Population Research Institute co-founder receives international accolade

by Susan Burlingame, Penn State News, January 23, 2020

Gordon DeJong, distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and demography and co-founder of the Population Research Institute at Penn State, has been named the 30th laureate of the International Union of the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP). DeJong will officially be recognized at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting, scheduled for April 22 in Washington, D.C.

DeJong said he had “no inkling” that five of his colleagues, who by IUSSP rule must be from at least five different countries, had nominated him. Notified by email from Paris, France, where IUSSP is headquartered, DeJong said he was “fantastically humbled and shocked” to be selected for the honor, adding that the pool of candidates includes “everyone in the profession throughout the world — people who have made a career of contributing to this field.”

DeJong joined the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts as an assistant professor of sociology in 1963 after completing his doctorate in sociology (with an emphasis on demography) at the University of Kentucky. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor by 1972 and a distinguished professor in 1992.

During his tenure at Penn State, he made significant contributions to the field of demography, which ultimately helped to make Penn State, via the Department of Sociology and Criminology, one of the top centers for demographic training in the country. Most notably, DeJong created an interdisciplinary dual-degree graduate program in demography, which DeJong said is one of his proudest accomplishments. The program consistently ranks in the top five in national rankings and has generated more than 300 doctoral graduates.

In announcing DeJong’s honor, the IUSSP cited the dual-degree program as one of his many contributions to the field. IUSSP also recognized DeJong’s “groundbreaking work on migration, including migration theory, and his service to the training of demographers from all over the world.” With a colleague, he developed a motivation for migration theory based on expectations of attaining personally-valued life goals by remaining in the origin area or moving to an alternative destination.

DeJong initially planned to study mathematics when he went to college, but after taking an integral calculus course found himself wondering what he would do with a math degree. “I decided I needed to explore more application and quantitative methods courses,” he said. “I started taking economics and statistics and eventually landed in sociology.”

It wasn’t until graduate school that DeJong was introduced to demography by a “very dynamic professor who put me on one of his research projects,” he explained, noting that though his decision to pursue demography was at first mentor-driven, it also dovetailed with his original interest in mathematics due to its quantitative nature.

That decision launched a remarkable career. DeJong has written three books and some 130 professional research articles, book chapters, and reviews. In addition to serving as a member of IUSSP, DeJong has been an active member of the Population Association of America, the International Sociological Association, the Association for Public Policy and Management, and others. He has garnered awards from Penn State, his alma maters, and other national organizations. His research has taken him to Israel, Peru, Romania, South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines, and he has presented his findings to the United Nations, the European Union, and numerous federal and state government leaders.

Over the course of his career, DeJong “quite simply introduced thousands of undergraduate and graduate students to the study of demography … students who have gone on to have distinguished careers in academia, government and international agencies and also in business and applied demography in the United States and internationally,” his award nominators noted.

“Gordon’s intellectual vision and promotion of demography at Penn State has had far-reaching effects,” said Stephen Matthews, liberal arts professor of sociology, anthropology, demography and geography, director of Penn State’s graduate program in demography, and one of DeJong’s five nominators. In particular, he credits DeJong with the role he played in creating the recently launched online graduate certificate and master of professional studies program in applied demography. “Gordon was an essential part of the development of the proposal, overall curricula, and individual course content.”

When asked about his chosen discipline and his life’s work, DeJong said demography is “absolutely fundamental to public policy at both a national and international level, and it impacts people’s lives at an individual level.” Though he officially retired from Penn State in 2012, he comes to his office at Penn State several days each week to focus on online instruction development and marketing and to collaborate with colleagues on research projects.

He also is quick to acknowledge others in making his success possible.

“I believe you can’t get there by yourself,” he said. He credits his wife, Caroline, for supporting him throughout his career and being willing to temporarily relocate with the children if DeJong’s research took him away from home for a month or more. “You don’t do what I did without a wife and family supporting you,” he said. “I have also had tremendous support from my colleagues, both here at Penn State and elsewhere.”

“Dr. DeJong is a perfect example of what it means to be a citizen of the liberal arts. Through his half-century of remarkable scholarship as well as his service to his students, his discipline, and the community at large, he epitomizes the very best of Penn State and the College of the Liberal Arts,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “The honor bestowed on him by the IUSSP is a fitting accolade for someone whose work continues to have a lasting international impact.”

In addition to his internationally recognized contributions as a demographer, DeJong is a decades-long member of the State College Choral Society, as well as a long-time and generous benefactor of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts and College of Arts and Architecture.

Asked why he remained at Penn State for more than 50 years, DeJong smiled and said he originally planned to stay for only three.

“Why I stayed? Penn State has always been receptive to new ideas, and I have loved supporting so many graduate students through 40 cumulative years of federal and Hewlett Foundation competitively-awarded training grants," said DeJong.