Small-but-mighty Demography Department finds new support in collective alumni effort

by Alexander Rony


After a fruitful career in academia teaching sociology and demography, Elwood “Woody” Carlson M.A. ’73, Ph.D. ’78 was putting his financial affairs in order. He wanted to direct some of his retirement funds to his graduate school, so he contacted UC Berkeley.

What he heard shocked him: Berkeley’s Department of Demography didn’t have an endowment fund to support its overall operations. Sure, one could give to the department’s annual fund and there is an endowed award for the best doctoral dissertation, but Carlson — whose studies were disrupted when the department temporarily shuttered in 1972 before relaunching in 1979 — felt there needed to be a source of reliable funding to support the department’s financial health in perpetuity. He began contacting his peers to raise money for the cause.

The seal for UC Berkeley's Department of Demography.

Demographers produce vital statistics that illuminate changing populations. Carlson likens demography to a popular spy novel: it’s chock full of travel, sex, and death. Or, if you prefer the less-sensational parlance of academia: migration, fertility, and mortality.

Berkeley maintains the only standalone demography department in the United States. That specialization sets Berkeley apart from other universities that place their demography programs under different departments, like sociology. With a handful of faculty and a couple dozen graduate students, the Department of Demography is among the smallest units on Berkeley’s campus, but it has an outsized impact through its thought leadership.

The prominence and intimacy of Berkeley’s demography department have created close ties. Students, faculty, and alums have been organizing a private dinner during the Population Association of America’s annual meeting for half a century. Driven by these personal connections, 13 other prominent demographers agreed to sign a letter with Carlson asking fellow alums and faculty to help launch a new endowment fund.

“There is a cohesive alumni community of demographers from Berkeley all over the world,” Carlson said. “They know each other. They keep an eye out for each other. They work with and for each other, and the names on that letter were all part of that group.”

Demography is the statistical study of human populations, focusing on three main areas: fertility, mortality, and migration.

A nurse holding a baby in a hospital, 1944. (Public Domain via The National Library of Medicine)

A nurse holds a baby in a Texas hospital in 1944. (Public Domain via the National Library of Medicine)

Sailors conduct military funeral honors. (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser, U.S. Army)

Sailors conduct military funeral honors at Arlington National Cemetary. (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser, U.S. Army)

A group takes the Oath of Allegiance to become US citizens. (US Citizenship & Immigration Services)

A group takes the Oath of Allegiance to become citizens. (Photo by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services)

Long Wang M.A. ’95 was one of the Berkeley alums who received the letter. Wang credited his former professors for building his confidence, and he wanted to pass the love they gave him on to future students. Wang decided to help close the funding gap needed to create the Chair’s Endowment in Demography.

Wang, now an investor and the founder and chairman of a smart card and RFID technology company, shared how his degree earned others’ trust. When people hear where he went to college, they think:

“He is from Berkeley. How could you challenge his ability?”

Endowment funds typically are launched by a single donor or married couple. The demography alums followed a different path by utilizing a grassroots approach that attracted multiple donors. That creativity and persistence were necessary to clear the university’s threshold for a new endowed fund.

“These guys were told no a couple of times, and I think a lot of donors would have just given up and done something else,” said Mara Loveman ’94, who chairs the demography department.

Even though annual budgets guide academic departments, many agreements with students, faculty, and research partners require multi-year commitments. Endowment funds provide a consistent, reliable, and predictable source of funding.

“The Chair’s Endowment in Demography allows us to plan into the future beyond the year-to-year fluctuations that can happen,” Loveman said.

A worker delivers 2020 Census materials to a building.
Image credit: 
U.S. Census Bureau

The decennial census measures how many people live in the U.S. and offers a wealth of data for demographers. Some Berkeley alums have directed their own countries' census efforts, a vivid example of the department's impact.

Enumerators train for the 2020 Census in Toksook Bay, Alaska.
Image credit: 
U.S. Census Bureau

Echoing other campus units, the department’s top priority is graduate student support, including recruitment packages and summer research positions. Loveman would also like to broaden the pipeline into demography by exposing more undergraduates to the field through applied research opportunities that connect to other majors.

“Having students from different backgrounds really changes the conversations we're having in critically important ways,” Loveman said.

Another departmental priority is recruiting high-quality international students, who are often advanced in their careers. Some even go on to lead their respective countries’ census efforts. As a result, the small-but-mighty demography department has an influence that stretches around the globe. Yet, since international students cannot benefit from federal grants meant for U.S. citizens, the department finds it increasingly challenging to recruit top prospects.

“The caliber and quality of international applicants are phenomenal,” Loveman said. “Many of them have very compelling stories and are doing really important work. It's such a lost opportunity for us not to be able to bring them here to enrich our intellectual community.”

A lot of American demography is concerned with careful answers to small questions. Berkeley demography is important because it asks bigger, braver questions.
Jenna Johnson-Hanks, Executive Dean of the College of Letters & Science

Photos from the department

Demography students, faculty, and staff at a graduation ceremony in 2018.

Demography students, faculty, and staff at a graduation ceremony in 2018.

Participants in the Department of Demography picnic in Tilden Regional Park.

Participants in the Department of Demography picnic in Tilden Regional Park.

Demography students' light reading. (Boróka Bó for the Department of Demography)

Demography students' light reading. (Boróka Bó for the Department of Demography)

The Department of Demography is located in the Social Sciences Building. (Keegan Houser, UC Berkeley)

Demography is taught in the Social Sciences Building. (Keegan Houser for UC Berkeley)