Retiring Sociology professor Jerry White has made a few “mistakes” in his life – from being kicked out of his undergraduate engineering program two months in, to almost getting arrested in the Soviet Union in 1974. Yet, despite the errors of his ways, he has embraced each and every mistake.
“My message is pretty transparent: We can make mistakes and still be successful. Let yourself make mistakes. Some young people feel so badly if they don’t do perfectly every time. But it just doesn’t work that way,” White said. In his Ultimate Lecture – The Accidental Sociologist: 10 Mistakes That Made My Career – White rehashed the ups and downs that eventually led him to Western.
“Let yourself make mistakes,” he told a crowd in the McKellar Room at the University Community Centre last week.
While White joined Western as a faculty member in 1988, his career in academia began only after a series – and several years – of false starts.
Growing up near Regina, Sask., White was the first of his family to attend a postsecondary institution. He initially planned to study engineering to get a “real job” after graduation.
Unfortunately, after leading a student petition to bring about an engineering co-op program at the University of Saskatchewan, White was ousted from the program before the end of his first semester for an “unprofessional act.” He was later denied entry into the teaching program, because the associate dean remembered a student walkout White organized during high school.
“If you’re counting, my first two months in university, I washed out of two programs – one they didn’t even let me in. I learned you can try to do the right thing, but you can do it in the wrong way. Power is something we have to understand, not ignore,” White explained.
White did not have a history with anyone in the Faculty of Social Science, however, he successfully made his way through an undergraduate degree in economics and political science.
After a short stint in the banking world – where he was let go for speaking out of turn – White decided to pursue a master’s degree in economics, studying planned economies in Socialist countries. “It was a disastrous idea,” he admitted.
White travelled to the Soviet Union in 1974 where, after a couple of months, he and his friends met a self-proclaimed Russian “dissident” who gave them some marijuana.
“I had that moment where my mind cleared and I understood exactly what was going on. I grabbed the drugs, threw them in the toilet and flushed just as the first police boot kicked in the door. I had woefully underestimated the Russian regime,” White recalled. “I never did get that master’s degree by the way – never got it defended. But I did learn something. I learned if you want to make change, you have to be willing to risk. As powerful as the bad guys are, you can make changes.”
Fresh from not completing his master’s degree, White worked for the Saskatchewan government, planning social services for kids of working-class citizens. While it was a typical 9-5 desk job, White lasted only a year, thanks to a report he put together which didn’t jive with the government perspective at the time.
“The sharpest of social scientists will start to see a pattern in the data,” he said.
In 1978, at the age of 27, he decided to travel to Cambodia, where he interviewed Khmer Rouge leader and dictator Pol Pot, who forcefully evacuated the city Phnom Penh.
“I called this ‘focus groups under duress,’” said White, who learned during the interview that the revolutionary leader cleared the city based on theoretical readings. “I learned that theory is powerful; I learned about the influence of research. We need to realize the work we do and information we publish will actually influence things. It’s important to think through what we’re saying and doing.”
Returning home, he tried his hand at politics, running for election in the Saskatchewan government in 1980. White received 74 votes and was beat out by the Rhinoceros Party candidate.
“That really hurt,” said White, laughing. “The lesson here is, you don’t have to be a winner to achieve a goal, but you have to have a goal that’s worth achieving.”
In the mid-1980s, White moved to Hamilton where he completed his master’s and PhD in sociology at McMaster University, while raising his two young children. The rest is academic history.
In his time at Western, White has taught more than 11,000 students. He is the recipient of several Western teaching awards, including the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He said he is most proud of these teaching achievements, in spite of publishing more than 20 books during his tenure.
“When someone looks in and says, ‘You’re really teaching kids well,’ it means a lot.”
White is Director of the Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium (International), Co-director of Indigenous Health and Well-being Initiative and Editor-in-chief of the International Indigenous Policy Journal. He is also former Chair of the Sociology department.
“Jerry White has been the ideal colleague and department member over the years. He has been very active in the graduate program, an excellent teacher, researcher and department citizen. He has been a pleasant and supportive colleague. He is always upbeat, encouraging, supportive, and funny, and we will miss him,” said Sociology chair Tracey Adams.
When he officially retires at the end of June, White plans to continue editing the International Indigenous Policy Journal and has just signed on to edit a series of academic books on Indigenous development. He also plans to travel extensively with his wife, Karen, and spend time with his four grandchildren.
White said he doesn’t regret any of his life experiences, however challenging they were at the time.
“Everything that I’ve done, someone might think is a mistake. But you shouldn’t let people drag you down. They were all opportunities and I wouldn’t have ended up where I am if I had avoided any of those experiences – although some of them were crazy,” he said. “Adversity, to me, is just training. If we look at it that way, we’ll all enjoy life more.”