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New Regents Professor Cassia Spohn returns to full-time research, teaching

February 11, 2020

After five years as a school director, the acclaimed scholar to focus on studying disparities in sentencing due to race, gender

Her office bookcases were half empty, with dozens of volumes already in boxes on a table in her soon-to-be former office, as Cassia Spohn completed her time as director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and reflected on the next phase of her career journey during the waning days of 2019.

Her exit from the directorship position coincided with her recent recognition as one of Arizona State University’s five newest Regents Professors — the university’s highest faculty award.  

“Being named a Regents Professor is a recognition of contributions to research and scholarship,” Spohn said. “I’m humbled to be among those designated.”

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, said the designation as Regents Professor represents “an honor richly deserved, as Cassia is among the most distinguished scholars in her field, with a record of impact both in the scholarly understanding of criminology and the practice of criminal justice,” he said. “We are enormously fortunate to have Cassia as a colleague and leader of our school.”

As the honor was announced, Spohn was already in the process of wrapping up five and a half years directing the school. Still, administrative duties haven’t solely been occupying her tenure as director. Since 2015, she has published three books and 30 scholarly articles.

The university gave her its Award for Leading Edge Research in the Social Sciences in 2013. She is a fellow in the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the Western Society of Criminology.

Spohn started her academic career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working toward a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science during the Watergate-scandal era; she dreamed of being an investigative reporter like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

She worked briefly for the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star, but not in investigative journalism: “I wrote wedding and engagement announcements,” she said.

Shortly afterward, she was lured by an assistantship to pursue her doctoral degree in political science, the subject she was expecting to teach. But one of the first articles she published after graduate school dealt with the effects of race on sentencing.

“From there I was hooked on criminology and criminal justice and on looking at improving the fairness and equity of the system,” she said.

Spohn said that in 2020 she will look forward to trading the challenges of running one of the nation’s top criminal justice schools for more time to devote to the scholarship and research that earned her the Regents title.

“I’ve enjoyed the last five years, mostly,” Spohn said with a smile. “But it’s come with challenges and I’m happy to pass the baton to Jon Gould in January.” Gould, who left American University in Washington, D.C., began as the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice director on Jan. 1.

Scott Decker, Spohn’s longtime colleague, fellow Foundation Professor and now an emeritus professor, has known Spohn since they both were young in their careers, “trying to make our way forward in the discipline.”

He is one of many colleagues who cite Spohn’s status as a major force in criminology and criminal justice professional circles.

“Every criminologist knows Cassia Spohn and her work, because she is such a dominant figure in the field. Her work is central to the field, it is known not only by specialists in her areas of work, but by all working criminologists,” Decker said, calling her a “consummate academic leader, demonstrating by example as well as mentoring and educating students, from first-semester freshmen to advanced doctoral students.”

Decker also said Spohn’s work is “foundational” to the understanding of race and gender in sentencing and also has had a significant impact on research, policy and criminal justice processes across the system.

“She is among of a handful of senior female scholars who blazed the trail for other women to gain acceptance in PhD programs, leadership roles and the highest level of recognition in the field,” he said.

Pauline Brennan, a professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies and PhD program director at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell co-authored a number of research papers with Spohn. Recently they co-edited the “Handbook on Sentencing Policies and Practices in the 21st Century” for the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Corrections and Sentencing.

“She is a wonderful mentor; I learned so much about the research process from her, and also the benefit of providing service for the discipline and the grace that comes with supporting others,” Brennan said. “I am privileged to have been able to work with her over time, and hope to do so for many years to come.”

Brennan said a scan of Spohn’s curriculum vitae would lead to the immediate conclusion that “Cassia is an academic giant.” But beyond Spohn’s scholarly activities and tremendous productivity, Brennan noted her skill as a guide to others.

“She has chaired over 20 dissertation committees, co-authors work with graduate students on a regular basis, makes it a point to mentor junior faculty and seems to always know exactly the right approach to just about everything. Again, I cannot overstate how much I admire Cassia,” Brennan said.

Spohn said as she returns to full-time research and teaching, she will primarily concentrate on disparities in sentencing due to race, gender and other legally irrelevant factors, the processing of sexual assault cases, and working with others at ASU on ways to help prevent those who have served their sentences from becoming repeat offenders.

Also, with the support of a grant from Arnold Ventures, she will work with Arizona’s Administrative Office of the Courts on a study examining the causes and consequences to defendants of failing to appear in court.

In this last area, she said she wants to find out what motivates or incentivizes defendants to appear and whether there are steps that courts can take to improve the appearance rate.

She also will continue to devote herself to her membership on a U.S. Department of Defense Advisory Board on Investigation, Prosecution and Defense of Sexual Assault in the Armed Forces, a board she has served on since 2017. Over the next few months, she will be contributing a chapter to a book on criminal justice reform, writing about racial and ethnic disparities in the imposition of life-without-parole sentences in the federal courts, and working on a paper examining sentencing in Arizona.

Spohn and the other Regents Professors will be formally vested at an ASU ceremony Wednesday.

Top photo: Cassia Spohn resumed full-time research and teaching Jan. 1 after five-plus years as director of ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She was named a Regents Professor in November 2019.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer , Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

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ASU professor's research into psychology of the workplace earns top faculty honor

February 11, 2020

Blake Ashforth named Regents Professor for work on how people find identity and connection in their jobs

It was a soul-sucking job at a bank that helped to set Blake Ashforth on the path to a distinguished career as a researcher at Arizona State University, where he studies the psychology of work.

Ashforth, an expert on organizational behavior who holds the Horace Steele Heritage Chair in the Management and Entrepreneurship Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business, has been so excellent in his field that he has been named one of the five newest Regents Professors at ASU — the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3% of faculty members at ASU.

Ashforth studies how people identify with organizations, which has produced fascinating studies on topics such as stigmatized jobs, bullying in the workplace and the “petty tyranny” of managers.

The professor, who has been at ASU for 24 years, had an early love of psychology that began in high school when he read an account of the infamous Stanford prison study done in 1971 by psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo. In that research project, Zimbardo randomly assigned Stanford students to play roles as prison guards or prisoners.

“He wanted to sit back and see what happened. And what he found was the prisoners became cowed and the guards became abusive, and this happened in no time at all. We’re talking days,” Ashforth said.

He was amazed.

“I couldn’t believe the power of this situation to transform these kids into these weird people. It stuck with me,” he said.

As an undergrad, he studied both business and psychology, which were very different worlds.

“And I took a class in something called organizational behavior and I thought, ‘Hey, you can actually marry the two — the psychology of work.’”

So he worked at a bank while he pursued his MBA, where he had an "aha!" moment.

“I realized, ‘I could be these professors and do what they’re doing,’” he said.

So he quit the MBA program and started on his PhD at the University of Toronto.

“Because of my experience at the bank, where I saw a system that just crushed the spirit of people, my dissertation was called, ‘The Experience of Powerlessness,’” he said.

“It was about how we create these institutional systems that choke the spirit out of work and cause people to wither and act out.”

Back in the 1980s, the field of organizational behavior was fairly new.

“It was the Wild West in terms of what we could work on, and I loved it because there were so many cool questions to ask and there was so little on them,” he said.

Decades later, there are rigorous theoretical models, but it’s still a dynamic field.

“We’re always responding to the changing conditions of work,” he said.

A dark side

Ashforth has covered a wide variety of topics in his career.

“If there’s one thread, it’s understanding how systems affect individuals, which gives me lots of scope to play with different applications of that idea,” he said.

“Within that, my biggest area has probably been identity and work, which is how you develop a sense of self from what you do, the work itself, the workers you work with and the organization. And I look at both the pros and cons.”

On the positive side, identifying with your workplace can give a sense of connection.

“And we’re all looking for some kind of meaning beyond the paycheck,” he said.

But there’s also a dark side.

“The issue is not that you identify too strongly; it’s that you identify exclusively,” he said.

“So if the only thing in your life is work or family or your sports team or your religion — pick anything you want — it leads to an inherently myopic view of what your life is all about.”

That scenario could lead people to behave unethically on behalf of their organization.

“We can lose ourselves if we don’t use the wisdom of multiple identities to counterbalance what we bring to any one situation,” he said.

Ashforth has studied different manifestations of respect and dignity in work, and especially stigmatized jobs. That can mean work associated with garbage, such as a janitor; socially tainted occupations in which people work with stigmatized groups, like prison guards; and jobs that are morally dubious, like a casino worker.

“Given that society looks down their nose at people who do stigmatized work, why do they do the work? Did they choose it freely? Do they enjoy it? Do they want their kids to do it?”

Ashforth talked to many people in low-status jobs and found that they do find dignity.

“There’s always a lot of turnover but for those who hang in for any length of time, they find compensations — usually pockets of autonomy or meaning or connection,” he said.

“And that was a pleasant surprise because those jobs are out there and they matter.”

Many of Ashforth’s journal articles have inviting titles: “Petty Tyranny in Organizations,” “You Are About to Party ‘Defiant’ Style: Socialization and Identity Onboard an Alaskan Fishing Boat” and “Curiosity Adapted the Cat: The Role of Trait Curiosity in Newcomer Adaptation.”

He has also studied spirituality in the workplace, the role of “putdown humor” in bonding employees, how prisoners who work in call centers develop a positive identity, and how workers such as gynecologists and undertakers normalize extraordinary conditions.

Ashforth works on six to 10 research papers at a time. More recently, he has looked at the ways that gig workers — who don’t belong to an organization — create connections and identity, and how workers deal with dueling identities on the job, such as soldier medics or shelter workers who must euthanize animals.

Getting the research out

Over his 35-year career, he has seen the importance of teaching become more prominent.

“In 1985, which was when I became a full-time professor, teaching was almost an afterthought,” he said.

“It was not taught in the doctoral program, and you were suddenly dropped into a classroom with zero preparation. And it didn’t really matter because back then, schools were almost dismissive of students’ evaluations. They didn’t care.”

Professors needed to focus on producing research in order to get tenure.

“But institutions now routinely expect and monitor teaching to make sure you are doing a good job in the classroom, and that’s really changed the way we socialize our doctoral students,” he said.

“So now, if you’re a really good researcher but an awful teacher, you will not get tenure at most Research 1Universities classified as having very high research activity. schools.”

Ashforth laments that younger researchers face a much harder time getting published in the top research journals, which can impact their careers.

“You can go three or four rounds of reviews and then the paper is bounced. That was unheard of 15 years ago, and now it’s common,” he said.

“To me it’s incredibly unfair.”

He also believes that the tenure system needs to better reward researchers who publish for a more general audience — including the businesspeople who can most benefit from the study results.

“There’s a translation issue in business schools in that we do research that goes into top journals but for the most part, it’s only read by people like me and we’re not the ones running organizations,” he said.

The conventional ways of getting research into practice is through teaching, consulting and writing textbooks.

“But even then, there’s a lot of research we do that doesn’t get known,” he said.

“There’s a lot of background that has to be in a research article for it to be compelling, but that same level of detail and rigor is very off-putting if you’re not trained in the discipline, so why would a manager pick up a management journal?” he said.

“There’s too much jargon and analyses they can’t understand.”

He believes that contributing to publications such as the Harvard Business Review should also be considered.

“What we need is a collective importance. We need to understand as a field that we should all be doing this, but until we change the reward structure, it’s not going to happen.”

He has written several articles for the Harvard Business Review, most recently about how people who work remotely befriend coworkers.

Although Ashforth has taken deep dives into such harsh workplaces as an Alaskan fishing boat, he has found ASU to be a great place to work.

“The reason I’m still here after 24 years is because I think this place is so incredibly collegial and very well run,” he said.

“I have seen at my previous schools the impact of bad deans and bad chairs, and it’s extremely corrosive. Here it’s been a joy. The politics are minimal, wasted meetings are minimal, and there’s an energy in the hallway and a passion for research.”

The life of a researcher can be solitary, Ashforth said, but connecting with colleagues is beneficial personally and professionally.

“It’s those collaborations that make everything come alive, and it also makes the research so much better.”

Top image by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now

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