The Department of Sociology is celebrating its 40th anniversary in a somewhat sentimental, and slightly belated, fashion this spring by inviting old friends and former students back to campus to share what they've been doing since they left Mergenthaler Hall behind.
The department's annual spring speaker series will commemorate its 40th anniversary, officially marked by the start of the fall 1999 semester, with talks by four former graduate students, each thriving in academic careers at other universities, and Alejandro Portes, a Latin studies scholar at Princeton who was a prominent faculty member for 15 years at Hopkins.
All the talks will take place in 533 Mergenthaler, also known as the Coleman Room, which in many ways represents the heart and soul of the department.
In this room hangs a bronze plaque engraved with the names of every doctoral degree graduate and chair of the Department of Sociology during its 40-plus years. On a different wall hangs a charcoal portrait of James Coleman, the man credited with starting the department in the fall of 1959. With a $750,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, he launched the Department of Social Relations, which included two nontenured faculty members and four graduate students. Large in scope, it included three disciplines: sociology, anthropology and social psychology. Leading the department was James Coleman, a young man barely four years out of a graduate school at Columbia University but already considered one of the country's leading thinkers in education reform for disadvantaged youth.
His vision for Hopkins, he once said, was to create a narrowly focused, graduate-only program designed to produce social scientists with "sharp edges."
Keeping things together as office administrator was Virginia "Binnie" Bailey, who had been hired by Coleman a few days after her graduation from Washington College. "It was supposed to be just a temporary, summer thing until I figured out what I wanted to do," says Bailey, who still keeps things together in the department. "But Jim Coleman was the most charismatic, engaging man I had ever met. He radiated energy and inspired everyone around him. He was like that until the end. Years after he left Hopkins for the University of Chicago and was dying of cancer, he had a bed set up in the dining room so he could still hold his seminars with his graduate students. He did that until his last two weeks. That was vintage Jim Coleman."
Coleman's personality and research in education attracted and absorbed a number of passionate young faculty members and graduate students. Edward McDill came to Hopkins on a postdoctoral fellowship in 1961 to work with Coleman. With the exception of one year, when he went to teach at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, he has been here since.
In 1966, McDill and Coleman started the Center for Social Organization of Schools, an education reform research and development center. Two additional young scholars, Doris Entwistle and Robert Gordon, joined the department in the early 1960s and have been here since.
Some of the department's more promising graduate students, including James McPartland, Joyce Epstein and Robert Slavin, were offered research positions at CSOS upon earning their degrees and, like McDill, have earned national reputations for their research conducted here on the Homewood campus.
"They each stood out," McDill said, "and it was our collective judgment that we should keep them. And that turned out to be a very wise decision."
McDill was its director until he was promoted to full professor in 1970, "which coincidently happened to be the same year they lured me into becoming chair of the department," he added. It was a position he would hold for the next 15 years.
The departures of Coleman, for the University of Chicago in 1973, and of Peter Rossi, another national star in sociology, the following year, were losses that hit the department hard. "After that, there were four or five years when we felt vulnerable," McDill said.
In 1974, the department was restructured, and the anthropology arm became independent. McDill and his fellow faculty focused on rebuilding.
"We set out to recruit a young faculty whose research potential was promising, and we made some very good hires."
And Bailey, who said she felt like "the heart had gone out of the department" when Coleman left, began to enjoy watching these new young faculty members--Andrew Cherlin, Karl Alexander and Christopher Chase-Dunn--get their feet wet and become full professors and national stars in their own right.
By the 1980s the department was thriving. The appointments of heavyweights like Melvin Kohn, known for his research in the social psychology of work in the United States and Eastern Europe, and Alejandro Portes, who was conducting groundbreaking studies of the Latin American economy and immigrants, added luster to the department. Portes and his wife, Patricia Fernandez Kelly--very likely Hopkins' only Emmy winner, for her documentary on the plight of female factory workers in Latin America--were here 15 years until they left in 1997. He will return April 25 as a guest lecturer during the speaker series.
More recent appointments, including Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver, who study world systems; Katrina Bell McDonald, the sociology of the family, race, class and gender; Lingxin Hao, immigration and social policy; and James Ron, political sociology, have added new strength to the department.
Though still considered small, Hopkins' Department of Sociology has been ranked consistently in the top 20 nationwide. Today there are 25 graduate students, but that number will probably go up with next year's crop, culled from close to 90 applicants, Bailey said. The department is conducting a search for faculty members to replace Chris Chase-Dunn, who left last year, and James Ron, who is leaving this year. It will attempt to hire an additional two, who will divide their time between the department and CSOS.
"We hope to fill most of the vacancies before the end of 2001," said McDill, who is in his fifth year of phased retirement. This is his last semester of teaching. Next year he will spend all his time at CSOS.
He isn't worried, he said, about the department's future as it makes its way through its next decade.
"It is in good hands, all the way through," he said. "Every single member of the department is first-rate. Besides being strong researchers, they are excellent teachers and good citizens."