The Passing of Dan Clawson

Dan Clawson, labor movement leader and PHENOM founder, 1948-2019.

Photo: Dan Clawson. (Courtesy of MTA/YouTube)

It is a sad duty to share that Dan Clawson, a founder of PHENOM and a key figure in public higher education advocacy for a generation, died suddenly early on Tuesday morning.

Many in PHENOM may never have heard the name Dan Clawson. But without Dan there would be no PHENOM. It was Dan Clawson, a sociology professor at UMass Amherst, president of the faculty and librarian union at UMass Amherst, who first pushed the idea of an independent organization that would advocate for public higher education. When the opportunity arose – a December 2006 visit of Governor Deval Patrick to UMass just before the very start of his administration – Dan orchestrated the writing of a visionary statement of the goals for public higher education. Two months later, PHENOM was born.

When few were willing to talk openly, much less build an organization around the idea of free higher education, Dan was happy to do so. PHENOM held, and still holds, this idea as a core principle. It has become a mainstream political idea, widely discussed in presidential campaigns, and here in Massachusetts.

Dan was also a nationally known and revered professor of sociology.  He wrote nine books and dozens of articles, many about building more just workplaces, and how to revitalize the American labor movement.  He also wrote a book on the future of public higher education and was a constant critic of the privatization of our public universities. Indeed, this summer he was organizing a plenary panel on the neoliberal university for the American Sociology Association meeting.

Most fundamentally, Dan was an organizer. He never sought the limelight, but rather built and promoted organizations, caucuses, movements and candidates he thought could help support an “upsurge” in militant social justice movements, especially those rooted in labor unions. Just days before he died, he was busy helping elect progressive candidates at MTA’s Annual Meeting, and helping to pass a call for a national strike for the Green New Deal.

Whether we knew him personally or not, we will all miss him in the continuing struggle for the Commonwealth we all want to live in.