By Jake Weber
Professor of sociology Len Berkey distinctly remembers where his career path started, at a community pool in Washington, Pennsylvania. "I was 15 years old, sitting with some friends and looking at girls," he recalls. "There were hundreds of people, and suddenly everyone got out of the pool when three little African-American kids came to swim. That left a mark—I just had to figure this out and do something about it. It's driven me my whole career."
“I came to Albion to teach Race and Ethnicity,” says Berkey, of the course that continues to compel him 35 years later. Through it, Berkey helps students begin to unravel many of our nation’s most complex, controversial, and distressing issues. “My task is to prepare students for a world that’s going to be much more diverse in the future,” he says. “If they’re going to take their Albion education and be successful, they’ve got to develop a broader comfort zone.” Fittingly, he is teaching this class one final time before retiring at the end of the fall semester.
Originally planning to work for social change through the ministry, Berkey eventually settled on teaching as a way to address social justice issues. Throughout his career, he has crafted courses that fuse qualitative learning with quantitative research and real-world application. A model of his approach, developed with psychology professor Barbara Keyes, was a mentoring program for at-risk middle-school girls. Berkey and Keyes helped their Albion College students establish long-term mentoring relationships while simultaneously researching social phenomena relevant to the middle-schoolers' experiences. Nearly 20 years on, that program (renamed "Jessie's Gift" in memory of Albion native Jessica Longhurst, '06) continues to serve Albion youth.
Berkey directed three study-abroad programs, one to Central Europe and two for the Great Lakes Jerusalem Program. In 2000, he and his students had to flee Jerusalem, and ended up studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Cyprus.
"Things happened that were quite frightening," Berkey recalls, adding that the experience brought a personal insight. "I have always been a social critic, but living abroad, I discovered I'm profoundly American," he says. "Americans are optimistic—we always believe you can solve problems. In other places, people feel the weight of history that says things don't change. We don't feel that way. I'm absolutely American in that respect."
Erik Love, '01, now assistant professor of sociology at Dickinson College, says Berkey remains for him the model of a quintessential teacher. "This is my first official semester teaching, and I feel a certain amazement that it's also the final official semester that Len will teach," Love says. "Len gave me profound lessons, not only about sociology and race, but also about our ability and obligation to make changes in the world. My goal is to try to follow his example."
Anthropology and Sociology Department chair Scott Melzer notes that dozens of successful alumni from across the U.S. traveled to Albion this fall to attend a symposium held in Berkey's honor. Melzer says that Berkey's current student evaluations continue to be "almost unbelievable," and his impact on colleagues is equally appreciated. "Our department has been fortunate to observe and work with a dedicated teacher—one who even in his last semester seeks new ways to challenge his students," says Melzer. "You won't find old, wrinkled, recycled class notes on Len Berkey's desk."
Berkey has won numerous awards for teaching and mentoring, including a Michigan Campus Compact statewide Faculty Member of the Year award. Not surprisingly, for him teaching is paramount. "When I come out of class, I'm spent because I throw so much into it," he says. "I don't just present material . . . I perform material. What happens in class has to be significant."
Together with his wife, Ramona, Berkey eventually plans to resettle in Washington State but hopes to continue working with Albion's administration and faculty as a visiting consultant or lecturer. "I've always been honored to be part of the Albion faculty. I love our idiosyncrasies, and I love our integrity," he says. "This was a good choice for me."