News

The Path to Public Service at SEAS

News

Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum

News

Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President

News

Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

News

Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

A Controversial Scholar, Wilson Breaks Ground

Building the Best Second in a Two-Part Series on Afro-American Studies

By Matthew W. Granade

Last year, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of the Afro-American studies department, gathered the department's leading scholars for a dinner party at his home.

This was not a social gathering but a business meeting with one purpose: to convince renowned University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson to come to Harvard.

Harvard, in particular the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Wilson this fall became Wiener professor of public policy, was after the scholar and author of The Truly Disadvantaged for years.

Provost Albert Carnesale, former dean of the Kennedy School, says the University was trying for at least 10 years to attract Wilson to Harvard before the sociologist finally decided to join the faculty in February.

"Previous deans of the Kennedy School Graham Allison and Robert Putnam had made attempts to entice Professor Wilson to come to Harvard," Carnesale says. "When I became dean, I simply followed in their footsteps."

Gates joined the pursuit of Wilson when he became chair of the Department of the Afro-American Studies in 1991.

To recruit Wilson, Gates flew to Chicago for an afternoon just so that they could have lunch together. As their meal ended, Gates "let the other shoe drop" and asked Wilson to come to Harvard.

"He smiled at me like I was a small boy," says Gates. "I felt like a little leaguer in the presence of Willie Mays."

Since the publication of his second book, The Declining Significance of Race, in 1978, the controversial Wilson, who refused to be interviewed for this article, has been playing in the big leagues.

Studying the Urban Poor

The man who The New York Times has called "one of the country's leading sociologists" has indeed become the Willie Mays--or perhaps more accurately the Jackie Robinson--of sociology by swirling academic dust clouds, never seeming afraid to stick his scholarly neck out.

"[Wilson's] work is unusual because it takes on major social issues courageously and lets the evidence fall where it may," says Professor of Government and of Sociology Theda Skocpol.

Wilson's most recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, is a case in point.

In a New York Times Magazine article adapted from the book, Wilson writes: "The disapperance of work in the ghetto cannot be ignored, isolated or played down. Employment in America is up. The economy has churned out tens of millions of new jobs in the last two decades. In that same period, joblessness among inner-city blacks has reached catastrophic proportions. Yet in this presidential election year the disappearance of work in the ghetto is not on either the Democratic or the Republican agenda. There is harsh talk about work instead or welfare but no talk of where to find it."

This most recent work, like Wilson's previous studies, draws on his research in Chicago's South Side neighborhood, practically in the back yard of the University of Chicago where Wilson taught for 24 years.

In his two previous books, The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson used his scrupulously collected data in much the same way and then called things as he saw them.

In what is arguably Wilson's magnum opus, The Truly Disadvantaged, published in 1987, Wilson turned his sharp eye on "the culture of poverty," a term he does not like. Wilson described the problems of the innercity--crime, welfare dependency, drugs--but in the context of even harsher problems like joblessness, racism and oppression.

One of Wilson's closest colleagues, Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy Christopher Jencks, says, "The Truly Disadvantaged synthesized a whole range of different ideas into a really coherent story about why the inner-city had become such a terrible place to live."

More important, this book reopened discussion about the black family without sociologists having to fear being considered racist.

"Wilson single-handedly relegitimated the study of racially charged issues about black policy," Skocpol says, "issues that many social scientists had shied away from addressing."

In Wilson's 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, he took on the shifting significance of class and race in poor blacks' lives.

In the book, Wilson argues that because of the growing black middle class and the civil rights movement, the problem of class produces more pressing issues for the black poor than does racial discrimination.

Wilson took great lengths in the book to show the prevalence of racism in America but argued that the main problem facing poor blacks in more economic than racial.

Still, many of Wilson's readers were appalled by what they preceived as his abandonment, starting even with the book's title, of his own race.

An opinion piece in The New York Times called Wilson's work mistaken. And the Association of Black Sociologists field a protest when the American Sociological Association awarded Wilson the Sydney A. Spivack Award for his book.

The Charismatic Professor

In contrast to the academic sparks that fly from his work, Wilson, who is also teaching in the Afro-Am department this year, is "quietly charismatic," according to Gates.

"His demeanor reflects the quality that accrues after years of study of a serious problem," Gates says.

Wilson's colleagues call him "reserved" but also contend that underneath his tweed jackets with leather patches and flannel slacks he has "a twinkly in his eye."

One of Skocpol's favorite stories about Wilson, from the days when they worked together at the University of Chicago, exemplifies Wilson's reserve--and sense of humor.

Every year the sociology graduate students at Chicago put on a program called the "Spring Follies" that includes skits about faculty members. One year in particular, when Wilson's urban poverty research received millions of dollars of grants from several foundations, his research assistants decided to do a skit about him.

As the skit began, says Skocpol, "[Wilson] sat in the audience looking serious, Al Gore-like, as he always does."

The skit featured a student playing Wilson as he went out into the inner-city to study poverty. Skocpol says the student playing Wilson knocked on a door in the ghetto and said, "Hello! I'm Bill Wilson, the Lucy Flower University Professor from the University of Chicago. And I have been given a million dollars by a prestigious foundation to study...YOU!"

"Well, [Wilson] watched this all very seriously, with everyone surreptitiously watching to see how he would react to the obvious teasing about all the money he was getting to study the desperately poor," says Skocpol. "And then, suddenly, just as the 'YOU' and the handshake occurred...[Wilson] broke out into a huge smile, one of the biggest I have ever seen him give."

Those who work with Wilson, who is in his early 60s, have nothing but praise for the sociologist.

"I have never known anyone...who does not like Bill Wilson as a person, which is pretty unusual for someone as prominent as he is," Skocpol says.

"[Wilson] is someone who is modest and very willing to listen to other people's opinions," says Edward Walker, Wilson's personal assistant. "He doesn't assert all the time that he is right."

But Wilson does travel extensively around the country to speak about his research. And he has become a valued adviser to the Clinton administration.

"It's odd that the man I spend my life working for," says Walker, "I frequently don't get to see."

"He's one of those people who has a terrible time saying 'no.' So he's terribly overcommitted" Jencks says. "Actually, he may say 'no' 80 percent of the time, and he's still terribly overcommitted."

Wilson's students say he is a valued adviser--though he is at times remote because of his busy schedule.

"He's not the kind of mentor who's there all the time," says Mignon R. Moore, a fifth-year graduate student at Chicago. "But if you ask him to read something or consider some ideas you have, he'll get back to you. He's very encouraging and motivating."

Affecting Social Policy

Wilson's move to Harvard marks a major turn in his career. No longer will he be in a sociology department; in fact, now he is a government school professor.

But Wilson, as independent in action as he is in thought, wants this. When Wilson announced his decision to come to Harvard last February, he told reporters that he wanted to join a faculty where he could affect social policy.

Wilson resisted the recruiting efforts of Gates, the Kennedy School and Harvard presidents for years. Only in the last two years or so was there any hint that Wilson might be thinking of leaving Chicago.

Harvard first learned of Wilson's interest in moving to the University in the living room of Vice President Al Gore '69 in February 1995.

According to Gates, the Clinton administration gathered a group of leading scholars on race in America to discuss the upcoming presidential election.

As he did each time he saw Wilson for five years, Gates asked the sociologist when he was coming to Harvard.

Wilson responded that if Gates and the University were serious, the time just might be right to make the move. A year later, Wilson announced he would be a Harvard professor.

Like Wilson, Gates and the Afro-Am department have set their sites on having a powerful voice in social policy debates.

Wilson may well be the key to success.

As President Clinton has said many times, "[The Truly Disadvantaged] made me see the problems of race and poverty in the inner-city in a different light."Photo Courtesy of the Harvard News officeWILLIAM JULIUS WILSON

"He smiled at me like I was a small boy," says Gates. "I felt like a little leaguer in the presence of Willie Mays."

Since the publication of his second book, The Declining Significance of Race, in 1978, the controversial Wilson, who refused to be interviewed for this article, has been playing in the big leagues.

Studying the Urban Poor

The man who The New York Times has called "one of the country's leading sociologists" has indeed become the Willie Mays--or perhaps more accurately the Jackie Robinson--of sociology by swirling academic dust clouds, never seeming afraid to stick his scholarly neck out.

"[Wilson's] work is unusual because it takes on major social issues courageously and lets the evidence fall where it may," says Professor of Government and of Sociology Theda Skocpol.

Wilson's most recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, is a case in point.

In a New York Times Magazine article adapted from the book, Wilson writes: "The disapperance of work in the ghetto cannot be ignored, isolated or played down. Employment in America is up. The economy has churned out tens of millions of new jobs in the last two decades. In that same period, joblessness among inner-city blacks has reached catastrophic proportions. Yet in this presidential election year the disappearance of work in the ghetto is not on either the Democratic or the Republican agenda. There is harsh talk about work instead or welfare but no talk of where to find it."

This most recent work, like Wilson's previous studies, draws on his research in Chicago's South Side neighborhood, practically in the back yard of the University of Chicago where Wilson taught for 24 years.

In his two previous books, The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson used his scrupulously collected data in much the same way and then called things as he saw them.

In what is arguably Wilson's magnum opus, The Truly Disadvantaged, published in 1987, Wilson turned his sharp eye on "the culture of poverty," a term he does not like. Wilson described the problems of the innercity--crime, welfare dependency, drugs--but in the context of even harsher problems like joblessness, racism and oppression.

One of Wilson's closest colleagues, Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy Christopher Jencks, says, "The Truly Disadvantaged synthesized a whole range of different ideas into a really coherent story about why the inner-city had become such a terrible place to live."

More important, this book reopened discussion about the black family without sociologists having to fear being considered racist.

"Wilson single-handedly relegitimated the study of racially charged issues about black policy," Skocpol says, "issues that many social scientists had shied away from addressing."

In Wilson's 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, he took on the shifting significance of class and race in poor blacks' lives.

In the book, Wilson argues that because of the growing black middle class and the civil rights movement, the problem of class produces more pressing issues for the black poor than does racial discrimination.

Wilson took great lengths in the book to show the prevalence of racism in America but argued that the main problem facing poor blacks in more economic than racial.

Still, many of Wilson's readers were appalled by what they preceived as his abandonment, starting even with the book's title, of his own race.

An opinion piece in The New York Times called Wilson's work mistaken. And the Association of Black Sociologists field a protest when the American Sociological Association awarded Wilson the Sydney A. Spivack Award for his book.

The Charismatic Professor

In contrast to the academic sparks that fly from his work, Wilson, who is also teaching in the Afro-Am department this year, is "quietly charismatic," according to Gates.

"His demeanor reflects the quality that accrues after years of study of a serious problem," Gates says.

Wilson's colleagues call him "reserved" but also contend that underneath his tweed jackets with leather patches and flannel slacks he has "a twinkly in his eye."

One of Skocpol's favorite stories about Wilson, from the days when they worked together at the University of Chicago, exemplifies Wilson's reserve--and sense of humor.

Every year the sociology graduate students at Chicago put on a program called the "Spring Follies" that includes skits about faculty members. One year in particular, when Wilson's urban poverty research received millions of dollars of grants from several foundations, his research assistants decided to do a skit about him.

As the skit began, says Skocpol, "[Wilson] sat in the audience looking serious, Al Gore-like, as he always does."

The skit featured a student playing Wilson as he went out into the inner-city to study poverty. Skocpol says the student playing Wilson knocked on a door in the ghetto and said, "Hello! I'm Bill Wilson, the Lucy Flower University Professor from the University of Chicago. And I have been given a million dollars by a prestigious foundation to study...YOU!"

"Well, [Wilson] watched this all very seriously, with everyone surreptitiously watching to see how he would react to the obvious teasing about all the money he was getting to study the desperately poor," says Skocpol. "And then, suddenly, just as the 'YOU' and the handshake occurred...[Wilson] broke out into a huge smile, one of the biggest I have ever seen him give."

Those who work with Wilson, who is in his early 60s, have nothing but praise for the sociologist.

"I have never known anyone...who does not like Bill Wilson as a person, which is pretty unusual for someone as prominent as he is," Skocpol says.

"[Wilson] is someone who is modest and very willing to listen to other people's opinions," says Edward Walker, Wilson's personal assistant. "He doesn't assert all the time that he is right."

But Wilson does travel extensively around the country to speak about his research. And he has become a valued adviser to the Clinton administration.

"It's odd that the man I spend my life working for," says Walker, "I frequently don't get to see."

"He's one of those people who has a terrible time saying 'no.' So he's terribly overcommitted" Jencks says. "Actually, he may say 'no' 80 percent of the time, and he's still terribly overcommitted."

Wilson's students say he is a valued adviser--though he is at times remote because of his busy schedule.

"He's not the kind of mentor who's there all the time," says Mignon R. Moore, a fifth-year graduate student at Chicago. "But if you ask him to read something or consider some ideas you have, he'll get back to you. He's very encouraging and motivating."

Affecting Social Policy

Wilson's move to Harvard marks a major turn in his career. No longer will he be in a sociology department; in fact, now he is a government school professor.

But Wilson, as independent in action as he is in thought, wants this. When Wilson announced his decision to come to Harvard last February, he told reporters that he wanted to join a faculty where he could affect social policy.

Wilson resisted the recruiting efforts of Gates, the Kennedy School and Harvard presidents for years. Only in the last two years or so was there any hint that Wilson might be thinking of leaving Chicago.

Harvard first learned of Wilson's interest in moving to the University in the living room of Vice President Al Gore '69 in February 1995.

According to Gates, the Clinton administration gathered a group of leading scholars on race in America to discuss the upcoming presidential election.

As he did each time he saw Wilson for five years, Gates asked the sociologist when he was coming to Harvard.

Wilson responded that if Gates and the University were serious, the time just might be right to make the move. A year later, Wilson announced he would be a Harvard professor.

Like Wilson, Gates and the Afro-Am department have set their sites on having a powerful voice in social policy debates.

Wilson may well be the key to success.

As President Clinton has said many times, "[The Truly Disadvantaged] made me see the problems of race and poverty in the inner-city in a different light."Photo Courtesy of the Harvard News officeWILLIAM JULIUS WILSON

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags