As an associate professor of criminology, law and society at UCI who specializes in the study of white collar crime, Paul Jesilow ’72, M.A. ’76, Ph.D ’82, knows a thing or two about deviants. “A person who falls outside the range of regularly accepted behavior is deviant – and sometimes criminal,” he says. Jesilow not only studies deviants – he claims he is one.
“I’m different from others,” he says. “It’s my advantage. Most people go through life following the same path. It’s a path I can’t take. Rather, I try new ideas and ways of doing things. I’m a deviant, but it’s the deviants who come up with the new ideas.”
Jesilow has been “on the outside looking in” since he was 16 and broke his neck in an accident. He then did something unexpected – something deviant – for a quadriplegic: He made his way through graduate school and became a university professor.
His students understand that Jesilow is no ordinary teacher. The senior class voted him Outstanding Professor of 2006 for the School of Social Ecology.
“What makes (Jesilow) special is that he does brilliant social ecology research while placing significant value on the concept of ‘student first,’” says Bryan Burton, a second-year student majoring in environmental analysis and design. “He opens his office to students, and many attend his special after-hours meetings and talks because they know he truly cares about their education and future.”
Jesilow deviates from the academic norm to “diminish the social distance between students and professors.” He prefers that students call him Paul or even Jesilow – not doctor or professor. To put them at ease, he’s turned his office into a comfortable lounge complete with oversized couch and a few stray stuffed animals. He’s arranged the furniture so he won’t have to greet visitors from behind a desk.
His sharp sense of humor helps keep students engaged during lectures. He’s not afraid to spin around in his wheelchair or mock himself.
“I thought I dressed pretty snappy today,” he famously told one class. “The scarf, the shirt (I like the blue), and my shoes … well, I got two pair. They don’t wear out.”
Jesilow began teaching full time at UCI in 1987; for him, it was like coming home. He got his bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science from the university, and his master’s and doctorate in social ecology. He lives in University Hills faculty housing with his wife, Julie, whom he met on campus when she was an undergraduate.
“I joke that the university gave me a house, a wife and a job,” he says. “I’m a lucky guy.”