Endowed Professorship to Address Inequity from a Sociological Perspective
By Hilary Mayal Jetty
Posted December 11, 2018
The fascination of sociology lies in the fact that its perspective makes us see in a new light the very world in which we have lived all our lives.” This quote from the late Peter Berger, one of the luminaries in the field, greets visitors to the UNM Department of Sociology’s website.
This fascination ignited Dr. Maxine Baca Zinn’s lifelong explorations and inquiries. A Santa Fe native with Spanish and Mexican familial roots, Baca Zinn earned her BA degree in sociology at California State University-Long Beach. During her first week as a UNM graduate student in 1968, she met Peter Berger at a reception; she soon came to the realization that she was truly a sociologist.
“I didn’t understand my place in society and why some people rejected me and others embraced me,” said Baca Zinn. “I wanted to understand my parents and ancestors. I decided that sociology was the answer to all the important questions in the world.”
The recurring themes of Baca Zinn’s work center on issues of social inequality, especially for women, families and communities of color. Her scholarly pursuits led to new perspectives she shared as an acclaimed author, researcher and educator. A long-held desire to support UNM in a meaningful way inspired her to recently establish the first endowed professorship in sociology at the College of Arts and Sciences.
Baca Zinn appreciates the encouragement and mentoring she received at UNM. “It was a good time to be in sociology,” she said. “Universities were at the forefront of social change; our professors encouraged us to engage in social criticism using sociological research and theory. I was interested in looking at those who are marginalized in society.”
“My professors guided me to do good research,” she added, “and taught me the skills I needed to communicate well with students and the public. I only left UNM because there was no doctoral program.” Baca Zinn received her PhD from the University of Oregon in 1978 and went on to a successful career in academia, eventually joining the sociology department at Michigan State University in 1990, where she was senior research associate at the Julian Samora Research Institute. Baca Zinn served as president of the Western Social Science Association and received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the UNM Department of Sociology. Textbooks she created are also a vital part of many curricula.
Baca Zinn always thought she would return to UNM someday. Although she recently retired as professor emerita from Michigan State, and Boston is now her home, in a sense, this endowment fulfills that wish. “There are nationally known sociologists on the faculty at UNM,” she said, “and my hope is that this professorship will support more social inequalities research in this strong department.”
Dr. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, department chair of Sociology at UNM, noted that Baca Zinn’s priorities mesh with the department’s strengths. “At this moment, when our nation struggles to address issues of racism, poverty and sexism,” Nepstad said, “it is more important than ever to be teaching, researching and writing about these matters. We are grateful that Dr. Baca Zinn recognizes our potential to contribute to a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of social inequalities.”
UNM’s diverse student body also includes many first-generation and non-traditional students, and those in need of financial assistance. “Student populations will become more like ours in years to come,” stated College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Peceny, “because we are becoming a more ethnically and racially diverse nation, and our society is becoming more inequitable with each passing year. This professorship will help educate the next generations of scholars, public servants and community leaders dedicated to creating a more equitable society, just as Dr. Baca Zinn has done in her own illustrious career.”
In another way, her gift also completes a circle—Baca Zinn’s parents attended UNM in the 1930s, but the Great Depression interrupted their studies; her husband, engineering/graphics teacher Alan L. Zinn, is a UNM alumnus. Baca Zinn’s New Mexico roots inform her conviction that educational institutions are important arenas in which to struggle for social justice. “I am honored to be part of the UNM tradition, doing work that can make for a better world.”
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