The STPEC Program began in 1972 as an interdisciplinary concentration within the College of Arts and Sciences.

STPEC History


The STPEC Program began in 1972 as an interdisciplinary concentration within the College of Arts and Sciences. From its initial handful of students, it has evolved into a lively and challenging program with over 150 majors. Sara Lennox, a professor in German and Scandinavian Studies, serves as STPEC's Director.

The STPEC Program at UMass Amherst was founded by Professor Robert Paul Wolff, formerly of this university’s Philosophy Department and now a member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. As a graduate student at Harvard in 1960-61, Wolff had been Head Tutor of a new experimental interdisciplinary major called Social Studies. In connection with the negotiations that led to his joining the UMass Philosophy Department in 1971, Wolff proposed to the Dean of Arts and Sciences that he establish a program modeled on Social Studies at Harvard. A meeting called by Wolff to explore support for initiating such a program attracted more than forty university and Five College faculty. With this enthusiastic backing, STPEC was able to admit its first cohort of fifteen students in 1972. Initially STPEC granted undergraduate degrees under the aegis of the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) Program; not until 1977 did STPEC become an independent major with its own degree-granting rights. Early STPEC majors could pursue three concentrations in the program, social thought, political economy, or psychology. Though students were required to enroll in two senior seminars team-taught by senior faculty, the program otherwise had no specific requirements, asking students only to complete twelve introductory credits and eight upper-level credits selected from a more general list of courses.

However, in 1977, Wolff and Professor William Connolly of the Political Science Department taught a very demanding senior seminar for which STPEC students felt they had not been adequately prepared. In response, in 1978 Wolff created a one-semester junior seminar that would focus on modern western social theory. A few years later Professor Tracy Strong of Mount Holyoke College taught a similarly demanding junior seminar for which students again were not prepared, and Wolff responded by creating an entry-level course in the Philosophy Department, Philosophy 161, “Introduction to Social Philosophy,” to prepare students for the junior seminar. (In his own narrative of these events, Wolff remarks: “The point of this part of the story is to emphasize that throughout its history, STPEC has evolved in response to student needs and student demands. It is entirely appropriate that it continue to do so.”) Under Professor Wolff’s direction STPEC had significant faculty involvement, including, for a time, Professor Morton Schoolman as associate director. The support structures for the program, however, were very rudimentary: STPEC had no line-item budget of its own and could claim only one small office (the central office of what is now STPEC’s bank of three offices in E-27 Machmer Hall). One (very dedicated) teaching assistant administered the program, and all secretarial tasks were handled by the staff of the College of Arts and Science Advising Center.

In 1980 Wolff moved to Boston and found he was unable to run STPEC long-distance. He hoped that one of the numerous UMass Amherst faculty members who had been associated with STPEC would take on the directorship. For a range of reasons none of those faculty members was able to assume the position, and Sara Lennox of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, still an untenured faculty member with little previous STPEC involvement, was approached as a last resort. Happily, the emphases of the STPEC Program corresponded to Lennox’s desire for greater connectedness to engaged undergraduates, and she has been director of STPEC since 1981. Aware that she could not draw upon anything like Wolff’s prestige, charisma, and superlative scholarly credentials, Lennox established a STPEC Governing Board of UMass Amherst and Five College faculty willing to stand behind the program. During this transition period, STPEC students provided a great deal of guidance in determining future directions for STPEC, and a commitment to student leadership of and oversight over STPEC has remained a central component of the program since 1981.

Initial discussions with STPEC students in 1981 revealed students’ concern about the program’s entire lack of requirements: some STPEC students felt that the program had become a catch-all major for students with no focus at all and also enabled students to graduate without taking courses on topics they might consider uncomfortable, particularly race and gender. (At that point there was no “diversity” requirement within the university’s “Core” requirements, and STPEC students were very involved in advocacy for such a requirement.) Together Lennox and the students decided that STPEC was indeed committed to particular core emphases and instituted the program requirements of one upper-level course each in modern Western social theory, political economy, and what was then called “Feminist Theory” and “Theories of Race.” (The requirements later mutated into “History and Politics of Women” and “History and Politics of Race in the U.S.,” descriptions better corresponding to the actual content of the courses students were taking.) In Spring 1984 STPEC instituted a requirement for an upper- or lower-level course in history, often deemphasized in the social science courses that mainly comprise the STPEC curriculum. In Spring 1986 STPEC instituted a non-Western world requirement, and in Fall 1999 a three-credit internship requirement. As has been the case with all changes to the STPEC curriculum and all other aspects of the program, the new requirements were debated by, then voted upon and approved by STPEC students.

During the eighties STPEC’s lack of structural support from the University became an increasing impediment to running the program effectively. An external review in 1986 (undertaken by distinguished scholars David Montgomery, A. S. Singham, and Howard Dodson) provided the impetus to seek more university resources. The reviewers’ very positive report allowed us for the first time to gain a specific line item for STPEC in the university budget and a full-time secretary. (We have been very fortunate that the two incumbents of that position, first Helen Johnson, a STPEC alum, and since 1991 Deborah Reiter, have been so dedicated to STPEC that they have taken on professional responsibilities equivalent to those of an associate director, though they have been paid as relatively low-level secretaries.) We were also able to retain the teaching assistantship of the graduate student who had previously administered the program, who now assumed the tasks of an Academic Advisor. The advanced graduate students who to that point had taught STPEC’s junior seminars had also been discontent with STPEC’s one-semester junior seminar, since it allowed them to teach only social and political theory but not to emphasize the social conditions out of which theory grew and the social praxis it informed. In response to the external reviewers’ urging, the Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences provided us with the resources to expand the junior seminar to a full year and to acquire the services of two senior faculty members (John Cole, Anthropology, and Dan Clawson, Sociology) to team-teach the seminar. At a day-long retreat, members of STPEC’s Governing Board tried (rather unsuccessfully) to determine what the optimal content of STPEC’s junior seminar should be (the content of the seminar should be all of human knowledge, we seemed to have determined by the end of the day). These arrangements for the release of senior faculty to team-teach the junior seminar foundered due to the budget cuts in the late eighties, and STPEC was forced to fall back on advanced graduate students to teach what remained a two-semester junior seminar. 

In general over the course of the past two decades, STPEC’s access to university resources has very much depended on larger University decisions and the financial welfare of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. When the University in Fall 1983 instituted a Junior Year Writing requirement to be taught within the major, STPEC received partial funding to hire a graduate student instructor for that course. The former Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences, himself very enthusiastic about internships, provided some funding in Fall 1997 to allow STPEC to hire a graduate student as internship advisor, preparatory to STPEC’s implementing an internship requirement (though not until 2007 did we receive full funding for the position of internship advisor).   In January 2007 STPEC was allowed to transform its two advising TA’s into a full-time professional position, and the staff member carrying out those tasks now holds the title of Chief Academic Advisor and Internship Director. The expansion of the space available to STPEC has come about as a consequence of micro-negotiations with other units also located in Machmer Hall. In 1997 STPEC, in cooperation with four other interdisciplinary programs, Afro-American Studies, Labor Studies, Latin-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, spearheaded the creation of “Linkages,” a learning community for first-year students focused on social issues. However, the budget crisis of Spring 2003 produced a cut of two TA’s to STPEC. Since Linkages was not critical to the STPEC curriculum, we abandoned the program, shifting the funding for its TA coordinator to one of STPEC’s TAs and funded the second missing TA out of alumni/ae donations until the Dean was able to restore the position in Fall 2004. (In Fall 2007 “Linkages” was reborn as the “Social Justice Residential Academic Program,” located in Pierpont Residential Area.) Over the course of its history, STPEC has been forced to rely upon extremely limited university resources but has nonetheless succeeded in graduating over seven hundred and fifty splendid young people from the program. The accomplishments of our students, in conjunction with the very minimal resources on which we draw, have helped to assure STPEC’s survival even at times when other university units have seen their funding significantly cut. We also owe great debts of gratitude to a series of Deans of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Five College and University faculty who have continued to support STPEC through hard times. Certainly most central has been the often selfless dedication of STPEC staff and students to the program, and it is very much a consequence of their efforts that STPEC has continued to survive and thrive.