The Polish connection: Eugene Burnstein secures a link

By Susan Rosegrant

Eugene Burnstein’s parents were born in the once fluid border region of Poland and Ukraine. Although Burnstein, a social psychologist and senior research scientist emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), grew up in Philadelphia speaking only English, he heard Russian, when his parents didn’t want him to understand what they were saying, and, much more often, Yiddish, especially when his grandparents were present. Still, except for family left behind, there was little nostalgia for the old country.

But a connection seemed determined to out. When Burnstein, fresh from the University of Pennsylvania, came to the University of Michigan (U-M) in 1954 to pursue a Ph.D., he soon ran into Robert Zajonc, a Polish-born social psychologist who was just completing his dissertation. Zajonc stayed on at U-M as a faculty member, and he took Burnstein on as his first doctoral student. Over the years, he continued to serve as a mentor.

“He was my first real connection with Poland,” Burnstein says, with a chuckle. Zajonc corrected his pronunciation of Polish words. And he corrected some cultural assumptions, as well. “When I asked him for the Polish word for ‘peanut brittle,’ he said there was no word in Polish for peanut brittle,” Burnstein says. “And to make the point, he asked me, ‘What is the English word for pirogi?’”

Gene and Martha Burnstein in the sunroom of their Ann Arbor home. Portrait by Eva Menezes/ISR.

Burnstein joined the U-M faculty in 1964, teaching in the psychology department and doing research at ISR’s Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD). His work—for example, analyzing the polarization of opinions in groups—dovetailed well with that of Zajonc. So when Zajonc was unable to make it to an international psychology meeting in Warsaw in 1991, held soon after Poland voted in its first popularly elected president, Burnstein went instead.

The meeting celebrated the establishment of the University of Warsaw’s Institute for Social Studies (ISS), a research unit with close ties to ISR. Burnstein had become friends with a few Polish students when teaching in France a few years earlier, and these former students were now on faculty at the university.

Burnstein liked the feeling of Poland and he liked the people he got to know there; the connection took. About six years later, ISS started a summer school, and Burnstein began going almost every year to teach, often accompanied by his wife, Martha. “Contrary to stereotypes about Polish cuisine, she liked the food,” Burnstein says, especially a soup called zurek, a sour rye soup cooked with meat. Burnstein officially retired in 2002, but he kept teaching at ISS.

As his ties there strengthened, Burnstein began encouraging Polish students to come to ISR. “It’s really important for them to get a chance to study outside of Poland,” he says. Most years Burnstein scraped together enough money for one or two Polish students to come over, with the support of ISR Director James Jackson, the director of RCGD, and a few colleagues. But the annual scramble for funds and the unpredictability of the opportunity struck him as problematic. “It’s not formal and there’s always a struggle—do we have enough money?”

So Burnstein and his wife decided to change that. This summer, 50 years after Burnstein started teaching at U-M, the Eugene and Martha Burnstein University of Warsaw Social Science Scholars Exchange Fund will bring a Polish student to Michigan to study at one of ISR’s two summer programs. Burnstein hopes the fund will “stabilize and institutionalize” the relationship between the two schools. In the future, it may be possible to bring two students over each year with fund support.

Creating the fund just felt right to Burnstein and his wife. The international exchange is good for both sides, he says. Besides, “I like the idea of it. I have some affection for that part of the world.”