When Roslyn Mickelson became a high school social studies teacher in 1970, she had no intention of ever becoming a college professor, but when she began to notice the ways in which the demographics changes in her community and in her students were affecting the dynamics of her classroom, she was inspired to attend graduate school and pursue a doctoral degree in the sociology of education.
“The social changes that southern California was undergoing demographically and politically in the 1970s really affected the community and school in which I taught,” Mickelson said. “The experience raised a number of questions for me, and I went to graduate school to get those questions answered.”
Mickelson received her Bachelor of Arts, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles and is now a professor of sociology with appointments in public policy and women and gender studies at UNC Charlotte.
She has published more than 100 book chapters and journal articles and has written two books about the sociology of education.
Thanks to her research accomplishments fueled by her passion for education, she was named the 2014 University Professor, an honor given to tenured professors who have demonstrated excellence in teaching, research and service to the university and greater academic community.
“A University Professor is typically somebody, such as myself, whose work transcends the disciplinary boundaries of the programs they are associated with,” Mickelson said. “The person also has made contributions as a public intellectual. In other words, their work resonates with issues important to a larger society.”
UNC Charlotte faculty members nominate their colleagues to a committee made up of the university provost, four faculty members and the current University Professor. The committee then passes their recommendation on to Chancellor Philip L. Dubois, who, upon his approval, takes it to the Board of Trustees for the final decision.
Mickelson learned she had been named the 2014 University Professor in December through an email from Chair of the Sociology Department Stephanie Moller. Because the selection process is “conducted in a confidential manner” according to university policy, she had no previous knowledge that she was even nominated for the award.
“I’m so very grateful. I am also appreciative that my colleagues recognize the work that I’ve done, and my colleagues are not only the people at UNC Charlotte, but also people outside of the university in the larger society. In order to get support for this award, the committee seeks recommendations from people external to UNC Charlotte. They received some that were quite laudatory, so I am very moved and humbled by it,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson has been teaching at UNC Charlotte since 1985 when she joined the faculty as an assistant professor, and she says her favorite part of working at the university is the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students and supportive colleagues.
“We are very fortunate at UNC Charlotte to have a fabulous range of students from all age, ethnic and racial groups. We have people from all social class backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and that mix creates a wonderful intellectual atmosphere that resonates with my teaching style and energizes my classroom,” Mickelson said. “UNC Charlotte draws a lot of students that are first generation college students or graduate students, and they have a very good grounding in reality; they’re very hardworking and appreciative of the opportunities that UNC Charlotte gives them to learn about themselves, about the world, and to learn the intellectual and technical skills that will enable them to make a contribution to this world.”
Not only has Mickelson served UNC Charlotte over the past 30 years, but her work has also influenced decisions regarding educational policy on a national level. In 2007, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited Mickelson’s research on diversity and educational performance in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in his opinion on a case about school desegregation policy. Another national leader, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, invited Mickelson to present her research on the benefits of attending diverse schools to him and his cabinet in 2011.
“(Presenting for Duncan) was nerve-wracking for several reasons,” Mickelson said. “I was required to distill 10 years of research into 10 minutes. I had also prepared a PowerPoint, and there was a technology failure so it didn’t work. But because I was prepared and there was no PowerPoint, he stared into my eyes and I looked directly across the conference table at him as I presented my research.”
Mickelson has also promoted her research interests to students and other scholars by creating the Spivack Archive, a database of more than 500 articles about the relationship between social factors and education that includes abstracts she wrote herself.
“The reason I created this website is because there is a great deal of debate in this country about whether it matters if our schools are racially and socioeconomically segregated or not,” Mickelson said. “There was a time 50 years ago when people thought it mattered a great deal, morally and otherwise, but since then, racial desegregation has been pushed to the side by other concerns. It’s tragic that that has happened because the research shows with segregation, very few of the other reforms we are attempting are likely to be successful.”
Currently, Mickelson is working with professors from her department, Moller and Elizabeth Stearns, to research the demographics of students who major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the University of North Carolina system. She said her main objectives for the remainder of her career are to continue shaping the field of sociology through her teaching and research as well as to influence the way the public views public education.
“I would like the attacks on public education to cease; public education is the solution, not the problem,” Mickelson said. “There is a lot of public discourse that presents public schools and teachers as a problem that needs to be solved for our society to move forward. My goal is to change public discourse to embrace public education and educators and enhance public education’s capacity to provide equality of educational opportunities to our children. Doing that will help to build the kind of society I want my grandchildren to live in.”