In Memoriam: Michael Papa
Organizational communication faculty member had aspirational vision for global impact
Michael Papa, faculty member in the School of Communication, Journalism and Media, passed away Thursday, August 24, in Maple City, Michigan.
Papa, 65, was born in the Bronx, New York and received his undergraduate degree in speech communication from St. John’s University. In 1982, he earned his master’s degree in interpersonal communication at CMU, where he also met his future wife, Wendy. Papa earned a doctorate in rhetoric and communication from Temple University and held faculty roles at universities in North Carolina, Ohio and Michigan.
Papa rejoined the CMU community in 2002 and recently celebrated 20 years with the university. During his tenure, he taught classes including small group communication, communication in conflict management, and communication and social/organizational change. He also served two terms as chair of the Department of Speech Communication and Dramatic arts, and he guided the Department of Communication through its separation from Theatre, said colleague Edward Hinck.
“Michael was a respected member of the faculty in the new School of Communication, Journalism and Media,” Hinck said. “He was widely published as a scholar of communication and change. We will miss his great sense of humor and demonstrated commitment to research that mattered to creating a more just world.”
Colleague Elizabeth Carlson said she had always been impressed by the work Papa did in organizing among underserved, overlooked and marginalized people. A critique of their academic discipline, she said, is that it often focuses on high-level leaders and individuals with social power. She said Papa often worked instead with people who did not appear to have as much social capital. As examples, she noted the often-cited paper he co-authored, “The mud, the blood and the beer guys: Organizational osmosis in blue-collar work groups,” his work on microlending and small businesses in Bangladesh, and his aspirational work on democracy in Sudan.
His scholarly work in areas such as organizing for social change, conflict management and diplomacy took him around the globe, including to countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, India and more. His work also took him to The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he documented President Carter’s efforts to negotiate peace between Uganda and Sudan.
In 2012, Papa received the CMU President’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity, nominated by his peers for his outstanding scholarship and global impact. He also received numerous research awards from the National Communication Association, and the International Communication Association.
Over the past five years, Papa formed a partnership with the University of Uppsala, Sweden, that opened doors for collaborative research and teaching. He traveled to Sweden to provide guest lectures and seminars, and also partnered with faculty there on a project about public health and crisis communication in Sweden during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Michael could see a bigger picture for his scholarship by working in a global environment,” Carlson said. “He had a vision to do things on a global scale because he had a big idea of what was possible, what his work could accomplish.”
Carlson said Papa’s legacy included his many published journal articles, chapters and books, and also his impact on students.
“He brought a lot of humor to his students. He shared many personal stories, some very funny, about his own global experiences — that was the real gem,” she said. “Those first-hand experiences with organizing for social change brought the material and the discipline to life.”
Outside CMU, Papa enjoyed spending time with his family, especially cooking and enjoying meals together. He also was an avid skier, kayaker, reader and musician, serving as keyboardist for Michigan-based folk-rock band The Burdickville Boys.
Papa is survived by his wife, Wendy; their two children, Andrew and Samantha, and their spouses; grandchildren Ivy, Elliot and Parker; as well as his sister Anne Monahan, two sisters-in-law, and several beloved nieces and nephews.
Colleagues, friends and students may view the official obituary online, and a Celebration of Life service will be held at a future date.