Gail Kligman receives honorary doctorate from celebrated Romanian university
Photo: UCLA Professor Gail Kligman (far right) delivers her oral presentation upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Universitatea Babe?-Bolyai. (Photo courtesy of UBB.)

Gail Kligman receives honorary doctorate from celebrated Romanian university

The UCLA distinguished professor of sociology was honored for her many works on Romania and other communist and post-communist societies, the majority of which have been translated into Romanian.

“Writing this talk was actually very useful because I had to think through these different forms of ethnographic research that I have done. It made me realize that had I not lived in that village, I don't think that I would have ended up working on ethnographies of the state.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, September 11, 2017Gail Kligman, distinguished professor of sociology and associate vice provost of the UCLA International Institute, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai (Babeș-Bolyai University) of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on May 25, 2017.

Kligman is the author of several award-winning books and other publications on Romania and communist and post-communist societies, the majority of which have been translated into Romanian. In addition to teaching at UCLA, she directed the Center for European and Russian Studies (then the Center for European and Eurasian Studies) from 2005 to 2015. 

The UCLA professor’s research on Romania blends in-depth ethnographic and historical research with policy analysis, spanning such topics as ethnographies of the state, the Ceaușescu regime’s reproductive policies and their pernicious effects, changing gender relations in socialist and post-socialist countries, ritual and culture in communist Romania, and collectivization and the creation of communist rule — to name but a few.

Among Kligman’s books are “Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Agriculture in Romania, 1949–1962” (Princeton, 2011; co-authored with Katherine Verdery); “The Politics of Gender after Socialism: A Comparative-Historical Essay” (Princeton, 2000; co-authored with Susan Gal), “Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life after Socialism” (Princeton, 2000; co-edited with Susan Gal), “The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceaușescu’s Romania” (University of California, 1998); “The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics and Popular Culture in Transylvania” (University of California, 1998), and “Căluš: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual” (Chicago, 1981).


Research focused on socialist transformation

The sociologist did her doctoral research mostly in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, and the south of the country. Since then, however, most of her fieldwork has focused on the transformation of village life, both during and after the communist period (1949–1989). Kligman has spent extended periods of time living and conducting research in the village of Ieud in the Maramureş region, located in the country’s far north.

Village of Ieud, Romania. (Photo courtesy of Istockphoto.)

“I think people perceive living in a village as exotic, but given what was happening in the country [during the Ceaușescu regime]… it was not in many respects as difficult as everyday life in Bucharest,” she recounts. “I had a beautiful kerosene-fueled lamp, so I had light — in Bucharest, they were constantly cutting the electricity,” she explains. “And we had a wood-burning stove. So even though it was freezing cold in the winter first thing in the morning, at least you could do something about that. 

“And as for Romania’s notorious secret police,” she continues, “they weren't following two steps behind me in the village. It's not that people weren't reporting on me; of course they were, but it was not as intrusive and evident in most cases [as it was in the capital and other cities]. In the village, everyone knew where I was all the time. I was the only American, and was known to many as ‘the American.’”

Kligman’s experience and familiarity with doing research in rural areas continued after the fall of communism. “I remember after the collapse of the regime at the end of 1989, I went to Bucharest in February and prominent intellectuals asked me to let them know ‘what was going on in the countryside’ when I returned from a trip to the north to see for myself. It was definitely a very exciting period,” she adds, noting that she has been able to witness the changes that followed the fall of communism not only in the capital but in places far from it.


An unexpected honor

Kligman was contacted over a year ago by the chair of the Faculty of Sociology and Social Welfare at the Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai (UBB), who informed her that the faculty wanted to nominate her — and her colleague and co-author Katherine Verdery — to receive honorary doctorates from the university.

“It was out of the clear blue sky,” recounts Kligman. Although the UCLA professor knew a former doctoral student who now teaches in that department, she was only professionally acquainted with a few other scholars there, one of whom had spent a year at UCLA as a Fulbright Scholar. “When the chair asked if I would be willing to consider this, not surprisingly, I responded, ‘Of course, I’m very honored!’” she says.

Located in the heart of Transylvania, UBB was founded in 1872, but dates back to a Jesuit college established in 1581. It is the largest university in the country, with over 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers higher education degree programs in Romanian, Hungarian, English, French and German. Part of a consortium of Romania’s five leading universities, UBB is widely recognized as a top university in Eastern Europe.

Cluj-Napoca, Romania. (Photo courtesy of Istockphoto.)

“The only unfortunate part was that I had proposed that Katherine and I receive our honorary degrees together — mind you, I had no idea about their ceremony and that they don’t normally do that,” says the sociologist. Although the faculty did get permission to hold back-to-back ceremonies for the two longtime friends and colleagues, in the end they couldn’t work out their schedules. So Kligman received her honorary doctorate this past spring and Verdery will receive hers this fall.


Formal ceremony caps a warm welcome

Kligman’s visit to Cluj was not limited solely to receiving her honorary degree. “I certainly felt feted!” she comments. Over several days, she met with the Faculty of Sociology and Social Welfare at UBB, spent two hours in a question-and-answer session with some 50 students (who showed up on a Friday, when no classes are held), and was hosted at lunches daily by members of the faculty. In addition, she was interviewed by a cultural journal. 

Referring to her session with the students, the UCLA scholar remarked, “I loved the session. There was a lively discussion that exceeded the scheduled ninety minutes. The only reason it stopped was because of the previously scheduled interview for Sinteza.

“At one point,” she continued, “a student asked an interesting question about which I had not ever thought. I don’t think they are used to a faculty member saying, ‘Hmm, I have to think about that’ — they were just amazed. Or maybe they wondered, ‘Why did they give her an honorary degree?’” She laughed and said, “It was an interesting and fun session, and I would be very happy to do it again.”

The day of the official ceremony, the weather was not auspicious: steady rain caused bad traffic that forced Kligman and the faculty chair to abandon the rector’s car and walk to the university. The highly formal event proved impressive. Unlike in the United States, honorary doctorates are awarded apart from commencement ceremonies in Romania. “It was a completely separate event,” says the UCLA scholar.

The ceremony began with a procession of the pro-rectors and deans of the various faculties — preceded by a flag bearer with the university flag — who entered a beautiful, ornamental room. Kligman followed, flanked by the president of the Academic Senate and a pro-rector of UBB.


Left: President of the UBB Academic Senate Chirliă and UBB Pro-Rector David. Right: Dean Hărăguș (on left) and Professor Marius Lazar — who delivered the laudatio — with other faculty and pro-rectors at the Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai ceremony. (Photos courtesy of UBB.)

First, the actual scroll of the honorary degree — delivered in a beautiful velvet tube — was read in Latin and then presented to her, along with the velvet-encased decree announcing the formal decision of the Academic Senate to award her this honor. Next, a member of the nominating department, Marius Lazar, delivered a laudatio, or a formal commendation of her body of work.


Left: UCLA Professor Gail Kligman in Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai robes. Right: Reading the scroll of
her honorary doctorate with the President of the UBB Academic Senate Chirliă.
(Photos courtesy of UBB.)

Kligman herself then delivered a speech of roughly 50 minutes — in Romanian — that looked back at her research in the country, tracing themes she said were not apparent even to herself until she sat down to write. (To read the text of her oral presentation, see the document attached below.)

“Writing this talk was actually very useful because I had to think through these different forms of ethnographic research that I have done,” she reflects. “It made me realize that had I not lived in that village, I don't think that I would have ended up working on ethnographies of the state.

“I could have read the policies, analyzed statistics, interviewed people of all walks of life,” she adds, “but I would never have had access to the articulation between state policy and everyday life, how the state penetrated the body politic and the practices of everyday life, including its intimacies. If I had been living in an apartment on my own in a city, I would not have had such exposure,” she explained. “It's quite different when you're living with a family that’s affected by the state in every aspect, including their reproductive lives. 

“I spoke about things that most of the people in the room had experienced for a lot of their lives — with the exception of many of the students, who weren’t alive during the communist period. I think they found it quite interesting,” she says. As for delivering her remarks in Romanian, Kligman observes, “It seemed like a sign of respect. I also knew that some people were going to drive down from the north [of Romania] to attend and they are not English speakers.”


Attendees listening to Professor Kligman's oral presentation. (Photos courtesy of UBB.)

Following the ceremony, the university hosted a generous reception for some 80 to 100 people, among them a number of Kligman’s friends and colleagues from Romania and the United States, including members of the extended family with whom she had lived in Ieud and a daughter-in-law of a former professor in Bucharest. “The translator who worked with us on our last book (“Peasants under Siege”) came from Bucharest for the ceremony. I looked in the audience and there she was,” she says. “She didn’t say a word. It was a complete surprise and I was very touched.

“It was a memorable experience and very gratifying,” concludes Kligman. It is clear that this scholar’s work is both known and highly respected in Romania (and Eastern Europe more generally) — a development she could never have anticipated when she began doing research there in the mid-1970s.

“Romania experienced one of the harshest regimes under communism,” reflects Kligman. “The work of people who were able to spend time there and conduct research [then and now] — once Romanians could actually gain access to it — has contributed to shaping the way younger scholars think about the communist and post-communist periods.”

Download file: Kligman_UBB_Oral-Presentation_052517-cn-xbn.pdf