Margaret L. Andersen: Encouraging Graduate Students and Social Change

From an era of few women professors, GSU alumna and donor Margaret Andersen makes diversity her life’s work

A chance opportunity in the late 1960s leads to research, leadership and funding GSU sociology students

Margaret “Maggie” Andersen was the first person in her family to go to college, and when she enrolled at Georgia State in the late 1960s, women students were not allowed to wear pants to class.

She took a full-time job as a secretary in the computer center where the computer took up the first floor of the classroom building. Her goal was to attend classes around her work schedule, get a math degree and become secretary to the dean.

Instead, one sociology class – taken almost by chance  – changed everything. She rejected the limited dreams she had accepted as a young woman and began to pursue new opportunities. Instead of becoming a secretary, she ultimately became a dean herself.

Today, Andersen is helping this generation find opportunities in academia as executive director of the President’s Diversity Initiative at the University of Delaware, where she also teaches as the Rosenberg Professor of Sociology.

Andersen also stays connected to GSU by serving on the Board of Visitors for the College of Arts and Sciences, which gave her the 2011 Outstanding Alumni Award. She and her husband, Richard Rosenfeld, fund the Margaret Andersen Scholarship, awarded annually to an outstanding sociology student at GSU who intends to pursue graduate education.

In the late 1960s, Andersen was a computer science major who needed a humanities credit. She enrolled in Introduction to Sociology “because I couldn’t squeeze a psych lab into my schedule.

“I can still picture the day I went into the classroom, which was painted light green, in Sparks Hall. The professor brought in films on the police brutality and riots going on  at that time. Later, one of the leaders of the fledgling women’s movement in Georgia, Nan Guerrero [now Georgia Sen. Nan Orrock], came in to speak, and I agreed with everything she said.”

Andersen merged research with her computing skills –her paper on public attitudes toward abortion included data analyzed through a computer program she wrote. Impressed, her professor suggested she go to grad school.

“What’s that?” she asked.

Andersen (B.A., 1970) found out quickly.

“Sociology helped me make sense of the things I was seeing in society all around me at the time,” she said of an era that included Vietnam, women’s and civil rights and other transformations. “Because I had never been exposed to sociology before, I was very excited to learn that one could make a career out of seriously studying things in society.”

As she sought her Ph.D., and established herself at Delaware beginning in 1974, the value of her experience at GSU grew.

“I’ve worked hard, but I’m aware of the role of historic luck,” she said. “If not for that faculty member, the best thing I thought I could be was the dean’s secretary. I never imagined I could be a dean. In the 1960s, those were the ambitions we women set for ourselves, where we thought we could go. The female dean back then was the Dean of Women, who monitored the length of the skirts.”

She established her GSU scholarship partly because she still remembered how, as an undergraduate, she lost funding.

Andersen was the oldest of six children in a blended family in Rome, Ga. Her father had died, and her stepfather was a manager for General Electric. She attended Emory University on a full scholarship but lost it after her freshman year.

“Mine is a classic Georgia State story, of someone who wanted to complete her education and found it affordable and amenable to holding a full-time job,” she said. “I’m indebted to the campus.”

Her scholarship has empowered current students in her old department. They have used the funding to overcome their own hurdles.

“My father has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., and my motivation of educational success comes from what I have seen him accomplish,” said 2012 Andersen Scholarship winner Meagan Jain.

“Winning this award has given me the confidence to know I am capable of fulfilling my career goal of becoming a sociology professor.… I am ecstatic to be a part of the next generation that will pave the way for all to attain knowledge, power and success.”

Tori Thomas, the 2011 Andersen Scholarship winner, said the award helped with expenses and self-esteem. Thomas was praised at a College of Arts and Sciences awards dinner , where she also met Andersen.

“That made me feel that I am heading toward the right direction with my life and career,” said Thomas, who expects to graduate in 2013 and hopes to work for Teach for America before grad school. “With Margaret, I did find that we both have a niche for researching anything that concerned inequality.”

Brittney Terry, a graduate research assistant in the GSU sociology department, recalled the impact of Andersen’s award, and her advice.

“After meeting Margaret Andersen during a luncheon in 2010, I was inspired by her perseverance as a woman in academia,” she said.

“Hearing her talk reminded me that when the inevitable obstacle occurs, I have to find a creative way to get through it. My career in housing and community development greatly benefited from the Margaret Andersen Scholarship, because it gave me that extra push I needed to begin my graduate studies.”

Beyond the impact of the funding is the imprimatur of one of sociology’s pioneers.

“Maggie Anderson has had an illustrious career, both as an outstanding scholar and a gifted administrator,” said Lauren Adamson, the former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“She knows, as do so many of our current students, the many challenges of being a first-generation college student who must work while they study. It is both very instructive and deeply gratifying that she remains actively involved in the university, sharing her understanding of the importance of providing access to a GSU education.”

After graduation, Andersen returned to GSU occasionally in such roles as a consultant to the women’s studies curriculum and as an external program reviewer for the sociology department.

Her Georgia family includes her sister, Dr. Kimball Johnson, a physician at Midtown West Medical.

“She’s a pioneer, a go-getter who knows what she wants, and she’s risen through the ranks as a mentor who brought people along with her, like a wake from a boat,” said Johnson, who took pre-med classes at Georgia State while working as a Grady Hospital paramedic.

“She had personal adversity as well as adversity from society – the glass ceiling, culture differences and sexism that was pervasive – and she became a point person in her field at that time in history.”

In 2009, Andersen joined the Board of Visitors at GSU’s arts and sciences college, bringing her more regularly to a campus that had diversified greatly since the days of mandatory skirts for women.

“It’s extremely impressive with its connection to its urban area, by having research and policy agendas that promote urban development,” Andersen said of GSU. “It’s really grown as a research institution.”

She returns with experience as a faculty member and administrator and the knowledge of “how important fund-raising is as an element for the university to realize its dreams,” she said. “Part of that is seeing how critical funding is to achievement at my alma mater, and I was able to give back.”

As she prepared to return to GSU this month for a Board of Visitors meeting, Andersen noted how much has changed since she picked up her first sociology textbook, Man in Society. Today, a classic text is Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, with Andersen among its editors.

As GSU has become more diverse, Andersen has promoted the same throughout her field.  Her field has helped her understand change– and help change – the stereotypes that she encountered in college as well as bias toward others.

“Over 40 years or so, I’ve seen growth in the inclusion of women in the discipline of sociology, the participants and contents,” she said. “I’m still working to make higher ed as inclusive as possible with the President’s Diversity Initiative here. Diversity is the core to truly educate students in a multiracial world, and that’s the heart of what I do as a teacher, writer and administrator.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424