In 1988, David Cunningham stepped foot on the University of Connecticut’s campus as a first-year undergraduate student. Like most of his peers, he expected to earn a college degree over the following four years and get a job. Unbeknownst to him, this was the beginning to Cunningham’s journey to nothing short of academic excellence. While this semester is Cunningham’s last as part of Brandeis’ Sociology Department, he is leaving as a highly regarded professor among Brandeis students and faculty. Cunningham will continue to contribute to the field of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis beginning next year.
When Cunningham entered the academic world as a first-year in college, he never would have guessed it was a place he was going to spend the rest of his career. “When I first started college, I was a civil engineering and English major,” Cunningham told The Brandeis Hoot. While spending his evenings working on problem sets, his friends, who happened to be sociology majors, were equally busy with their work. Although he was able to feed his literary curiosity by proposing and completing a dual degree program that allowed him to study both English and civil engineering, he continuously looked for ways to become more engaged in his work.
By Cunningham’s last year in college, he knew he would never be satisfied with engineering. While switching majors was still a viable option, he chose to finish out his double major and go from there. After graduation, Cunningham, with a diploma for both civil engineering and English, applied to graduate school for sociology. “I kind of did it as a leap of faith,” Cunningham explained. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I kind of stumbled into it, and it ended up working out, but its not a recommended path.”
From Cunningham’s time at the University of North Carolina, where he earned his doctorate in sociology, he went through a great personal transformation. He had never met anyone who had attended graduate school, but he could hardly explain the subject for which he was attending. When Cunningham’s parents, apprehensive about the decision, asked him about his future, he had trouble responding. “To be honest, I didn’t understand what sociology was either, so I couldn’t explain it very well,” he said. Because Cunningham grew up in central Connecticut in the ’80s, he never felt like he had the vocabulary necessary to understand and engage with issues such as the Los Angeles Race Riots of 1982. Cunningham felt isolated and yearned to understand what was going on in society.
Over the course of his six years in graduate school, Cunningham began to get his questions answered and became an expert in the field of sociology. He wrote his dissertation on FBI Counter Intelligence programs, which were designed to shut down movements they saw as threats to national security. With the use of surveillance, informants and active disruption, the FBI hindered a large range of social movements, a majority leftist. Yet the FBI did cover one right-wing group—the Ku Klux Klan. Though Cunningham did publish a book on the FBI, he was more excited about what he described as the “window into the KKK.”
Through his research on the FBI, Cunningham discovered his interest in the KKK. “The Klan people, beyond the obvious racism side of it, saw themselves as patriotic, anti-communist and Christian,” Cunningham said. “All these kind of things that most FBI agents saw themselves as as well.” Because of this relation, hundreds of FBI informants inserted themselves into Klan groups and wrote detailed reports. These reports gave Cunningham a perspective on the KKK he had never seen before. Two days after defending his dissertation on the FBI at UNC, Cunningham flew to Boston, where he immediately took a job as an associate professor at Brandeis and not only continued to research the KKK, but worked his way up to become the head of the Sociology Department.
“I defended my dissertation on, it must have been, Aug. 29, 1999, and started here two days later,” Cunningham said. Cunningham’s first course at Brandeis was titled “Community Structure and Youth Subculture.” Initially, Cunningham was given a classroom with space for about 15 students, but when he walked into Pearlman on the first day, there was a line of about 50 students lined up to get a seat in the class. After moving to Pearlman Lounge, and then to Gerstenzang after the class grew even larger, Cunningham was able to begin teaching. “I got to know a lot of students from that class, so I appreciated that I at least included ‘youth subculture’ in the title,” Cunningham said.
Sixteen years later, Cunningham is just as dedicated to and interested in his students as he was when he began. “It’s been so satisfying to see students who you meet early on, or it’s the first sociology class they have ever taken, develop and go on and do amazing stuff,” Cunningham said. “It’s an amazing thing to watch over time and there are just so many interesting students that come to Brandeis, the beauty of it is that everyone is always doing something different, so the trajectory is never the same.” Just as Cunningham has taken a pleasure in watching his students move on to do incredible things with their lives, the Brandeis community will feel similarly about Cunningham. He leaves after this semester to take on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of building a sociology department from the ground up at Washington University in St. Louis.
As Gordon Fellman, a long-time professor in the Sociology Department, says of Cunningham, “David’s teaching about social movements, youth, methods and much more have been key courses in our department’s curriculum.” Fellman continued to describe Cunningham as “magnificently smart, kind, decent, considerate, empathetic, earnest and dedicated in the most sophisticated ways to his profession, his students, his colleagues and our university altogether.” Fellman is not alone in his admiration for Cunningham. Students describe him as engaging, helpful, compassionate and caring. As Hannah Marion ’16 said, “What makes Professor Cunningham so special is not only his clear passion for what he teaches, but his ability to offer students that same zeal for the subject through engaging and creative classes that truly make you want to learn.”
When Cunningham takes the next step in his career as an accomplished and influential sociology professor, the Brandeis community will support him in his journey and continue to be a place he can call home.