A conversation with SSD Deans Mario Luis Small and John Mark Hansen.
“The social sciences have an intellectual role in this University that is very special,” says John Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and senior adviser to President Robert J. Zimmer. Hansen would know. As dean of the Social Sciences Division from 2002 to 2012, he worked tirelessly with the chairs and faculty of each department to help sustain and strengthen that legacy. On July 1, Hansen passed the mantle to Mario Luis Small, who joined the faculty in 2006 and has served as chair of the sociology department. In a joint announcement, Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum wrote that they had sought a scholar and leader who would work to define the Division’s intellectual and educational direction: “This demanded a dean with outstanding scholarly credentials, who was a collaborative leader for the faculty, and who would work with other deans, the provost, and the president to help build and fulfill the highest aspirations of the University. In appointing Mario to this position, we are confident in his ability to be such a leader.” Small, a leading sociologist of his generation and the author of Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Equality in Everyday Life, researches the creation of community and social capital in urban spaces. Hansen, a well-known scholar of American politics, studies elections, public opinion, legislative politics, and interest-group politics. In late September, Dialogo sat down with Hansen and Small to discuss changes within the Division, the place of social sciences within the University, and what they share in common with only 13 other men in history: an appointment as SSD dean.

How has the Division evolved over time?

JMH: We’ve steadily improved our support for students. Over the 25 years I’ve been here, the Division and its faculty have worked hard to enhance the quality of the academic experience and the overall student experience. We’ve reduced the size of incoming graduate-student cohorts, introduced more uniform levels of financial aid, and focused more on professional preparation, for doctoral students in particular. I would also note that the Division has had a fair bit of faculty turnover. When I stepped down this June, it was remarked that more than half the faculty in the Division have been appointed since I became dean. That’s a turnover of half the faculty in ten years. What’s really remarkable is that we’ve had this experience for decades and still maintained the extraordinary quality of the Social Sciences Division faculty. The changes in faculty have become opportunities for renewal and revitalization. MLS: I would add that there has been a significant shift in how we think about admissions and our interactions with graduate students. In sociology, for example, in the early ’90s there was an entering class of, say, 30 or 40 students. The idea was that you admitted many students, with perhaps a few on some kind of scholarship or aid, and then, over time, the natural process would lead the ones at the top to stay and do really well. With the Graduate Aid Initiative, we now admit substantially fewer students but give all of them aid. We’re talking about cohorts of ten or 12 students, with a faculty of about the same size. From a financial standpoint, the playing field is more level, and the experience is more intimate. Students get more attention because they don’t have to fight for that attention with so many other students.

How do you perceive the Division within the University as a whole?

JMH: The social sciences have a place within the University of Chicago that is distinctive relative to other major research universities. This is a place that rose to prominence first in the social sciences, in part because this is a place that created a lot of the social-science disciplines. The University grew up alongside the creation of professional sociology, economics, political science—and the people who built those disciplines were on this campus. We are known for the “Chicago schools” in anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, and for related professional schools, like the Law School and the business school. As dean, I felt that my role was to encourage and enable the faculty to live up to that history as well as their own aspirations for the future. One of the great pleasures of being dean of a place like this is you don’t have to whip the faculty and departments into having high standards for themselves because they do already. They want to be great as much as we want them to be great. It’s just making sure their approach to keeping themselves great is as disciplined as it needs to be.

Dean Small, how does it feel to take on that role?

MLS: It’s clearly an honor. But it’s also a joy, in a way that might not have been the case at a different kind of institution. I would have taken this job only at the University of Chicago—at least for the moment, I don’t have administrative ambitions. I say that fully aware of the honor of being asked. The part that’s a joy about it is that this is a university where the dean is an intellectual leader. Mark said earlier that over his ten years here, 50 percent of the current faculty were hired. That means that, for half of the faculty currently in the Division, Mark read their work and decided that their work was worth supporting. That is a very different system from the more administrative one at other universities, where the dean convenes a group of faculty to tell him or her whether a certain faculty member should be promoted or hired. Here the departments make a recommendation, and the dean makes the decision. The dean has to remain engaged, has to remain actively involved, has to find a way of remaining connected to the work because otherwise there is no possibility of compellingly assessing that work. I think that’s something distinctive and extremely special.

What, in your opinion, is the primary charge of the SSD dean?

MLS: In some ways, I see the role as an extension of my work as sociology chair. Some might think that the role of chair is a kind of boss, which is completely wrong for the University of Chicago. Your job is to absorb the intellectual agendas of your faculty and help those ideas come to light. As Mark noted earlier, part of your role as dean is a version of that. At the same time, there are more ideas than there are funds for them. So a second part of the role requires making decisions about what we can do now and what we cannot do now. This is very challenging. JMH: The number of good ideas and the number of things we should do exceeds what we can support given our resources. It’s ever thus—that’s what budget constraints are all about. So, yes, that is the most challenging aspect by far because we have a very ambitious and creative faculty who have a lot of ambitious and creative ideas, all of which require resources. One thing I said frequently when I was dean was that the marginal idea—the idea that is right on the cusp of whether it can be funded or not—is a good idea. It’s something we should do. So that’s the most challenging and frustrating aspect, both for the faculty, who understandably feel that they have good ideas we should get behind and are frustrated when we don’t, but also for the dean, who would like to be able to support more of the good ideas.

Professor Hansen, how did you balance teaching and research with your responsibilities as dean?

JMH: Deans have complete control over their teaching. A dean could decide not to teach at all. I never thought that was a good idea. It’s important for a leader in this institution to be actively engaged, to be someone who knows what the faculty is going through. I taught throughout my terms. For me, it was more difficult to maintain a very active research program. Teaching helped me keep in touch with what was happening in the field.

Dean Small, what are your thoughts on striking such a balance?

MLS: I couldn’t agree with Mark more on this. You have to teach or do research or do something so that you can feel confident in the recommendations you are making to the provost. Obviously you’re not going to be an expert in every field. But you need to have a sense of where those fields are going. Secondly, and personally, I have to say I would lose my mind if I weren’t teaching. This academic year I’m teaching one undergraduate and one graduate course. On the undergraduate side, I’m teaching an advanced course for third- and fourth-year students on a specialized topic—probably new models of the city. In terms of graduate-student teaching, I’m considering a couple of different ideas, one being a spring course on culture and social networks. Research-wise, for the next couple of years I’m going to coauthor more with graduate students. I’m shifting my research so that some things that are collective will move to the front burner while some things that are solo authored will move to the back. We’ll see how that works. Right now I’m working on two projects with graduate students: The first is a study of how the social networks of graduate students in a large university evolve over the first year of graduate school. The second looks at how the experience of neighborhood poverty has changed over the past 25 years.

Professor Hansen, are you working on a project?

JMH: I’m involved with a group that is studying the 2012 presidential election. It’s me and three other scholars from Northwestern, Harvard, and MIT. The study is sponsored by NORC, and we’ve designed it from the ground up. We have a national sample of eligible voters, with an oversample of voters in Ohio and Florida. We’re particularly interested in the effect of the economic recovery and the Affordable Care Act on the election. We’re doing an interview before and an interview after the election. The preinterview focuses on the election, whereas the postinterview focuses on the policy questions that have to be addressed in the three months after the election.