Having completed 29 marathons since turning 50 — until, he said, "my hip gave up on me" — NYUAD's Dean of Social Sciences Iván Szelényi knows a thing or two about endurance, perseverance, and good planning. And according to Szelényi, "Marathon running is good preparation for academic institution building." Indeed, within five years, he expects the Department of Social Sciences to have "some 25 faculty, some 300 undergraduate majors, and at least two masters programs."
As a sociologist specializing in the comparative study of social stratification across cultures over time, Szelényi focuses on social inequalities, studying the interplay of ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomics in transitional and post-communist societies. "My early research was on housing inequality during the mid-1960s in socialist Hungary," he explained. "Socialist ideology emphasized equality, but in my empirical research I found substantial inequalities not only in education and income — which were well documented in earlier research — but also in housing." Thus, Szelényi (who was born and raised in Budapest) was the first social scientist to draw attention to the inequalities of Hungary's socialist public housing system.
Today, his focus lies elsewhere. He is currently working on two manuscripts, one dealing with the theoretical questions of the interrelationship between race and class, and the other — tentatively titled How to become a billionaire? — that concentrates on the nouveau riche in former communist countries, contemporary Russia, China, and Central Europe. When completed, these titles will be added to Szelényi's long list of publications, a list that includes Patterns of Exclusion (co-authored by János Ladányi, a visiting professor of social research and public policy at NYUAD), which received the Karl Polanyi Prize in 2005 for best scholarly publication of the year from the Hungarian Sociological Association. And this is just one of Szelényi's many accolades. He also received the Széchenyi Prize, an honor that recognizes outstanding contributions to academic life in Hungary, which was awarded to him by the president of the Hungarian Republic in 2006.
The main aim of a liberal arts education is to foster critical imagination.
In addition to his research and his responsibilities as Dean, Szelényi teaches Foundations of Modern Social Thought, which he describes as "a classical 'liberal arts' course on some of the 'great books,'" including major works of social thought by theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. As Szelényi explained, "The main purpose of the course is to help students learn the skills to read critically complex theoretical texts. I also encourage students to develop their own positions on the major controversies in social sciences."
And this discourse is of upmost importance to Szelényi. "The main aim of a liberal arts education is to foster critical imagination," he said. "NYUAD's location in Abu Dhabi for the overwhelming majority of our students means an exposure to a fascinating, different culture. The comparative study of societies and cultures is the single most important tool of critical analysis. It helps us to understand that our way of life is not the only way we can live."
His experience teaching at universities around the world has also prepared him well. From US institutions including Yale, where he continues to serve as the William Graham Sumner Professor of Sociology, and UCLA, to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (where he also received his PhD in philosophy and sociology as well as his DSc), the University of Kent in England, and the Flinders University of South Australia, Szelényi has grown accustomed to a variety of educational systems, which, here in Abu Dhabi, is perhaps of great comfort to those in the multinational student body unfamiliar with an American-style education. "I hope I can help them to understand and value a liberal arts education," he said.
In addition to establishing "first-rate teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate level," Szelényi aims to bring world-class research in social sciences to NYUAD. And thanks to the formation of the Social Research and Data Center, which is scheduled to open in the coming academic year and will carry out various research projects in the UAE and the Gulf region, he is well on his way to achieving this goal.
Szelényi is no stranger to research, particularly in establishing new outlets for study. In 1963, after receiving his MA in economics from the Budapest School of Economics, he was one of the founding members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology, where he worked until 1975. There, researchers continue to conduct sociological research, examining the dynamics of changes in Hungarian society and working out methods for solving current social problems and conflicts, areas of research that have been close to Szelényi's heart since his academic career began.