Dr. Michael Thornton Retires from UW-Madison After 30 Years
Journey of Thought & Place
|Dr. Michael Thornton was one of the the first professors at
UW-Madison to incorporate service learning in his class
curriculum back in 2000.
and felt that he had made it when landing a tenure-track position at Cornell University, an Ivy League school.
“When I went to Cornell, I thought I had died and gone to heaven by being hired there,” Thornton said. “I thought God blessed me and all sorts of things.”
But Thornton’s heaven turned into hell.
“There is a part of campus there that is called ‘The Plantation,’” Thornton said. “That was instructive of how they often treated many of the faculty of color there. I had
cross burnings at my door. I had death threats on my answering machine. My colleagues in the department would say things at faculty meetings like, ‘His work is
s**t.’ I was a junior faculty and so I felt somewhat intimidated, in part because as a working-class person, I grew up kind of respecting authority and actually
accepting a lot of the crap they put on me. I was paralyzed there. It was during that time where I was sent a review and they told me, ‘We think you need to think
about going someplace else.’”
Franklin Wilson, who had been chair of the UW-Madison Sociology Department, contacted Thornton about coming to UW-Madison where he was hired in the Afro
American Studies Department with affiliation in Asian American Studies and Sociology. After a long academic journey, Thornton had found an academic home at UW-
Madison where he stayed for the next 30 years.
“I got here and they loved what I did,” Thornton said. “It was the first time in my career — because my career started at Cornell — where I thought, ‘Maybe I am doing
something worthwhile.’ This place is far from perfect, but in contrast with my time at Cornell, this was heaven.”
For the most part, Thornton was the only sociologist in the Afro Am Studies Department. He taught courses like Introduction to Contemporary Afro American Society,
Mutual Perceptions of People of Color, and Race and Policing. He also spent three years as the chair of the Asian American Studies Program.
Thornton loves UW-Madison and appreciates all that it has done for him over the years. And yet he has also experienced and witnessed the issues of race, class and
ethnicity that are, for the most part, endemic to any institution of higher education in America. And that took the luster off of the “heaven” that Thornton had found
when he came to UW-Madison.
“This has been a very, very frustrating place in the sense that I think its ideology is wonderful in terms of diversity. In many ways, it’s been a leader in the nation in
terms of stuff like ethnic studies and being persistent about that. At the same time, the best things about diversity on campus are its pockets. There is no real
leadership at the top that really pushes that in terms of the top administrators like the chancellor and the provost. They delegate that responsibility to the rest of
campus. What that ultimately means is that there isn’t a lot of incentive for people outside of the norm to do anything special. So diversity usually means that certain
people in certain departments and certain parts of campus will be doing 90 percent of the work. That’s the truth for Year One for me and it’s gotten a little bit better
over time. It’s more oscillating up and down. Some years are better than others. That’s been the most frustrating part. Some of it is that it is very naïve of me to think
that any kind of institution like this would be consistently improving over time. There has been a lot of resistance to diversity from Day One and continues today.”
The place of the ethnic studies programs and department on campus has often been up for discussion as if they were more of a transplant on campus than an integral
part of the university’s foundation. And discussion came up from time to time on whether they should be consolidated or remain separate entities. With relationships
and responsibilities in both Asian Am and Afro Am, Thornton was on the fault line of many of those discussions.
“Over time, the discussion has usually oscillated around either we try to build up each of the entities separately,” Thornton said. “That’s never worked because that
is a lot of resources. The more recent iteration of that was, ‘How do we combine them into one?’ That has become very controversial. And the sad part to me in that
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
In some ways, Dr. Michael Thornton has been on a journey of thought and place. A self-described
army brat, Thornton lived in four foreign countries and 15 states by the time that he was set to go to
“Looking back, I can’t imagine growing up that way,” Thornton said. “But we all adjust to what is
considered normal. For me, living someplace longer than six months felt really weird. I read this book
called Brat. It’s a derogatory term for military kids. I was doing things that all brats do because we
were so used to moving. I would be in an apartment, for example, for a year and I would move my
furniture 4-5 times. That was moving. Sometimes I would do it unconsciously.”
Michael comes from a self-described working-class background and branched out to enter the world
of academia. He got a B.S. from Michigan State University and a master’s and Ph.D. from the
University of Michigan in sociology and Asian American studies. He was primed to enter academia
controversy is it opened up a lot of fissures between the different ethnic studies
entities. In some ways, I was in the middle of all of the stuff because I was with Asian
Am and Afro Am and I took a little bit of leadership in terms of the discussions on a
campus level. I would sometimes be running between my families, Asian Am and
Afro Am. Asian Am people among one another were talking about, ‘How come you
people are the ones who are causing all of the problems?’ ‘You people’ being, the
assumption seems to be amongst some of the faculty in Asian Am that Black people
wanted everything consolidated, so therefore, we would have all of the power if that
were the case. Those kinds of fissures developed over time. And for me personally
that meant I became more alienated from Asian American Studies. That is part of the
result, I think, in terms of how up and down diversity was on campus. That often
happens when you talk about people who have started fighting amongst each other. It’
s directing the energy against people you shouldn’t be. Naively on my part, but you
would think that academics should be more sophisticated about that. But I found out
that we all have biases and blind spots as well. We often don’t see our shortcomings.
That disheartened me. It broke my heart in many ways. And it really came to the fore
about 4-5 years ago for me, so I’ve been kind of, in some ways, coasting in terms of
putting much of my effort into stuff like that. I knew the end was coming and I didn’t
know how much more to put into it and get further disappointed. That’s kind of the
downside to my experience here.”
While Afro American Studies is primarily about the African American experience,
many of its students are Euro-American with little experiential or emotional
connection to the course content even if their hearts are in the right place.
“One of the things that I pride myself on is I have a lot of integrity,” Thornton said.
“And so, I didn’t want to be paid half my salary to teach someone and do garbage
stuff, even though I could be evaluated as a good teacher without doing anything
extra. That made me think about how do I get them to touch other people. How do I get
my students to touch other people’s lives where, at the very least, they have
additional information to back up what I am saying, so they can’t dismiss my opinion,
but also to get them to carry the understanding of the human beings as real people for
the rest of their lives?”
Next issue: Service learning and beyond