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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

After nearly 50 years at Tufts, Professor Jeffrey Berry discusses his retirement, research, teaching

Professor, author, adviser, researcher, mentor, scholar and friend. These are just a few words to describe Jeffrey M. Berry and the legacy he created for himself at Tufts.

Berry worked at the Department of Political Science since 1974 and officially retired in the fall of 2022 after nearly 50 years of teaching. Berry explained that his love for political science was nurtured from childhood, inspired by his mother’s influence.

“I think my mother was the reason I got into political science. She was very interested in politics and so she talked politics with me,” Berry said. “I can remember at a very early age reading the newspaper.”

While Berry was growing up, agriculture was the center of the economy in his hometown of Fresno, Calif. At a summer job where he made deliveries to farms, he learned about the exploitation of Mexican laborers in the area. It was a profound experience that sparked a long journey leading to his master’s degree thesis on Cesar Chavez, who was the first person to organize Mexican farmworkers in California.

“When I made deliveries to these farms, I saw the exploitation,” Berry said. “It made a big impact on me. So I carried that passion or concern into graduate school. … That’s sort of an intellectual link between where I grew up and what I ended up doing for a living.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree at the University of California Berkeley, he made a trek across the country to pursue his doctorate from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. After accepting the job to work at Tufts in 1974, Berry began building a life with his family in Boston and conducted research on interest groups and urban politics.

Berry collaborated with Kent Portney, a former professor of political science at Tufts, on several publications. Alongside Portney and Ken Thompson, he co-authored “The Rebirth of Urban Democracy.”

“Kent and I continued to work together on many things, so we became very close writing and research partners,” Berry said. “He was a big part of my Tufts life.”

Berry has also collaborated across departments. Working with Sarah Sobieraj, professor and chair of the sociology department, Berry explored the role of cable news networks and talk radio in American political lives.

As of recently, Berry is wrapping up a five-year project alongside Dean James Glaser and Professor Deborah Schildkraut that explores the differences between liberals and conservatives. Berry has appreciated the opportunity to work alongside other professors and faculty members during his time at Tufts.

“I’ve not merely been at Tufts, but I've had research that was actually based at Tufts,” Berry said. “I was very happy with having these wonderful people to work with.” 

Berry has often valued collaborating with Tufts undergraduates on publications, especially since the political science department does not have a graduate program.

“I have quite a few research assistants, in some cases, collaborators who are undergraduates. That was nice too, because they got mentored rather than taught, so I think that was important to their personal development,” Berry said.

One of Berry’s favorite projects to work on was his book, “A Voice for Nonprofits” which he co-authored with former Tufts master’s student David Arons.

“I was very passionate about that subject,” Berry said. “My co-author and I were trying to figure out ways to make nonprofits more politically effective, and so both of us did this work with a real passion about the nonprofit sector.”

Not only has Berry contributed heavily to political science research, but he has also taught many classes from The Presidency and the Executive Branch to seminars on media and city politics. While Berry could not name a singular favorite class he has taught, he loved the chance to discuss American politics with students.

“I loved all my classes, and I’m … going to miss them all,” Berry admitted. “I love standing in front of the classroom, both talking and engaging students in conversation about American national politics.”

According to Berry, Tufts has changed a lot over the years, both as a university and within the political science department. During Berry’s academic career, the international relations program was created in 1977.

“We essentially became two political science departments,” Berry said. “More traffic goes through our department than any other department, so we became bigger because Tufts international relations became sort of a bellwether — it became a signature program of the university.”

Berry also explained that when he first started teaching at Tufts, the political science department only had 10 faculty. Since then, the department has more than doubled in its size.

“The [political science] department became more research-oriented over time,” Berry said. “Tufts was a small college that became a university later in its life, and so it took time for it to transition.”

Berry is departing from Tufts knowing that the political science department is in good hands.

“I think in my fields, in particular, American politics, it’s just really first-rate,” Berry said. “It’s hard to walk away from because I love my American politics friends and colleagues. … They’re great scholars, so the department is in very good shape.”

Berry also reflected on the changing demographics of Tufts students over the years.

“Of course, the population of Tufts students has become more diverse because America has become more diverse, so it’s a different student body than when I entered,” Berry said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was challenging to teach from a distance and feel removed from the community while learning was done remotely.

“COVID was painful for me, as it was for the students,” Berry said. “I missed the campus. I missed the relationships with my advisees, so it was hard. The day Tufts closed down, … I didn’t really get to say goodbye to people.”

Persisting through the difficulties, Berry was grateful to return to teach in person before his retirement.

“I'm glad that I got to go back and teach a little bit in person before I retired,” Berry said. “I loved my classes that I taught in the fall, which was my last semester. … I loved the courses, [and] I loved my students who were enrolled.”

Following his retirement, Berry plans to stay busy. He will still be present on Tufts’ campus to finish up his book with Schildkraut and Glaser. In addition, he will also be attending classes with his wife at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement and is training to be a nonprofit consultant through SOAR Management Consulting Group, an organization that offers pro bono consulting to small nonprofits.

“To my surprise, I’m actually busy,” Berry said. “I’ve never woken up since retirement and said to myself, ‘Gee, what am I going to do today?’”

Berry is also looking forward to traveling and spending time with friends and family, including his two daughters and grandchildren.

Upon reflecting on his time at Tufts, Berry offered some advice to students.

“Challenge yourself, because there are courses that demand a lot in terms of research skills, and so I would gravitate to those to do more than just the bare minimum,” Berry said. “I would take advantage of research opportunities. … It’s about being mentored as opposed to being taught. That would be my advice.”

All in all, Berry is very appreciative of his time at Tufts, and views it as a permanent home after close to five decades of inspiring students, colleagues and political scientists worldwide.

“I hope I remain part of the Tufts community because I love Tufts,” Berry said. “So I’ll be back on campus every once in a while.”