Meet the Professor: Chris Merrett, Community and Economic Development

Next fall, WIU will begin a new master’s degree program in Community and Economic Development. This new program will combine online learning with in-person class sessions and hands-on learning opportunities. The program is being offered through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA). We sat down with IIRA Director Chris Merrett to learn more about the program – and about him.merett

Chris Merrett is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He earned undergraduate degrees in geography (University of Western Ontario) and political science (Lake Superior State University), before earning a master’s degree (University of Vermont) and Ph.D. in geography with a focus on regional development and international trade (University of Iowa). He loves to travel and learn about new places, and geography was a natural discipline to help guide these personal and professional intellectual pursuits. Chris has been married for 25 years and has two children.

Since working at the IIRA, his love of geography has evolved to embrace local community and economic development, which is a kind of applied geography. As IIRA director, Merrett oversees a university-based research, outreach, teaching, and policy development unit comprised of 40 community development faculty and professionals. In addition to his management role, he teaches courses in Community Development, serves on the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, is current chairperson of Rural Partners, and has raised more than $6 million in external grant funding to support community and economic development outreach and research, including a $200,000 USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant for the IIRA.

His current research focuses on cooperatives and community development. Merrett co-edited two books on this topic, including A Cooperative Approach to Local Economic Development (2001) and Cooperatives and Local Development: Theory and Applications for the 21st Century (2003). He has also published in a range of journals on topics such as value-added agriculture, cooperatives, rural land use, social justice, and rural community and economic development.

In summer 2015, Chris participated in his fifth RAGBRAI, (The Des Moines Register’s Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa). This is a 7-day, 500+ mile ride across Iowa. Each night of the ride, participants camp out in a rural Iowa community. According to Chris, “It is a great way to see the rural Midwest while enjoying rural community development (and hospitality) at its best.”

Chris took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself.

Q: What course(s) do you teach?

Chris: I teach several courses on the WIU campus including Principles of Community Development,” Rural Geography, Geography of the United States and Canada, and the History and Philosophy of Geography. The course I have devoted most energy to over the past half-decade has been Principles of Community Development, which enables me to link my theoretical interests in what makes communities thrive with concrete projects in rural Illinois.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the new Master of Arts in Community Development program?

Chris: For more than 25 years, the IIRA has been delivering award-winning technical assistance to rural communities across rural Illinois and beyond. We have also published literally thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, technical reports, and other essays. Teaching has been an important, but secondary, part of our mission. Our faculty members have always devoted a significant amount of energy to teaching courses in economic development, rural sociology, marketing, and geography, but have done so in other departments. In other words, our teaching efforts have been dispersed across several departments outside of the IIRA. By offering a graduate degree through the IIRA, we can offer our teaching expertise in a focused, concentrated, and coordinated manner which will increase our ability to share our expertise in community and economic development.

Q: What are you passionate about?

Chris: Professionally, I am passionate about how universities can serve as catalysts for social change, including community economic development. Public universities such as WIU have resources to help small communities identify their assets and deploy them in more effective ways. It is gratifying to see towns make meaningful change with assets and leadership skills developed from within their community.

At a personal level, I love to ski, bicycle, read, and spend time with friends and family.

Q: Favorite thing(s) about WIU?

Chris: There are many great things about WIU. It’s location in west central Illinois is just lovely. WIU is not like other larger public universities that are located in, but somehow separated from, their host regions. WIU is not just located in a rural region; it is deeply integrated into the region and hence is shaped by the culture and needs of the region. WIU also has a great faculty with a collaborative mindset. Our M.A. degree in CED, while hosted by the IIRA, has many opportunities to take great courses in other departments such as recreation, park and tourism administration; economics, geography, political science, and business administration. Great colleagues in the IIRA and partner departments help make WIU a great place.

Q: What is your favorite quote?

Chris: I have several quotes that are all related to community development in one way or another:

  • Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. — John Dewey
  • A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. — Henrik Ibsen
  • Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. — Thomas Edison
  • Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Q: What is your favorite place?

Chris: This is a good question. I have several “happy places.” First, I love my summer cottage in Northern Ontario. It is located on clear, northern lake, with loons, moose, and bears in the surrounding forests. I also love rural roads in the Prairie State, when I am on my bicycle. The blue sky, green fields, goldfinches, farms, and gently rolling hills, make for a bucolic, enthralling scene.

Q: What are you reading right now? What’s next on the list?

Chris: In preparation for an upcoming course, I am currently reading Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs. On my bedside table, waiting to be finished is Capital by Thomas Piketty. It addresses the growing income inequality of capitalist economies in the 21st century.

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