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New distinguished professor relishes role as graduate mentor in sociology


Spring 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by Submitted photo.


Robin Stryker

When it comes to Robin Stryker’s hiring, Linda Renzulli is pleased that she accepted the challenge.

Renzulli, the head of sociology, wanted to beef up the Law and Society graduate program to mirror the success it has enjoyed among undergraduates. But when she would ask colleagues at conferences to suggest a professor who could help her accomplish this goal, Renzulli kept hearing the same name – and the same dismissive warning.

“People would say to me, ‘Robin Stryker, but you’ll never get her,’” Renzulli recalled. “So once people tell me that …”

Then it became a matter of assembling an offer that could convince the well-regarded University of Arizona faculty member to move back to her home state.

Initially Renzulli’s conference colleagues were correct in their skepticism, but Renzulli had a unique incentive available to sweeten her offer. David Reingold, the Justin S. Morrill Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, suggested that she make use of Purdue’s Leading Faculty Bridge Program, which promises senior scholars that they will receive strong consideration for distinguished professorships should they accept a position at Purdue.

That offer, coupled with the promise of resources to build a proper graduate Law and Society program, motivated the Bloomington native to give Purdue some serious thought.

“I’ve done a fair amount of administrative work within very large public universities and it was one of the things that signaled to me that, ‘Oh, Purdue is creative in its recruitment policies. This is a place that’s aggressive in going after and retaining people,’” Stryker said. “I liked that, generally speaking.”

She eventually accepted Renzulli’s offer, moving to West Lafayette in the fall while preparing to teach her first graduate courses this spring. Meanwhile, it did not take long for Purdue to deliver on its portion of the Leading Bridge offer. The Board of Trustees confirmed Stryker as the newest Distinguished Professor of Sociology on Friday, Feb. 8.

“The Leading Faculty Bridge Program played a big role in our ability to bring Dr. Stryker to Purdue,” Reingold confirmed. “It’s a key tool in our efforts to elevate our research profile by recruiting internationally recognized scholars to the College. We are grateful to the Provost for offering this support.”

Considering Stryker’s background, perhaps Renzulli’s outside-the-box pitch was the perfect approach. One of Stryker’s first major contributions to her field was a dissertation that meshed her substantial legal training with sociological research methods. The combination – a comparative historical study of the politics of economic expertise in American labor law – was unusual in 1980s sociology, and Stryker was unsure how it would be resonate within the field.

“I remember thinking at the time what I was doing was very weird for a sociologist,” said Stryker, who had nearly completed a law degree by then after studying at both Yale Law School and the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University. “I didn’t know how it would be received, but I remember thinking, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter because this is what I want to do. If sociologists aren’t receptive, I’ll just practice law. It’s really fine. I have these options.”

As it turned out, sociologists did find the work interesting. Throughout her career, Stryker’s inside knowledge of the law has informed research on issues like inequality, politics, and uses of the social and behavioral sciences within the legal system, but she never became a practicing lawyer.

Instead, she carried on something of a family tradition. Stryker’s father, Sheldon, was a sociology faculty member at Indiana University for more than six decades, and his work on the social psychology of identity is held in the highest regard within the field.

It was in 1966-67, when Sheldon moved his family to Italy for a year while he completed a Fulbright Fellowship, that young Robin began considering higher education as her own career path.

“That was foundational for me because I realized that not only was my dad always extremely happy in his role as a professor – teaching and doing research – but I realized, ‘Oh, this is a way you can travel and live overseas.’ That was something that really from the time we spent that year in Italy I aspired to do, and that’s worked out very well,” Stryker said.

She was not immediately drawn to her father’s field, however. That took some time.

“The first sociology course I had was truly awful,” Stryker laughed. “I probably never would have taken the second but for the fact that I kept thinking, ‘My dad does this and he loves it. There’s got to be something to it.’ The second course I took was absolutely wonderful and got me hooked. I really didn’t think about doing anything else other than going to graduate school.”

After completing undergraduate work at Smith College, Stryker went on to complete both her master’s and Ph.D. work at the University of Wisconsin, with stints in law school and working in the legal profession mixed between the latter two.

Stryker became a sociology faculty member at the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota before accepting a professorship at Arizona, where she also served as research director for the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

In addition to her research and instructional work, Stryker has also distinguished herself as a prolific writer. In fact, while she avoided her father’s area of specialty as a young sociologist, she collaborated with him on a 2016 article prior to his death at nearly 92 years of age.

“Before my dad died, we wrote a major piece together,” Stryker said. “That was very exciting, and now I’m independently continuing. I have a book that I’m co-editing in my dad’s honor with some colleagues. We had a major conference at IU and the book is going to be published next year by Springer. It’s about to go in, and it’s all about identity.”

As a teacher, Stryker’s identity centers around the mentorship that complements graduate-level instruction. That’s a key factor in what made her new position at Purdue a good fit.

“I absolutely love that, and so what really hooked me on coming here to Purdue, to the sociology department, was that they presented to me the opportunity to build a graduate program in Law and Society and the resources to do it,” Stryker said Tuesday afternoon. “I thought, ‘This is perfect because I have the capacity to do this and I’m enthusiastic about doing this.’ It was too good to pass up, and I am now teaching a graduate course in Law and Society. I just taught it earlier today. I’m having the best time.”

In return, her department head seems pleased by immediate return on investment that the graduate Law and Society program has benefited from since Stryker’s arrival.

“She’s met every one of my expectations,” Renzulli said. “It’s one of those things where you’re afraid that you sell yourself, they sell themselves, and then they get here and everything crumbles. But it’s not what happened. She’s a huge institutional builder, she’s bringing in scholars to do talks, she has picked up graduate students and really moved them in a different direction, she’s working with the graduate program to make sure we’re moving that in the right direction.

“She’s doing everything she said she was going to do, and I hope I’m meeting her expectations, too. It’s really a situation where everything worked out.”