Q&A: New CRCJ Chair Focuses on Research

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After a year of searching, the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice recently installed a new chair, Professor Kent Kerley. Kerley, an active scholar from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, sat down with College of Liberal Arts Communications Coordinator James Dunning to talk about his plans to raise the research profile of the department’s students and faculty.

Q: You’ve been a strong advocate of undergraduate student research at your previous institutions, UAB and Mississippi State University. What does UT Arlington offer in that area?

A: UTA offers the opportunity to take some of the things I learned at UAB and to apply them in a much larger setting. UTA has twice the number of criminal justice undergraduate students as UAB, and four times as many graduate students. We have many talented faculty members and a good infrastructure here for research excellence, but in the recent past the faculty members did not have adequate research mentoring. I bring the experience of working with faculty, students, and members of criminal justice agencies to publish in top journals (e.g., Aggression and Violent Behavior, Justice Quarterly, Social Forces, Social Problems) and to secure competitive funding from top federal agencies and corporations (e.g., National Science Foundation, Google). We also have a really solid student base and I think we can move quickly to a more research-oriented environment. UTA is a “high” research activity school, but our goal is to get to “very high.” I am very excited and thankful for this opportunity to serve.

Q: What has been your research path since completing your doctoral work at The University of Tennessee in 2001?

A: I started initially with policing issues and then gravitated towards corrections. Since 1999, I have done prison-based research, in particular studying faith-based prison programs and examining the impact and lived experience of various correctional treatment programs. Religion in prison is nothing new: the earliest prisons in the U.S. were designed by Quakers, and the model was solitary confinement, Bible study, and interaction with chaplains. That evolved over the years and then we hit a “silent period” in the 1960s and 1970s. Most prisons had chaplains, but there was little breadth or depth in programs. By the 1990s, we started to see greater interest in and expansion of faith-based programs. I was intrigued by this and wanted to find out which programs were working with inmates and how they perceived faith in the prison context. Most prisoners will tell you that they are changing for the good, but how are they changing? It is interesting to examine how prisoners live out faith, both privately and publicly.

Q: You’ve done several studies on this topic over the past decade. What is something the general public might not know?

A: I’ve had the opportunity to conduct research among male and female prison populations. One of my most surprising results is that, in general, men prefer to engage in the public practice of religion. They preferred to be in groups together, such as meetings with chaplains or local volunteers, large weekly services, and Bible studies with fellow inmates. The women, on the other hand, typically engaged in private practice and preferred to be by themselves or in very small groups with close friends. This challenges the stereotype that women are more social than men, especially in prison. Many of the women inmates said that the larger services had too many distractions and people who were not serious about their faith. The men, in our surveys and in-depth interviews, revealed how they were almost afraid of being alone and strongly desired group interaction to help them cope with being incarcerated.

Q: What do you think some of the challenges might be in your new role as chair?

A: I think our starting point is a greater focus on undergraduate research. We need to develop and retool some of our classes to introduce our students to the research process much sooner. That is our short-term goal. The long-term goal is to raise the research profile of the department. I want our students to be introduced right away to scholarly research articles, many written by our faculty, and to see firsthand how knowledge is created. When students come in and learn about research methods, such as how to pick topics and the people to be studied, and then read scholarly works they can connect the end result with the work needed to create it. Once they make that connection, they may have a greater interest in research. Not all of our students will go on to graduate school, but we will teach them the importance of data-driven analysis, thinking instead of feeling, problem solving, and technical writing. Almost all of our students will have jobs where those are necessary and valued skills. We want to train people to move into management-level positions in the criminal justice system and elsewhere. Inspiring our students to have a passion for research is the key.

Q: For the past several years, you’ve utilized undergraduate research through a summer program you created at UAB with more than $700,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Do you foresee doing something similar here at UTA?

A: Yes, it is something we want to do right away. Ultimately what happens is, if we have a greater emphasis on research in our classes, we start to interest students a bit more in research, and they are less intimidated by the research process. We then start to see students improving in classes like methods and statistics and we begin involving them in our research. They get a taste of research, which may encourage them to get involved in our new student organization (Society for Criminal Justice Students) and the department’s honor society (Alpha Phi Sigma). Then hopefully we have increased the likelihood that they will continue on here at UTA for graduate school.

This new emphasis on research benefits our faculty members as well. They will be encouraged to work more closely with students, to submit more articles and grant proposals with them, and to be part of a more collaborative environment. When I came on board, it did not seem that our faculty members received much encouragement to work with scholars in other departments and universities. My entire career has been built on interdisciplinary collaboration. I have worked with chemists, biologists, computer scientists, and scholars from nearly all of the social sciences. My hope is that here we can build an interdisciplinary research consortium.

Q: Law enforcement and court decisions top the nightly news. How can the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice respond to that?

A: We can offer a much more sophisticated understanding of criminal justice system, including police-community relations, the court systems, and the prison systems. Media members tend to focus on the most egregious or violent incidents, but those are not typical. The things that get the most attention are the things that happen the least. We want to create an environment where our students will be knowledgeable in how the system works.

Q: Apart from focusing on undergraduate research, what else do you hope to accomplish during your time as chair?

A: We have a great team here of faculty, staff, and students, and it is time to expand and to move up. We will be recruiting soon for more tenured and tenure-track faculty members. This is our time to build a strong and vibrant research-intensive environment. This is our time.

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