By Barry Bergman, UC Berkeley News
“I once had a very good professor who gave me very bad advice,” UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster said last Friday, standing behind a lectern at Booth Auditorium. “‘Don’t read newspapers. Don’t listen to the news. It’s simply a daily phenomenon that will get in the way of scholarship.’”
The young graduate student ignored the advice, rejecting “this notion that one celebrates the scholar who is disengaged from the world, that the high-status theorist — whether in anthropology, sociology, political science — was one who wasn’t immersed in the daily turmoil of life, but had almost an ivory-tower rendering of self.”
Duster, in fact, went on to become the epitome of the engaged scholar — writing landmark works on the racial implications of drug policies and genetic research, founding what is now the campus’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues and mentoring scores of doctoral students who would themselves become leaders in the fields of public health, law and public policy, education, medical anthropology and theory of social inequality and social change.
So it was fitting that during a buoyant day of thanks and tributes, what was celebrated was Duster’s plugged-in, hyper-engaged approach to scholarship — including what Stanford medical anthropologist Duana Fullwiley, a Berkeley Ph.D., called “his solid support, his integrity, his centered vision, his friendship, his lightheartedness, his poetic style of reasoned advice and his stories.”
The daylong appreciation featured a sampling of former students, fondly known as “Troy’s babies,” and such luminaries as U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, Oakland Children’s Hospital chief Bertram Lubin and restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.
It was a day of laughter, tears, sociological insights and paeans to Duster’s “prescience,” generosity and friendship. There was even a Bach selection from a cellist invited to perform by Berkeley alum Tania Simoncelli, an assistant director for forensic science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
A cellist herself, she originally connected with Duster, a fellow music lover, “over our shared passion for the intersections of science and biomedicine, and ethics and justice.”
Duster later said the tributes made him “a bit uncomfortable,” though discomfort, by all accounts, is not a particularly “Dusterian” trait. Sounding a refrain picked up by a number of speakers, Harry Levine, another Berkeley Ph.D. and a Queens College sociology professor, dubbed him “the coolest cat in the room.”
In 2004, when Duster was named president of the American Sociological Association, Levine — who studies the disproportionate impacts of arrests for marijuana possession on young blacks and Latinos — attributed Duster’s far-reaching influence to his being “a code-switcher,” a man who is “culturally multilingual.”
“He can talk to white audiences about racism and the need for affirmative action, to administrators about student needs, to geneticists about how society works and to sociologists about how genes work,” wrote Levine.
“Duster,” he wrote, “also seems able to see around corners and three or four chess moves ahead of ordinary mortals.”
Howard Pinderhughes, an associate professor in health and behavioral social sciences at UCSF, recalled his own days as a struggling grad student, when Duster brought him into what was then the Institute for the Study of Social Change, offering him a sense of community, a source of income and a guiding hand in shaping his academic career.
“For me and many others, Troy’s legacy goes beyond the scholarship and theory that he produced,” said Pinderhughes. “It was the way he seeded the intellectual universe with pods and seeds of insurrection,