Like an old cracked wagon tongue held together by haywire, rural and small-town Texas may not be broke, but there’s a lot that needs fixing.
The right tool could be the new Center for Rural Studies: Research & Outreach, at Sam Houston State University. It is housed in the sociology department and directed by Gene Theodori, an associate professor in that department.
We know that as residents of rural areas migrate to the cities to seek more opportunities, the face of Texas, as well as other states, continues to change.
“The social and economic fabric of many rural communities throughout the United States has been progressively weakened by a number of regional, national, and global changes over the past few decades,” said Theodori.
“Rural communities in Texas have not been exempt from such structural-level occurrences. Transformations in economic, demographic, and spatial organization have had profound impacts on rural Texas.”
The Center for Rural Studies: Research & Outreach, offers a broad range of policy research and recommendations, as well as outreach educational and technical assistance programs. Some of the issues/projects Theodori expects the Center to address include:
The Center’s potential clients include local governments, community development corporations, economic development corporations, chambers of commerce, and other regional, state and private partners.
“On average, rural areas maintain lower per capita incomes and higher poverty, higher dependency, and lower labor force participation rates than do urban areas,” said Theodori.
“In addition, the quantity and quality of many amenities and public services--fire and police protection; educational, transportation, and shopping facilities; welfare activities; health care; water, refuse, and sewage systems and organized recreational opportunities--frequently are inadequate to meet the needs of rural citizens.”
Changes in energy exploration and production and food systems create new conditions that are substantially altering the fabric and future outlook of rural Texas, he said.
One of Theodori’s recent research projects was a survey of 1,228 Texans in 12 Texas counties on the energy crisis and possible solutions. About half of those surveyed (48.7 percent) said that with a more environmentally-friendly oil and gas production approach by drilling companies, current governmental regulations should be relaxed.
While not a native Texan, Theodori has great credentials with which to lead such an effort. He grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, near the community of Waltersburg, where numerous dairy farms and coal mines dot the landscape.
“Rural people and rural culture ... that’s what I knew as a child,” said Theodori. “My father is a truck driver. As a child, I would travel with him as he made deliveries to the coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I saw a lot of Appalachia as a child.”
While working on his master's degree in sociology, Theodori took a course in rural sociology.
“That's when it all clicked,” he said. “That's when I knew what I wanted to do.” He went on to earn a Ph. D. in Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University.
Theodori is president of the Southern Rural Sociological Association. In 2007 he received the Excellence in Extension and Public Service Award from the Southern Rural Sociological Association.
He is not alone in this interest at Sam Houston State University. The sociology department has the largest concentration of rural sociologists working in any such department at any institution of higher learning in Texas.
Others at SHSU who will be immediately associated with the Center include Alessandro Bonanno (sociology), Douglas Constance (sociology), James Carter (political science); John Domino (political science), and Stacy Ulbig (political science)
Faculty members in several disciplines other than sociology and political science -- including but not limited to criminal justice, communication studies, English, mass communication, psychology and philosophy – are also expected to participate in the Center’s projects.
“I truly believe that the Center will quickly emerge as the premier teaching, research and outreach authority on rural Texas,” said Theodori.
John de Castro, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at SHSU, echoes that assessment.
"There is a huge need throughout rural Texas for the services of a Rural Studies Center and no current facilities available to fill that void,” said de Castro. “Rural Texas communities, school systems, and businesses desperately need data on which to base their decisions. The SHSU Rural Studies Center will provide these services and greatly aid the development of rural Texas communities.”
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Brian Domitrovic, assistant professor of history, appeared on Book TV (C-SPAN) May 1-2, speaking about his recent book "Econoclasts: The Rebels Sparked the Supply Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity" (www.econoclasts.net).
Houston Chronicle education writer Jeannie Kever recently turned to Regents Professor of English Paul Ruffin for his views on university presses moving toward "digital books" as opposed to traditional ink-on-paper."We're fulfilling the ancient role of the university press, and that is to produce books," said Paul Ruffin, the Texas poet laureate for 2009 and director of the Texas Review Press at Sam Houston State University. "I don't want to give up the book because it is an art."
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"The measure of a Life is its Service."