The Joint Center For Urban Studies:

Unwilling, Unable, and Unsuited To Do Anything About Roxbury

IN NAME, the Joint Center for Urban Studies of MIT and Harvard suggests an academic storehouse of expertise on ghetto problems. But the Center has from its inception been unwilling, or unable, or unsuited--depending on whom you talk to--to "do anything" in Roxbury.

Unwilling--because, members point out, the Center has always been academic in intent, avoiding political or community entanglements. It functions simply to find scholarly research on an individual basis. (The Center, that is, serves an "umbrella function" for armchair urban scholars.)

Unable--because it is hamstrung by its connections with Harvard (less severely with MIT) and by its financial dependence on foundations and government agencies. When it makes occasional forays into active planning, it is forced to work with paying government agencies rather than grass-roots groups. (The Center is a cog in the system.)

Unsuited, in any case: The Center in fact has very little expertise to offer Roxbury and, significantly, Roxbury has not shown any genuine interest in using the Center.

These stock explanations for the Center's non-involvement are all exaggerated but all partly true. The Center's main function is permissive support of basic research. On a limited scale, it also operates on a contract basis to supply technical assistance to public agencies. What it doesn't do is to initiate the kind of innovative social experimentation that radical and semi-radical activsts would like to see implemented in the ghetto.

Why has the Joint Center developed as it has?

When the Center was set up between Harvard and MIT on a Ford Foundation grant in 1959, it was deliberately geared toward academic, scholarly, detached urban research.

The co-founders, Lloyd Rowdin of MIT and Martin Meyerson of Harvard, modeled the Center after traditional research centers in other fields--with the fundamental view that you can do urban research the same way as other research. The analogy stemmed at least partly from a desire to prove "legitimate" a field of research which was not at the time entirely respectable.

The pressure for pure research and for a thoroughly academic faculty was largely Harvard's. Says Stephen Thernstrom, the sole Brandeis member, "There was pressure from Harvard for 'first-class' people, not, say, consultants to the mayor. MIT is more promiscuous. MIT would have liked more autonomy; Harvard, as usual, was much fussier about appointments."

Members of the Center are expected to observe the rules for research generally observed at the two universities--which means they must produce publishable results.

What kind of research has this academic approach yielded? Scattered, of course, and ranging over the whole spectrum or relevance--from a study of Muslim cities in the middle ages to a study of current Boston antipoverty programs.

Ironically, criticism of the Joint Center is aimed not at the barely useful historical studies, but at the most obviously utilitarian ones--the evaluative studies of race, housing, education, and welfare programs. Critics typically complain that although these studies deal with immediate problems, they do so in a descriptive and speculative way; they define issues and propose solutions without giving and concrete and tangible assistance.

In December, Roxbury spokesmen Bryant Rollins and George Morrison launched a broadside against the Joint Center after Harvard and MIT received $6 million from the Ford Foundation for urban research: "Research conducted by armchair theoreticians and uninvolved intellectuals is a pure waste of money and works to maintain the status quo. By [this] time, people throughout Boston--and particularly people in our black community--should be entirely fed up with researchers and social planners and urban developers telling us and our communities what our problems are and what the solutions are."

A FEW PEOPLE at the Joint Center are quite sympathetic to Roxbury exasperation. But they also defend basic research in utilitarian terms. "In a highly unquotable fashion," comments one Center member, "the function of the Center is to undermine bullshit." Joint Center studies supply data of the sort that, when supplied by the government, is highly unreliable and political. Center members are able to evaluate government programs from a more-or-less neutral position. (The most controversial policy study--The Federal Bulldozer, done by Martin Anderson--was a slashing criticism of the urban renewal program.

Perhaps the most critical role of academic urban research is that of contradicting some of the shibboleths--including liberal ones--which guide policy-making. (The Coleman Report, for example--not a Joint Center product but of the same type--has shaken up educators by indicating that a number of factors "obviously" related to classroom performance appear to have no bearing on performance.)

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