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April Global Engagement Champion: Dr. Paul Gellert

Dr. Paul Gellert, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Global Studies program

Dr. Paul Gellert, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Global Studies program

by Alexandra DeMarco

It is an honor to announce that our Global Engagement Champion for April is Dr. Paul Gellert, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Global Studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

Gellert earned his MS and PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked as a lecturer at UW and assistant professor at Cornell University before joining UT as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in 2005 and later stepping into the role of GLBS program director in 2018. 

Global Studies is an interdisciplinary program, housed in the Department of Sociology and created by Professor of Sociology Dr. Jon Shefner, focused on global interconnections and integration. The major draws on diverse perspectives across academic fields and continents to provide students with an interdisciplinary understanding of the world. 

Gellert’s global work is informed by an international background; his father’s family fled Prague just before the Nazi invasion of World War II, and the other side of his family has roots in Odesa, Ukraine.  

With his sense of global awareness, Gellert studied Latin America as an undergraduate at Stanford University and spent a summer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Though he initially hoped to relocate to Latin America again after college, he ended up moving to Indonesia through the Volunteers in Asia program, eventually married a woman from Indonesia and subsequently launched the line of international research that he continues to this day. 

“We have family on that side of the ocean, so both research and family brings me back to Indonesia all the time,” Gellert said. 

Gellert first spent two years in Indonesia — then returned for one more year — and he focused his graduate work on the country’s logging industry. 

“I went hours and hours up river in East Borneo, in what Indonesia calls the province of East Kalimantan, spent time at logging camps and learned about the logging industry from the inside out,” Gellert said. 

Currently, Gellert is researching the palm oil industry in Indonesia, in collaboration with Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, with the goal of investigating which stakeholders are controlling the industry. Palm oil production and export is a leading enterprise in Indonesia, the growth of which has transformed the country’s economy and increased its GDP per capita. 

However, increases in wealth have been unequally distributed across Indonesian society, and palm oil farming is environmentally destructive as it requires monoculture farming practices.

“It’s a complete change of the landscape, into basically tree farms,” Gellert said. 

Gellert plans to return to Indonesia this summer, for the first time since 2019, to begin meeting with policymakers, executives from palm oil companies and figureheads at non-governmental organizations.  

“The angle that we’re taking it in this project is to try to understand the corporate ownership, who owns the palm oil industry. … We’re collecting secondary data on ownership, which is a little complicated — about a third of these companies are not publicly listed, and so that information is not fully available,” Gellert said. “We’re trying to access a government database where they have to at least register their information. How accurate that is is still a question mark.”  

Gellert eating fish from a roadside stand in Japan

Gellert eating fish from a roadside stand in Japan

During his academic career, Gellert has also lived in Japan while doing research at Sophia University and the Netherlands while working with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.  

When he relocated to the Netherlands for his one-year position at the institute, his wife and teenage son moved to Europe, too. 

“I gained a lot from my research, depth of historical knowledge from experts at this institute, but also just the family experience of being able to live in another country,” Gellert said. 

Even here in East Tennessee, Gellert’s teaching is constantly informed by his international background. As director of the Global Studies Program, one of his main goals is increasing global awareness among members of the UT community. 

This includes not only informing students about local-global connections, such as international businesses based in Tennessee, but also expanding students’ perceptions of America’s place in the globe, Gellert says. 

“I just believe deeply that the United States is not this exceptional place and that Americans need to know about American involvement, including some really unsavory episodes of intervention or support for violent overthrows of governments around the world, and that is part of our history that I think Americans just need to be aware of, reflect on,” Gellert said. 

The Global Studies Club enjoying a meeting and a meal

The Global Studies Club enjoying a meeting and a meal

Gellert reaches the UT student community both through his Global Studies courses and through the Global Studies Club he oversees, which is open to students in all majors and academic years.  

“There’s actually more interest in global affairs than I realized amongst undergrads in all pockets of the university, but I also think that there’s room for a much deeper and more critical perspective on what is happening in the globe,” Gellert said. “I think a lot of what I’ve been trying to do is just raise awareness, communications work with the student club, and they’ve been terrific in galvanizing greater student interest.”  

The GLBS club hosts movie screenings and speakers with global relevance, as well as events geared toward helping students further their global careers through programs like the Peace Corps.  

Gellert posing with a statue of “patat” – Dutch fries – in the Netherlands

Gellert posing with a statue of “patat” – Dutch fries – in the Netherlands

“There were a couple times where we had discussions about sensitive topics, and one of the best events we had was actually a student from Hong Kong just before she returned to Hong Kong during the protests that were going on there, and she shared photos and her experiences and what her family was going through and her interests in being sort of with the protestors, but her family’s concerns about her safety,” Gellert said.  

As for his future projects, Gellert hopes to write a book from his years of research on extraction of natural resources in Indonesia. 

“Their GDP per capita has increased, but it’s really been a very unequal situation and the reliance on raw materials has been so environmentally destructive and socially destructive and even with democratization they haven’t shifted directions,” Gellert said. “So that’s really the theme of my work and of the book that I’d like to put together based on that.” 

For students interested in Global Studies courses, Gellert will be teaching Global Studies 250 (Sociology 250): Introduction to Global Studies during the fall 2022 semester. Next spring, he’ll be teaching Sociology 446: The Modern World System.  

Starting fall 2022, the Global Studies program will be launching a one-credit capstone course for undergraduate majors and minors, as well as an interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate program.  

To learn more about the Global Studies program at UT, visit the Global Studies website or YouTube channel. Connect with the GLBS Club on Instagram @glbsclubutk. 


Jason Moody (865-974-5752,