A speech for my mentor, Richard Madsen, a wonderfully magnanimous soul

This past week, Richard Madsen, my dear friend and mentor, retired. Richard is a world renowned public intellectual who is known for his work in sociology of religion and culture and establishing the field of sociology in China. 

This talk was one of the hardest ones I have ever had to write because how do you capture the texture of a great soul in words? In writing about Richard, I also had to write about myself. I’ve known Richard since I was 18 years old in 1998 and he is the reason why I even went to grad school. Recently, I read a quote from Zygmunt Bauman, that reminded me of why I went to study with Richard: 

"The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of."

Richard has always done an amazing job of framing our individual duties as sociologists - we are here to serve the public, not the institution. 

In my speech, I focused on Richard’s role in supporting me through gradschool but I didn’t get to mention all the other suppper critical committee members, sociology staff, friends, and family who helped me along the way. But alas, this was just about Richard. I will write about others once I’m invited to talk at your retirement party :) 

i am so grateful to Katrina Richards for organizing the party. Thank you Kenyatta Cheese, Leah Muse-Orlinoff, and Katrina Richards for helping me access some of these memories to express the texture of Richard’s soul. 

It was an honor to give the speech. Here it is below:

Speech for Richard Madsen’s Retirement

By Tricia Wang / Great Hall UCSD / May 19, 2015 


God I hated college.

When I arrived at UCSD in 1998, I was 18 years old and ready to live life and “college” was an obligatory thing, an additional 4 years of schooling that stood in the way. And the guards on the frontline of this standoff were the professors, serious, intimidating, and too wrapped up in their research to even be bothered by mere students trying to pass through. So my learning strategy was similar to most undergrads I knew at the time: stay as far away from professors as possible!

And then I took Professor Richard Madsen’s Making of the Modern World lecture course at Eleanor Roosevelt College. He was energetic but man was he koooooooky. He used everyday language so and I could understand him. He’d walk into the lecture hall with his shirt always mistucked and he had food and coffee stains all over his sea green jacket and khaki pants. Most importantly he brought a lot of joy to the room. 

A few weeks into the quarter, he invited the entire our 300 person class to his house and I immediately signed up, partially because I was curious to know what a professor’s life was like in their natural habitat. What do they hang on their walls? What kind of toilet do they use? What kind of evidence can I find of their past life as a human being?

But also I wanted to know who would invite 300 people -- UNDERGRADS -- to his home? What kind of person does that?

Around 20 students showed up to his house, not 300 -- something I suspect Richard knew would happen all along. We’re greeted by Richard’s dogs. We all loved petting Ruthie. We sit on the floor. We eat pizza. We watch a movie about something or other we were studying at the time.

But I also sneak away to wander around his house. I see his photographs. I see his colorful walls. I see his “lived-in” office of overflowing stacks of paper and tapes and notebooks and files. I meet his larger than life partner Judy. I see Richard beam when talking about his daughter Susan. I learn that Richard was studying to be a priest at seminary school when he decided that he would quit and instead study the priests themselves.

His home and his life and his stories were as comfortable and welcoming as the professor from the class. To an 18 year old me, that felt rare and special.

So even though it went against my Stay Away educational engagement strategy, I started going to Richard’s office hours and we talked about the existential and ethical questions his lectured triggered for me. He shared more stories from his life. After our meetings, I felt inspired to work harder on research papers. I started sitting in the front of the lecture hall.

As an undergrad, to have what felt like an equal exchange with a professor wasn’t just rewarding, it was empowering. I cannot underscore how transformational it is to experience this level of attention and respect from an adult, much less a professor.

It not only shapes your willingness to learn but it provides you with a framework for respecting and understanding people who are nothing like you.

Richard and I continue to stay in touch after I graduated. We’d meet up about once a year even though I’m living in New York and working as a community organizer and advocate for digital learning in and around the low income end of the New York City school system. It’s good work, but it’s hard. We, the educators want to change but the system won’t allow it.Additionally, the policies around education and tech being implemented at the time by the Giuliani administration were doing more harm than good.

At one of our annual meet-ups, I share with Richard the details of my frustration. We’re eating breakfast at Kono’s in Pacific Beach, sitting on the patio looking over the Pacific Ocean and I tell him how frustrated I am with my career. I could identify social problems, but I didn’t have the tools to solve them. I wanted to make more impact but that I lacked the analytical and research skills to back up the things I sensed on the ground.

I must have talked for an hour and Richard sat there with such patience that by the time I finished talking the San Diego sun had darkened my skin and reddened Richard’s nose. And with a typical achingly awkward Richard-like silence (if you’ve spent time Richard then you know exactly what this feels like) I started wondering if I had lost him -- if he was even listening or on another planet. He had his arms crossed and was looking off into the distance when he suddenly said, "why don’t you consider going to grad school to study sociology?"

That’s not a typical response when you’re having a quarter life crisis so I was shocked at the question. I mean, I couldn’t even imagine that someone like me could get a PhD. I reminded Richard that I didn’t have any postgraduate degrees and that I didn’t even come from a family of academics. I had never even met another sociologist outside of Richard so I had to ask, “what does a sociologist even do?”

And Richard’s answer stuck with me, he said, “Oh Tricia, anything, anything you want.”

So in 2006, I landed at UCSD’s Sociology Department. And I was just not prepared. At all.

First, I was shocked that everyone I met only wanted a PhD to get a job in academia and they were already planning out when they would publish their first paper in an academic journal. Then I realized that I was massively under-equipped to participate in seminar. I had never heard of Marx, Weber, or Durkheim - which I now realize is the equivalent of going to an ice cream party and saying you had never heard of ice cream -- and you definitely don't want to be that person. But here was my cohort, on the very first day, in deep debate and discussion about all three of these theorists. Worse off, I didn’t even know you had to show up to classes! I thought it was the European model where class times were more like optional office hours.   

I was miserable. 

Every day I wanted to drop out. And again, I think this was something I suspect Richard knew would happen all along. That year, 50% of my cohort left, but I wasn’t one of them. Now I have no judgements on people who left, for many them went on to do fulfilling and impactful things.

But since then, I have often asked myself, why I did I stay, despite how much I struggled. A massive part of it has to do with the support network I cobbled together from students to faculty, and all the amazing administrators in our department. And a humongous part of this has to do with Richard, who was my dissertation chair.  

Every few weeks, I would go to his office to tell him that I wanted to leave.  And each time, he said, “just give it 1 more quarter” so I did.

He never told me to not leave, he would just always gently remind me to remember why I had wanted to get a PhD in the first place. And he always ended our meetings by saying, "I believe in you.” “Whatever you decide to do, it’s going to be ok.” His form of support is rare because it lacks any personal agenda. It is pure and unconditional.

And that’s the power of Richard. 

It’s a charm that’s not about coercion or judgement or trickery. His charm is love. And his love manifests itself as belief. And that’s what makes him so precious.  

Belief is a powerful antidote when you’re facing uncertainty because it gives you the ability to imagine new possibilities. And that is what Richard did for me.

As my dissertation chair, he was constantly modeling for me how to imagine different pathways to living a life with integrity and strength.

This to me is the promise of a liberal education - that students get to engage with professors who open up our imagination. And this is a promise that Richard has fulfilled time and time again.

So when we consider all of Richard’s outstanding service and achievements that Akos Rona-Tas, Bud Mehan, Lizhu Fan, and Trish Scott have highlighted, it all becomes even more meaningful when you realize that on top of being an amazing scholar and leader, he was also a caring educator.

Richard engages students from different kinds of lives and accepts them just as they are. He moves through the world in a way where he doesn't see flaws or defects in people. That’s Richard. He takes you in where you are at with no judgements.

And he doesn’t just do this with students, he also does this with colleagues, communities, educational departments, institutions, and entire countries.  

There is no way to understand his approach on a theoretical or intellectual level or even a rational level - the only way to understand it by experiencing it. And that is the red thread that runs through all of us in the room today. We have all experienced Richard’s magnanimous spirit.

The Latin roots of Magnus means great and Animus means soul. This word is a very accurate description of Richard, a person with a great soul and oversized spirit. He is so filled with love and generosity that he doesn't engage in petty, grudge holding, or judgemental behavior. He won’t even gossip, even if you try to with him.He expects nothing back in return, no acknowledgements, no awards. Being around Richard, it’s impossible to not want to be a bit more like him. He brings out the best in all of us.

I know that my story is not unique because Richard has mentored countless students. But I still feel so lucky to have had him as a mentor and friend these past 17 years -  that’s more than half of my adult life. On behalf of all your students, Richard, we thank you for caring, for taking us in just as we are, and for seeing what we could grow into.

Now that Richard is retiring, I actually don’t think we will see less of him. If anything I think we will see more of the Richard we all love.

When Richard and I were talking on the phone a few days ago he said that he’s looking forward to retiring because it means that he can now teach and research without having to “give anymore alienated labor to the corporation.” Meaning, Richard is doing what many of have known after grad school, which is that it’s possible to do the work you love without having to go to a single departmental meeting.

Richard, you’ve shown all us that at every moment in life, even at 74 years old: it is always possible to set the terms in which you carry out the work you love. In the face of institutional pressures from budget cuts to professionalization, you've always stayed true to yourself while encouraging your students to find their own creative paths.

We all have so much to learn from you. Your ability to reconfigure your life in such a way that your vocation is always aligning with your values is a privilege that all of us in this room have. And we’re lucky to have your actions remind us that this is a privilege we should not take for granted.

And that is why for Richard, retirement isn’t a retreat. Change isn’t an end. Rather, it's a re-engagement and renewal of existing love for what he is doing.

So Richard is not leaving us, he is re-committing to what he’s always offered all along--his presence, his presence as a tireless bridge builder, empathetic educator, and magnanimous human being. So I ask us to all celebrate the new freedom and possibilities that Richard will experience in his post-alienated retirement life!

I cut out his accomplishments in my speech, so here it is below: 

  • As one of the foremost sociologists of culture, China and religion, so far he has written 4 books, co-authored and co-edited 9 books, and published over 100 articles. 
  • Richard served as a the department chair 3 times for a total of 5 years  - this is very rare because most people serve 1 year. 
  • He helped establish several important institutions at UCSD: IRPS (recently renamed GPS), Yankelovich Center, and Elenor Roosevelt College.  
  • 3 years ago, he established the UC Fudan Center, which is he currently directing alongside LiZhu Fan as the Executive Director, who just spoke.
  • And he also just served for 2 years as the acting provost at ERC with ERC Dean, Trish Scott, who just spoke.

He has also made great effort to connect his work to people outside of academia: 

  • For over the last 15 years he has given an average of 12 talks a year to the public. 
  • He regularly consulted for various government agencies. 
  • He was Co-Director of project to define sociology in China with the Ford Foundation. 
  • He served as a Board Director on the National Committee of US China Relations. 
  • He is currently working with the Luce Foundation on a religion project in China. 
  • HE still works with various religious groups, including the missionary group, Mary Knoll Fathers. 
  • And on top of all this he eagerly made time to teach countless classes, one of his favorite activity. 37 of his 43 years of teaching were at UCSD.  
  • During those years, he's chaired at least 20 dissertations and served on 60 plus dissertation committees

These are some pictures of my fondest moments with Richard.  

Ordered the "scholar's dessert set" to go with the occasion of finalizing my new research direction in China, 2011

Richard counseling me over wine, as always!

Hanging out with Richard in Shanghai

Staying at Richard's and Judy's apartment in Shanghai in 2008

Richard welcoming all the new students for grad school in the annual department beginning of the year party, 2006