Historian Who Analyzes Urban Ugliness Moves to NYU

September 21, 2015

Courtesy of Thomas Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue

Urban Historian to NYU

In his prize-winning books about the urban and racial history of the United States, says Thomas J. Sugrue, he has sought "to offer correctives to some of the simplistic ideas that quickly get hardened into conventional wisdom."

His recent move to New York University after 24 years at the University of Pennsylvania will help him view those ideas from a global perspective, he says, because NYU, which boasts "an extraordinary collection of urban scholars across a number of disciplines," affords him opportunities to spend time at its overseas academic centers and campuses in Accra, Ghana; Buenos Aires; Shanghai; and other cities. He is a professor in NYU’s departments of social and cultural analysis, and history.

Mr. Sugrue, who first studied urban decay by growing up in Detroit, began his NYU tenure in July. He had just been awarded a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, as one of 31 inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellows in the social sciences and humanities.

He has studied "transnational urbanism" with colleagues in France and elsewhere, and in January will teach a course at NYU London about how conflicts and divides of race, ethnicity, class, and religion play out in urban policy.

Mr. Sugrue is writing a book about American real-estate history and policy — another NYU strength — that’s specifically on the mortgage-foreclosure crisis. He believes the crisis stemmed from federal lawmakers’ aggressive promotion of an incoherent conception of homeownership as "simultaneously the fount of citizenship and virtue, and an asset to be grown and milked."

Mr. Sugrue has earned major disciplinary awards for his studies of inconsistencies and contradictions in accounts of American city life and race relations. His Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008) demonstrated that, during the civil-rights era, the North was almost as resistant as the South to equity in housing, employment, and other public accommodations.

In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he showed that many of the problems in American cities — decay, slum formation, "white flight" — derived from injustice built into a system that "is a free market in name only," he says. "We’ve distributed public goods so unevenly across metropolitan space." — Peter Monaghan

New Venue for Reformer

Robert Shireman, the financial-aid-reform advocate who once worked in the U.S. Department of Education, has stepped into another influential post in higher-education policy. In July, Mr. Shireman began work as a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public-policy think tank in New York.

He was drawn to the foundation, he says, because of its broad scope and its research on labor issues in higher education. "Some of the concerns about quality in higher education are not unrelated to questions about full-time versus adjunct faculty," he says.

For more than two decades, Mr. Shireman has worked as an advocate for financial-aid reform. Most recently, he was executive director of California Competes, a nonprofit organization that works to increase the number of students earning degrees.

While he was deputy under secretary of education during President Obama’s first term, Mr. Shireman oversaw the elimination of federally backed student loans issued by private banks. He also supported gainful-employment regulations that would cut off career colleges’ eligibility for federal student aid if their graduates had unacceptably high loan debt compared with their incomes. That rule went into effect this summer.

The for-profit model can work, Mr. Shireman says, when coursework is clearly aimed at preparing students for particular jobs. "We’re seeing some of that right now in these coding academies."

At the Century Foundation, Mr. Shireman will write policy reports with other fellows, including Richard D. Kahlenberg, who specializes in affirmative action in higher education. Mr. Shireman recalls that, more than a decade ago, he and Mr. Kahlenberg went together to meet with U.S. News & World Report editors to ask them to include colleges’ enrollment of Pell Grant recipients in their annual college rankings.

Now, Mr. Shireman says, he expects that he and Mr. Kahlenberg will be exploring issues like how best to achieve racial and socio­economic diversity.

"I see socioeconomic diversity as an ‘and’ — and I think that Rick has seen it as an ‘instead,’" a replacement for affirmative action’s traditional focus on race, he says. Mr. Kahlenberg said in an email that "as long as universities can employ racial preferences to recruit upper-middle-­class students of color, most institutions will never get around to addressing socioeconomic diversity." Both men say that they anticipate further discussion on the subject. — Isaac Stein

A Museum Grad School

American Museum of Natural History

Ellen V. Futter

Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, says that explaining well "the issues of our time, many of which have a scientific element," has long been her goal.

That has entailed new kinds of exhibitions and new kinds of educational offerings: Almost since its creation, in 1869, the museum has not only studied but also taught the natural sciences. In 2008, when it welcomed its first entering class, it became the first museum in the Western Hemisphere with its own Ph.D.-granting program.

This year the National Science Board gave the museum one of its two 2015 Public Service Awards for promoting the public understanding of science and engineering, including through its graduate programs.

The museum’s 200 scientist-curators have long trained doctoral students from New York universities in such areas as genomics, computational biology, and astrophysics. But graduate students are increasingly studying with more than 40 dedicated faculty members at the museum’s own Richard Gilder Graduate School, which has a doctoral program in comparative biology and a master’s program that trains earth-science teachers for New York schools.

The challenge for a "hybrid institution" — one with full state accreditation and tenure processes — is to be "agile" enough to seize opportunities that relate to its particular areas of expertise and resources, says Ms. Futter, who was president of Barnard College from 1980 to 1993, the year she took the helm of the museum.

An example is a planned theater that will make visible work that the museum’s researcher-­curators are doing that is normally hidden from visitors because it involves exploring inside the human body, the depths of the oceans, or the outer reaches of the atmosphere.

To hear Ms. Futter tell it, attracting graduate students to the museum’s educational programs is just a variant of running in-demand programs for elementary and secondary schools, or attracting so many children among the museum’s five million visitors each year: You do it by "tapping into what is their natural curiosity." — Peter Monaghan

QUOTED: On Campus Speech

"I deplore the state of play in our national conversation, not just because it’s distasteful but more because it’s preventing, at least for the moment, our dealing with some very large national problems.

"I’m sad to say that, at least on too many campuses, there are too many similarities to a highly strident and intolerant mode of thinking and speech. In too many places, that is compounded by an enforced conformity of thought, which is doubly regrettable because that’s the antithesis of what we believe universities are there for.

"Highly ironic that the universities, which should be the haven for nonconformist thought and for free and open debate of ideas, in too many places, you find people shouted down or disinvited, as we’ve seen recently. I hope that some of the excesses of that now have led to some movement back toward the free discourse that we ought to be so jealously protecting." — Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, interviewed on The Open Mind, a public-affairs show hosted by Alexander Heffner and broadcast on PBS stations

OBITUARIES: Editor at Chicago Press

Christopher L. Rhodes, editor for law and linguistics at the University of Chicago Press, died on September 8, several months after receiving a diagnosis of glioblastoma. He was 38.

Mr. Rhodes was an alumnus of the University of Chicago. He helped to relaunch the university press’s linguistics list and to publish books such as Untrodden Ground: How Presidents Interpret the Constitution and The Grasping Hand, about the limits of eminent-domain law.

Millicent Bell, a professor emerita of English at Boston University, died on August 6. She was 95.

Among her published books are Meaning in Henry James and Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism. Ms. Bell also wrote for publications including The Virginia Quarterly Review and The New York Review of Books, and held notable academic positions, such as president of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society. In 2008, after the death of her husband, Eugene, a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering, she founded the Millicent and Eugene Bell Foundation, which supports humanitarian efforts. — Anais Strickland

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