Weekly Local Biography

  Michael R. Leming

By Rebecca Lomax, Ph.D.

Michael R. Leming, Ph.D. in sociology, has had an impressive education and an equally impressive academic career. A quick “Google” and you will get 93,600 “hits” with his name. The author of over 20 textbooks and 70 academic papers, his journal articles are extensive and he has even written instructor’s manuals for textbooks. You should read the list of his grant awards and honors from such prestigious grantors as the Mellon Foundation, the National (USA) Science Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Ford Foundation. Not just any Tom, Dick or Michael qualifies for those hallowed institutions’ consideration. So what is he doing in Chiang Mai?

Michael was born in Los Angeles, California. His father was a self-made man, one who succeeded in business despite having a limited formal education. His mother won a full scholarship to Stanford University, but turned it down and went to work when the Great Depression hit the US. Mike’s brothers are successful businessmen, but Mike chose an academic career. He worked his way through college and university with a little help and few debts. He and Ann met while both were undergraduate students at Westmont College, and married two weeks after graduation. Mike went on to Marquette University for a master’s degree, did a little research on the weekends and attended a few conferences. And that was how he found himself teaching at St. Olaf College at the age of 22, so young that he had to wear a necktie to differentiate himself from the students. At the end of the year, student evaluations placed him number two in the college, and the dean asked him to stay on. But Mike knew how fickle academia could be, and headed to the University of Utah for a Ph.D. and a little more security.

From there, and that was an interesting cultural experience in itself, he returned to St. Olaf. Time passed. Mike taught. Ann earned a master’s degree in special education, and became the principal at an alternative school. They adopted two children, and then had a biological child. They raised the children. Mike founded the St. Olaf College Social
Research Center. He became a published expert on death and dying, and a board member and volunteer for hospices.

Then, sixteen years ago, he came to Asia as part of a St. Olaf study tour. St. Olaf has a forty-year relationship with Chiang Mai University, so it’s only natural that the tour ended in Thailand and the students spent over two months here. In 1990 he became
the field supervisor for the college’s Term in Asia, and began doing ethnographic research on Karen village life. The students would spend a week in Chiang Mai and three weeks in a Karen village as part of this program. While in the village they gathered data on Karen family, religious, political, economic and educational institutions. They worked to understand how changes in the larger society affect the lives of people in these remote villages. In between trips to Thailand, Mike and Ann raised money at home to help the villages. They built a dormitory for the St. Olaf students in one village, and then donated it to the village. They became emotionally invested in Thailand.

In the year 2000, the new administration at St. Olaf began a systematic program of staff reduction. Mike was too young to retire, but he was ready for change. He was consulting at another college, and recommended that the college create an international program in a developing country. They responded by inviting their consultant to do that for them. So Mike drew on what he had learned about business from his father – work hard! - and he and Ann became entrepreneurs. He had twelve years of experience in international studies, and he was confident that they could develop an excellent program in Thailand. ‘Spring Semester in Thailand’ was born with an enthusiastic reception. Twenty-three students signed up for the course.

Venture behind the scenes with me to discover what goes into planning such a program  transportation, housing, visas, somebody to meet students at the airport or travel with them, local university affiliations, coursework taught by credentialed and experienced professors, village stays, supervision of research. Let’s talk about the human, or young human element – culture shock, where’s my credit card, what’s the exchange rate, the girlfriend bails out (who wants a boyfriend who isn’t even in the country?), homesickness, toothaches, lost luggage, dirty laundry, inappropriate clothes despite all of the information you sent. Then there are the acts of God, as the insurance people call them, and Mike and Ann had those, too. The terror attacks on the United States, simply called “9/11” came first, then the Gulf War, then SARS. The tsunami and the bird flu panic in the US followed closely. And there was violence in the south of Thailand. In each case parents and students needed explanations, and even when explanations were forthcoming they didn’t calm the concerns of parents. So over the years the pattern was the same. Students registered, parents panicked and students cancelled. But Spring Semester in Thailand persevered, and some of the students became so committed to the country that they returned.

Last year Mike made an interesting presentation at a gathering of fellow sociologists. He told the story of a student who came seeking his advice on where she should continue her education. A wise man in giving advice, he told her to “follow her heart”. Mike and Ann are following theirs, and increasingly live in Thailand. They work hard for their students, of course, but they are also very much involved in the life of the community. You’ll see them at Seven Fountains for Sunday morning mass. You’ll see them volunteering their time and considerable talents with the Foundation for the Education of Rural Children. What you probably won’t see is all of the work that they do – very quietly – in rural villages. And we thank them for that.