Writing a brief farewell as Acting Director of Social Science Matrix and welcoming incoming director Marion Fourcade at this moment in history is an unsettling experience. It has been a privilege to serve in some small way during Marion’s absence, and yet at the same time, I pass the baton in the midst of a perfect storm of global and local forces: the devastating impact of COVID-19, 40 million unemployed in the U.S. and countless millions more globally, universities confronting massive revenue shortfalls coupled with the profound challenges of serving students under the dark cloud of a coronavirus second or third wave, and currently the utter turmoil unleashed across the United States — currently protests in over 140 cities — by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At this point, with a rogue President invoking the prospect of military on the streets and harsh treatment for peaceful protestor, is it not clear what the immediate future holds. In some respects, anything is possible.
And yet precisely because the future is uncertain, and because the very nature of democracy, governance, citizenship, and racial and economic equality are being (and must be) confronted directly, both on the streets, across campuses, and around every family dining table, the role for critical and engaged social science is more relevant than ever. We are entering a period of ferocious debate and struggle, and UC Berkeley social science is ready to play its part.
Even though some of Matrix’s exciting events were cut short by COVID-19 this spring, our previous programming on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall — including discussions on impeachment, climate change, and BREXIT — and a raft of energetic faculty and student working groups speak to the vitality and commitment to the world’s most pressing issues. Marion will take over at a time when democracy is in crisis, not simply in the U.S., but just about everywhere — in Brazil, India, Poland, the UK, and beyond.
Berkeley's depth in area- and transnational studies means that the campus is better placed than virtually any other university to explore comparatively the rise of authoritarian populisms and plutocracies of various stripes, and to engage in the hard work of not only saving, but re-designing democracy. A grand and ambitious experiment perhaps, but under Marion's leadership, Matrix — drawing upon the amazing talent on the Berkeley campus — can lead the way in thinking about the needs of a world seemingly tottering on the edge.
Welcome, Marion, and onward….
Michael Watts, Acting Director, Social Science Matrix
Michael Watts is the Class of 1963 Professor of Geography and Co-Chair of Development Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley where he has taught for over twenty-five years. He served as the Director of the Institute of International Studies from 1994-2004. His research has addressed a number of development issues especially food security, rural development, and land reform in Africa, South Asia, and Vietnam. He is currently serving as acting director of Social Science Matrix. Marion Fourcade will take the helm as the new director of Social Science Matrix on July 1, 2020.