to interact with the ASA, to have UT Pan American become a more visible presence within the ASA and the discipline, and to have our institution become more engaged with these professional organizations as well as benefit from the services and resources that they can provide to our institution," Rodríguez said.

The ASA, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

Access the ASA website at www.asanet.org for more information. Read about Wright's trip to UTPA and his spring 2012 tour of campuses at his Travels with Erik blog. To learn more about the sociology program at UTPA go to the Department of Sociology website.