Mimi Sheller, Internationally Recognized Scholar and Educational Leader, Named Inaugural Dean of The Global School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Sheller, co-founder of the interdisciplinary field of mobilities research, was selected to lead WPI’s newest school and to foster academic and research programs and global partnerships focused on helping the world meet urgent challenges.
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June 02, 2021

Worcester Polytechnic Institute announced today that, following an international search, Mimi Sheller, PhD, head of the department of sociology at Drexel University and a distinguished and internationally recognized scholar and educational leader, will join the university in July as the inaugural dean of The Global School. Sheller, co-founder of the interdisciplinary field known as mobilities research, arrives after 15 years of executive leadership of academic units, research centers, and professional organizations.

“Mimi Sheller brings to WPI a wealth of experience in creating and sustaining global education and research enterprises and global partnerships, with a particular focus on building a more socially just and equitable world by merging the problem-solving skills of the STEM disciplines with the human perspective of the social sciences and the humanities,” said WPI President Laurie Leshin. “With her depth of knowledge of global issues, her extensive network of collaborators around the world, and her pioneering research in mobility justice, she will help the university build on its successes in global project-based learning to create a new model for applied global scholarship and education.”


“Mimi Sheller brings to WPI a wealth of experience in creating and sustaining global education and research enterprises and global partnerships"
  • President Laurie Leshin

The Global School was launched in 2020 and joins WPI’s School of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering, and The Business School. Building on the university’s half-century of leadership in global project-based education, it serves as a focal point and platform for academic and research programs and global partnerships aimed at helping meet a host of pressing global challenges and improving the quality of life for people around the world.

“The Global School,” said Provost Wole Soboyejo, “will consolidate the many ways that WPI engages students and faculty in addressing problems that matter to people and communities around the world—from our first-year Great Problems Seminar, to our undergraduate Global Projects Program, to new graduate programs in such areas as climate change adaptation and science and technology for innovation in global development—along with the global partnerships the university has forged over many years. A half century ago, WPI revolutionized undergraduate education with the WPI Plan. I truly believe that with her demonstrated leadership in global scholarship, education, and partnership-building, Mimi Sheller will take all of this to the next level to help WPI again build something that is truly revolutionary.”

Drawing on deep area knowledge and a concern for social justice, The Global School will provide more and new opportunities for WPI faculty and students at all levels to collaborate with other students, academics, governments, NGOs, and local communities for the purposes of learning, research, project work—and for making meaningful contributions through the application of theory and practice, the premise on which WPI was built.

While it will have its own faculty and programs, the new school has been expressly designed to forge linkages with WPI’s other schools. In this way, The Global School will serve as a critical connection point, providing opportunities for engagement for people from all corners of the university in all corners of the world—essentially weaving a global outlook throughout the fabric of WPI. Recognizing that it will take multifaceted professionals and interdisciplinary teams to address difficult challenges and work collaboratively toward a better world, The Global School’s programs are infused with elements of the arts and sciences, business, and engineering.

Sheller says she believes The Global School exemplifies an important new direction in education. “The interdisciplinary, project-based learning and global project work that WPI has developed over the years is what we need right now,” she said. “The world faces so many challenges: climate change, the pandemic, refugee crises, worries about wars and national borders. Now more than ever, we need global connections to build a more socially just world. The Global School can lead the way in showing how to prepare globally engaged leaders and problem solvers who can help take on these challenges in partnership with communities and people around the world. WPI also excels in building academic programs based on interdisciplinary teamwork across STEM disciplines, the arts and humanities, and social science.”

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After earning an AB in history and literature from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and an MA in sociology and historical studies and a PhD in sociology from the New School for Social Research, Sheller spent a year as Du Bois-Mandela-Rodney Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for African and Afroamerican Studies at the University of Michigan. She held a number of academic positions, including senior lecturer in sociology and founding co-director of the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University in the UK, visiting associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College, and president of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility, before joining Drexel University as a professor of sociology in 2009. She was named head of the Sociology Department in 2020.

At Drexel, Sheller founded and directed the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, which focuses on a field of scholarship that she co-founded. Mobilities research, she said, “is an interdisciplinary field that studies the movement of people, objects, and information, as well as the complex new mobilities (and immobilities) that are afforded by changing technologies and infrastructures. In particular, we look at the power relations in all kinds of mobility systems. In my work, I focus on mobility justice, which explores the inequities in who has access to movement and who doesn’t, and also who has the right to dwell or to stay in place. The complexity of the world today demands a new interdisciplinary social science informed by humanities, arts, engineering, planning, and design.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation and international funders, including the National Research Foundation of Korea, the Innovation Fund Denmark, and the British Academy, she has conducted research around the world, including in the Caribbean, where she has promoted racial equality and social justice through her own work and supported Caribbean and African Diaspora scholarship, professional organizations, students, and research. Her recent book, Island Futures: Caribbean Survival in the Anthropocene (Duke University Press, 2020) explores the unintended consequences of humanitarian and research travel in post-earthquake Haiti and offers ethical principles for research or “voluntourism” in crisis situations in foreign countries.

Her work has won her numerous honors, including serving as the Henry King Stanford Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Miami’s Institute for the Humanities and as the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She has received Drexel’s Provost Award for Outstanding Career Scholarly Achievement, an honorary doctorate from Roskilde University in Denmark, and the David G. Nicholls Memorial Prize from the Society of Caribbean Studies, among other awards.

She is the author of seven monograph books, eight co-edited books, and 125 refereed journal articles and book chapters. The founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities since 2005 and associate editor of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies, she also serves on a number of journal editorial boards and international research advisory boards. She has consulted for international agencies, including the World Bank, and for such companies as Michelin, and has given dozens of keynote talks and invited lectures at leading universities in the United States and Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, Australia, and Europe. She has extensive experience in fundraising, international publishing, global marketing, intercultural communications, and building relationships with universities, government agencies, research funders, and international non-governmental organizations.

Noting that her tenure at The Global School begins just as the world is emerging from a worldwide public health crisis, Sheller said the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought global travel nearly to a standstill, actually reinforces the need for the new venture. “The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our ties to the rest of the world—everything that connects us,” she said. “Our linkages with other places keep our way of life afloat, and the pandemic broke them.

“We need to rebuild those ties if we are to truly emerge from this pandemic—economically, in terms of public health, and in terms of the energy transition we all need to work on together. We need to recommit ourselves to global partnerships and to a global vision for the world. If anything, the pandemic should give us even more grit and determination to build The Global School.”