By Greg Breining
Professor David Pellow. Photo by Kelly MacWilliams.
Talking with Department of Sociology chair Chris Uggen, you get the impression that last year's hunt for a new sociology professor was a bit of a feeding frenzy. Competition for candidates was ferocious—not only from other public universities, but also from well-funded private schools, "the Yales of the world," Uggen says. "There's intense market pressure in the social sciences right now."
Fortunately, the department was able to offer a powerful inducement—an endowed chair funded by Edith Martindale, the widow of long-time faculty member Don Martindale.
"The Martindale chair really provides that margin of excellence we need to maintain our position in the discipline," Uggen says. "In this case we were able to recruit a real rising star and make it especially attractive for him to come to Minnesota."
That recruit was David Pellow, a young sociologist from the University of California-San Diego who has written extensively on environmental justice. The hire of that emerging talent, Uggen says, has strengthened the department, adding to its reputation for cutting-edge, real-world research, and enhancing teaching.
"This is someone who is right now advancing the field of environmental justice studies by leaps and bounds," says Uggen.
Honoring a Renaissance Scholar
The story of the endowed chair—the department's first—began in February 2008, with the gift from Edith Martindale, then 92, of $2 million. Mrs. Martindale shies from the limelight but makes her aim clear—to support a faculty position to further the legacy of her husband, a mainstay of the sociology department for 35 years.
Don Martindale arrived at the University in 1948 as an assistant professor, and became a leading spokesman for social behaviorism. He wrote about social theory, social stratification, and the sociology of culture, knowledge, and art. An enthusiastic theorist, Martindale was by all accounts also a captivating speaker and lecturer.
"He was a bit of a renaissance scholar," says Uggen. "It's certainly rare for somebody today to have the range that Don Martindale had."
Perhaps Martindale's greatest legacy was his students. He advised 78 Ph.D. and more than 200 master's graduates during his career—one of the highest totals of any professor in University history. He and Edith often invited students to their Shoreview home overlooking Lake Owasso.
Martindale retired in 1983. He died two years later of a heart attack.
Environmental Justice to Improve the World
"In my view, part of Don's intellectual legacy is in those students. He taught many generations," Uggen says. "I would like to think he would very much like the direction the department has taken in the last decade. Our alumni have been getting excellent jobs in world-class universities. We've nurtured the graduate program, which I know he would have appreciated. Also the intellectual diversity on the faculty has just blossomed and bloomed."
Pellow's field of expertise, environmental justice, concerns the downside of many environmental issues that fall disproportionately on poor people, communities of color, and poverty-stricken nations, who increasingly protest becoming dumping grounds for the wealthy.
Pellow's work, Uggen says, reflects the department's attitude toward research—"the sort of work that makes a real difference in the world."
That's how Pellow sees it, too. "What really keeps me going is being able to connect what's going on in my research to what's going on in the classroom, to what's going on off campus," he says. Sociology is "not only understanding and explaining social institutions in the world around us, but also ultimately improving and changing the world."
His books include Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago, a study of how and why the city's landfills and toxic waste dumps were sited most often in low-income communities and communities of color; and his most recent work, Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice, which examines how income disparities force hazardous waste and unsustainable industries on poor nations.
Pellow and faculty member Lisa Sun-Hee Park are currently conducting research for a book on immigration and labor conflicts in glitzy Aspen and the rest of Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley. "What surprises a lot of people is how strong the effect of race continues to be," he says. In many cities, "Southeast Asians and Latin Americans are really bearing the brunt of many of these siting decisions."
He plans to soon begin research on how the effects of global climate change are likely to be distributed among communities and nations rich and poor.
Pellow expects these issues to become even more critical, and says the support of an endowment will be of tremendous value to his work. "I'm able to hire research assistants. That in turn professionalizes and trains the research staff and helps them in their careers. It provides me with a lot I wouldn't have had. I'm really grateful."
Watch David Pellow's Martindale lecture at http://reach.cla.umn.edu/pellow