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Celebrate 50 years of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Outgoing dean Cindy Berg reflects on the importance, history and future of the social sciences in addressing societal challenges.

In 1970, a reorganization of the University of Utah’s organizational structure gave birth to new colleges, including the College of Social and Behavioral Science which now includes seven departments: Anthropology, Economics, Family and Consumer Studies, Geography, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. The college is also the home of three public affairs programs, two interdisciplinary programs (Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Health Society, and Policy), six interdisciplinary centers and the U’s ROTC programs.

Now, after postponing planned events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college is belatedly celebrating its 50th anniversary with events designed to spark interdisciplinary dialogue and highlight the role of the social sciences in, according to the college’s tagline, “inspiring human solutions to life’s challenges.”

The celebration begins on Monday, April 18, 2022, with a Hinckley Forum where a panel of researchers will offer insight on how to have constructive dialogue around contentious social and environmental topics, followed by “lightning talks,” short climate-focused research presentations from faculty and students, and an academic seminar that afternoon.

The keynote event is a public lecture by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University on April 19 at 5 p.m. at the U Alumni House. Hayhoe is also the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and the author of “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” Hayhoe will be participating as a panelist in both the Hinckley Forum and Lightning Talks to share her insights and expertise as a prominent climate scientist.

All events will be livestreamed. Find livestream links here and reserve tickets to attend the keynote event in person here.

Cynthia Berg, distinguished professor of psychology and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences since 2014, spoke to us about how the 50th-anniversary events celebrate the role of the college’s disciplines in addressing society’s “grand challenges.”

Why are the social and behavioral sciences more important now than ever?

Cynthia Berg, dean, College of Social and Behavioral Science

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Social scientists help us to imagine a better future, and they also caution us as to what that future might look like if we don’t make course corrections. Let’s take the example of climate change. They help us to think about our current paths with respect to our changing climate and how to motivate humans to make those course corrections. On an individual level, this could include things like conserving water or switching from gas to electric cars, traveling less, maybe eating less beef. At a societal level, that means enacting policies and advocating for things like tax incentives for green energy.

And when you think about other grand challenges, like human rights around the world or political conflicts, social scientists work to help us understand how humans behave, why they behave the way that they do and what factors we need to change so that humans can flourish and reach their potential.

If you look the issues in the news right now—the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the megadrought that’s occurring in the West, the racial reckoning that happened in the aftermath of George Floyd and the political divides that are affecting really almost everything that we do, including the coronavirus pandemic—social science is at the core of their solution. The solution to these problems lies in how humans are going to come together to devise solutions and to craft the economic and political conditions to make those solutions stick across time.

How far has the College of Social and Behavioral Science come in the last five decades?

The departments predate the 1970s when they broke off from a large College of Arts and Sciences structure. From our very beginning our first dean, Bill Prokasy, saw great expansion in the social sciences and was involved at a time at the university where all fields were expanding very quickly. Another dean, Irv Altman, had an incredible commitment to diversity in our faculty and students, and then Donna Gelfand laid the first foundations for development and Steve Ott oversaw interdisciplinary work and its expansion. CSBS has seen a lot of growth in our majors because I think students are really passionate about the kinds of grand challenges that we study, and they really want to understand these grand challenges so that they can effect change.

Faculty members have expanded, in very exciting ways, the methods that they use to study the social sciences all the way from remote sensing of wildfires to artificial intelligence approaches to examining how families communicate. The college has deepened the way that we engage undergraduate students in research and internship opportunities in our communities. Faculty and students in the college collaborate in their research with nearly every college on campus. So you see teams coming together to address challenges, effect solutions and implement those solutions.

Let’s talk about the 50th-anniversary celebration events. Why are you excited to welcome climate scientist and keynote speaker Katharine Hayhoe to the U?

As our organizing committee examined all of the grand challenges that our faculty members have studied across the last 50 years, we felt that perhaps the most pressing challenge was the growing political divides around many social and environmental issues. And it’s been really hard to get people to discuss some of these issues in a way that sparks problem solving and creativity rather than conflict.

Of all of the challenges, perhaps the greatest of these is the future sustainability of our earth. And Dr. Hayhoe notes this interconnectedness of climate change with other grand challenges in her book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.”

She says: “Climate change touches every single one of the issues that fills our headlines: public health concerns, food security, humanitarian crises and the economy and the impact of disasters on our cities and infrastructures.”

She points out how each of these challenges is really a human issue. Climate change is not a science or environmental issue. What Katharine does so effectively is she uses the wealth of social science research to encourage us to talk about these issues as humans through connecting with people in terms of where they live, what they love doing, who they love and their most deeply held beliefs and values. And her approach shows that when you have these conversations with people, humans can dialogue in a way that pushes forward issues like climate change and so many other grand challenges. And her book is such a positive and hopeful message that I think we all really need to hear in what is widely perceived as a challenging time in our world’s history.

What do the events of your anniversary celebration offer for an interdisciplinary audience? Why should those outside the social sciences attend these events?

We believe that the grand challenges that face our world are best addressed via the incorporation of knowledge that’s gained by many different disciplines, both within the college and outside of the college. Let’s take climate change for an example. This is not something that’s only a social science question but involves fields such as atmospheric science, biology, chemistry, the humanities, education and nearly all of the health sciences.

We’re sponsoring a Lightning Talks event on Monday evening, April 18, that highlights the incredible work that’s being done across campus represented by faculty and students within the college, as well as those within the Global Change and Sustainability Center. Lightning Talks are part of an exciting event where faculty talk briefly in a way that’s accessible to scholars from different fields. So very quickly, within an hour to an hour and a half, you as an audience member have learned a great deal about what’s going on in this space.

The Lightning Talks are going to serve as a foundation for discussions with Katharine together with NEXUS, the Interdisciplinary Exchange for Utah Science which is sponsored by CSBS and involves researchers across campus, regarding how to foster research on climate change across campus.

Also on April 18, we’re, co-sponsoring a Hinckley Forum that showcases how Katharine’s approach to discussing these difficult topics can be translated to other grand challenges that the college has studied across the last 50 years, including women’s rights, race relations and land management in the face of climate change.

Her talk on Tuesday evening, April 19 at 5 p.m. is open to the entire university community.

Don’t shy away from these events if you’re not a climate scientist. I’m not a climate scientist. But in reading her book, it’s very clear that you can use her approach to any topic that you might be faced with, whether it’s talking with a family member about their vaccination status or evolution or women’s rights. It’s a way of connecting at a human level to begin to sort out these dialogues that will have a really big impact on change in important ways.

Next year will involve a full year’s focus on issues of environmental justice that are being sponsored by all of the deans across campus. So we hope this is sort of the entrée point to that kind of focus over the next year.

Your term as dean is drawing to a close. What have been the rewarding aspects or moments of your service?

There really are so many. I think my most enjoyable moments have been in creating structures and opportunities that allow our students, faculty and staff to really operate at their top level.

Some highlights would include the creation of our internship program, which now serves some 400 undergraduate students each year in making the transition from the work that they do in the classroom to career opportunities. Another would be Solution Scholars, which is an undergraduate program that trains students to be the solution in their communities.

Another important moment was the design of Gardner Commons, which occurred with so many people across campus, especially associate dean Rick Forster and our chairs and directors in the college, Jason Perry of the Hinckley Institute, undergraduate studies, dean Kathryn Stockton in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, the Office of Global Engagement, then-senior vice president for academic affairs Ruth Watkins and the generous donors led by Carolyn and Kem Gardner.

Gardner Commons has quickly become, I think, a hub for students to gather in ways that promote collaborative learning. And they do that in our interconnected lab space on the fifth floor where we have geographers and anthropologists working in an interconnected way to look at documenting climate change across the world and also how humans have adapted. In NEXUS, scientists are coming together from all across campus to address these grand challenges. So throughout the building, you’ll see art displays that enforce this idea that you are the change that you’re going to see in your community, that students and faculty and staff are agents of change. It’s been really exciting to see those students and faculty do just that.

I’m really proud of our faculty and staff and student response to the pandemic. This is not anything that any of us saw coming, but they’ve been truly remarkable in the ways that they’ve adapted very quickly to fully online instruction. We all kept students first in all that we did and balanced the health and wellbeing of faculty, students and staff. During this period, important discoveries were made. Students completed dissertations, masters’ theses and student theses, graduated and are already making important contributions to inspiring solutions to today’s challenges.

We all know that the last couple of years have been really remarkable. It’s been a real privilege to lead an outstanding group of people during this time.

What are your hopes for the college and more broadly the social sciences as they move into the future?

I think the college is really poised to be an important voice in all issues related to equity, diversity and inclusion. We’ve made great strides in faculty hiring. Our students are eager for a real commitment to these issues across our curriculum. And I think we’re poised really well to do that.

I would hope to see the importance of the social sciences as a hub continue so that we are involved in some of the big projects that are done at this university in terms of research and in the community to effect change in mental health delivery. I think we’re poised really well to do that.

I’d love to see the college addressing the long-term effects of this drought on the West, and being a major player in addressing those challenges. Getting students involved in these projects is such great training for them to understand the interconnected ways that we’re going to have to think regarding any kind of solution. Together with this training, career opportunities will come alongside. The college is key in the big questions that face our world.

I look forward to what CSBS will accomplish as Michelle Camacho leads the college as the next dean beginning July 1, 2022.