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Provost and vice-president, academic and research, Berkeley Fleming retiring in July
2012-04-13 08:53:49

Berkeley Fleming, sociology professor, researcher, community activist, musician, former president of MAFA, secretary of Senate, dean of Social Sciences, and now provost and vice-president, academic and research, is retiring this July, after 34 years at Mount Allison University.

When Fleming was hired at Mount Allison it was to the relatively new department of sociology, which included two sociologists and an anthropologist. Fleming was intimately involved in its growth and eventual designation as the sociology and anthropology department, soon with four and eventually six members, and later in the emergence of two separate departments of four faculty members each that exists today.

Although Fleming has had many accomplishments over the years, some of his best memories are of his students, many of whom he supervised in their honours work.

“I remember all the thesis students very well, am still in touch with quite a few of them, and am aware of what most of them are doing these days,” he says.

Their professions include law, academia, journalism, civil service, social work, and consultancy.

Like most sociologists of his generation, Fleming would often explain to his first-year students that people’s personal experiences are best understood analytically in the larger social and political context. So, to get a picture of Fleming as a person, it is important to understand the context of his formative years.

“I started out as the son of a Canadian composer in the 1940s, was an Anglican choir boy in the 1950s, and a young Progressive Conservative in the early 1960s,” he explains. “Then I started taking sociology courses at McGill, in the areas of social class, race, ethnicity, and social movements, and this opened my eyes to social and political issues such as apartheid in South Africa, civil rights in the United States, and French-English relations in Canada, as well, of course, as Quebec nationalism.”

“So it was no accident that I became interested in economic inequality, language, ethnicity, socialization, and community studies. The only thing that was perhaps not so predictable was that I would become so absorbed in social theory and committed to understanding social phenomena from a conceptual perspective, something I always emphasized in the courses I have taught.”

He says this is what led him to leave McGill for the graduate faculty of The New School for Social Research in New York, to learn more about the ideas of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Berger.

Many of Fleming’s students’ theses concerned education, occupation, ethnicity, voluntary organizations, and local communities. Some students also examined music, another of his longstanding personal interests. In a fitting tribute to his retirement, the sociology department has established The Berkeley Fleming Award, to be awarded to a graduating student in sociology who has achieved overall excellence in an honours thesis or independent study paper.

“The sociology department designed this award for Berkeley to recognize the particular time and care that he has always given to students pursuing honours and independent studies in our department,” says department head, Dr. Erin Steuter.

According to Steuter, Fleming was a thorough supervisor, reading books on the students’ topics, prompting them with lists of relevant journal articles, poring over manuscripts with a careful editor’s eye, and even visiting the sites of their research.

Sociology student Rebecca Cheff is the first recipient of the award. Like Fleming, Cheff combines academic excellence with significant contributions to the department and the community. 
Fleming’s own eclectic research has included landlord-tenant relations in 1960s Montreal, the budworm spraying controversy in New Brunswick in the 1980s, and access to post-secondary education in the Maritimes in the 1990s. More recently, he has been conducting archival research and writing an intellectual biography of the economic historian, Karl Polanyi, whose work influenced anthropology, sociology, economics, history, and classics.

Fleming points out there is more to Mount Allison than teaching and research, and there is much more to the world than academia. He took full advantage of that, immersing himself in the community by coaching basketball and baseball; serving for many years on the board of the Sackville Co-op; and chairing the Sackville Community Preschool Association, as well as the Sackville Basketball Boosters Association, the Sackville Music Festival, and the District 14 School Board. He served for an extended period as the New Brunswick director of Canadian Parents for French, and later as the English chair of Dialogue New Brunswick. He has also played just about every possible role in the NDP in the region, even running for the New Brunswick legislature in 1995.

“This is part of the appeal of living in a small town. If one wishes, one can seek to make a positive difference in a large number and wide variety of ways,” he says.

Retired Mount Allison faculty Chris and Tom Storm, two of the many good friends Fleming has made over the years, describe him thus: “We think of Berkeley as an endless and reliable source of animated conversation and knowledge about just about anything: Sackville people, TV series, old movies, Canadian politics, Mount A politics, music, and of course, whatever you might happen to want to know about Polanyi. His pride in his espresso machine is particularly endearing.”

As for retirement plans, Fleming’s do not entail a particularly restful schedule.

“I have three things planned for my retirement. I want to finish my Polanyi book, write a similar work on my father, and continue to organize events for the Catbird Jazz Society, which offers high quality music for low, low prices,” says Fleming. “I also plan to continue my involvement in NDP politics at the local, provincial, and federal levels.”

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