Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rural sociology is a fading field at universities, even those with land-grant missions

Critics are seeing a disturbing trend eliminating rural sociology departments from land-grant universities. Scott Jaschik writes for Inside Higher Ed that the field has lost its roots. Rural research may still be occurring, but Jaschik reports the context has changed: "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."

Washington State University is the latest land-grant institution to target its rural sociology department, prompting an angry outcry from supporters across the country. An advertisement published Friday in two Washington newspapers featured signatures from 21 leaders of the Rural Sociological Society to faculty at Cornell University and North Carolina State University, all chastising the WSU administration. A primary concern is how WSU, as a land-grant institution, is setting an example, which the advertisement argues "sends a powerful negative message ... that applied research and outreach focused on problems and opportunities experienced by rural people and communities is expendable."

The university's decision to end the program was influenced by steep budget cuts, but critics argue that the discipline should have higher priority. At Cornell, David L. Brown, a sociologist, says,"Our work is always grounded in these [rural] places," and adds that 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." Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one of the few institutions left with a freestanding program, agrees. "There aren't very many rural sociology programs around. There's a general perception that rural doesn't matter anymore." (Read more).

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