After 25 years as director of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS), Bill Rohe stepped down and entered phased retirement on June 30, 2019. This doesn’t mean Rohe won’t be seen around Hickerson House, the home of CURS, anymore. Even in phased retirement, he’ll be working on five grant-funded research projects and will continue teaching in the department of city and regional planning. Recently, we sat down with Bill and talked about his time at CURS.
What was CURS like when you became director in 1994?
Well, I like to think about that because there wasn’t much going on at the time. There had been an interim director for about a year and a half and that interim director was the head of the department of city and regional planning (DCRP) so he was quite busy taking care of the department and very little attention was paid to CURS.
There were two staffers at that time. We had an administrative assistant and an administrative manager. I was on the job maybe all of one week or so when the administrative manager came in and said, “Bill, I want to let you know that the postman usually eats his lunch in the conference room and then takes a nap on the floor. Is that still okay?” (laughs) Of course I said no more postman having lunch – no more postman taking a nap on the conference room floor. When I took over, the place was in a state of suspended animation.
The total amount of the research under management was about $400,000 with two or three projects that were being managed by the Center at that time. Earlier there had been two CURS researchers, but those researchers had been pulled into DCRP to teach. Ray Burby was one of them and Dave Brower was the other. I think those two or three grant-funded projects were basically legacy projects that Burby and Brower had. So, that was the situation when I took over in 1994.
How has CURS changed over your time here?
The first thing is, we went from $400,000 up to $6,000,000 worth of research and from three projects up to around 30 projects that are managed by CURS today.
Part of what we did when I took over was to make it more of a University-wide, or at least College-wide, support center to help other people and ideally to bring people together to undertake large interdisciplinary projects, which was part of the history of the Center.
The Faculty Fellows program I introduced became a mechanism to develop new interdisciplinary projects and it’s been successful. Not as successful as I had hoped, but I think it’s fair to say it’s been reasonably successful. Currently, we have around 90 Faculty Fellows. To be frank, about 30 to 40 of those are active in working through the Center in one way or another. They run projects through here or are involved in the programs that we’ve developed.
Why were the Center’s programs developed?
We’ve always faced a conundrum of being, on the one hand, a Center for Urban and Regional Studies which encompasses lots and lots of things – economic development, land use, housing, transportation – all part of urban and regional studies. That broad purview, that broad mission, was helpful and that’s why we have 90 Faculty Fellows. Those 90 people see some connection with urban and regional studies. On the other hand, if you are a transportation funder and you’re interested in commissioning research, are you going to go to a transportation center or are you going to go to a Center for Urban and Regional Studies? CURS is so broad and the constituency is so broad that it runs the risk of looking like it lacks depth. I thought some of the Fellows would be better served if they were associated with something that had, for example, transportation in the name.
We started with a Smart Growth and the New Economy program, which is now defunct. That was our first attempt at creating a program within the Center to give researchers a better platform to go after research and, at the same time, to talk to the central administration in the College and the Vice Chancellor for Research office about funding in order to prime the pump. The three programs that we developed were able to pull in resources to do things like hire staff and offer competitive small grant programs, so that we could say, hey, if you are interested in research in China, for example, we have some money to get you going on that research – so you can fly to China and work with some colleagues over there. Then, presumably they develop a research proposal that goes through the National Science Foundation or to a funder in China or maybe some combination of the two. So, even though the Smart Growth and the New Economy program was not successful in the long run – partly because the key people who were involved in that got hired away and partly because the topic just didn’t have the longevity we thought it would – it was the start of something valuable.
We then created the Carolina Transportation Program (CTP) and got (former DCRP faculty) Asad Khattak to head it up. The CTP is under CURS but has a separate identity and its own website. That program is thriving now under Noreen McDonald and they’re bringing in research projects that are run through CURS.
Another program we developed was the Program on Chinese Cities (PCC). Originally, we had two people on DCRP faculty that were interested in China – Yan Song and Tom Campanella. The two of them were interested in creating a program on Chinese cities. After several years, Tom took a job at Cornell, so we lost him, but Yan has really run with the program and right now we have some crazy number of scholars from China on campus – around 50 at any one time! The program also provided seed grants for research. The PCC has their own website that’s in English and Mandarin and we do the paperwork that’s needed to put the Chinese scholars on the University list of eligible people; to use the library, get an email address and all that.
Most recently, and I can’t take credit for the development of this program, the Community Histories Workshop was brought under the CURS umbrella. The Workshop, developed by Bobby Allen, fit well with our mission. We were interested in showing that we have value added to the University, that we are active, that we’re supporting important urban research. They’ve become our third program, so we’ve had four programs and currently have three.
To me, the programs have been an important accomplishment – to try to create some more specificity of research emphasis under the broad umbrella of urban and regional studies. We support their research so that they can be more effective and efficient, and do more at a higher quality – because they don’t have to worry about all the administrative headaches that crop up when you’re conducting externally-funded research.
How about the beginnings of the CURS affiliate – the Center for Community Capital (CCC)?
Well, the history of CCC and its relationship to CURS dates back to Michael Stegman, who was a DCRP faculty member. After leaving UNC to become the assistant secretary of policy development and research for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, his University position had lapsed – basically they won’t allow you to go on leave for any more than two years. We wanted to attract him back. Part of that deal was he could come back as a chaired professor in the department of public policy because that professorship was open. We also went over to talk with Jack Kasarda, who was the head of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the time, and convinced him that it would be great if Mike had a research center of his own (CCC) under the umbrella of the Kenan Institute. Jack agreed, so we were able to entice Mike to come back to the University.
Fast forward about six years, Mike gets restless and decides that he is going to be a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Meanwhile Roberto Quercia, professor at DCRP, was the second-in-command at CCC – he was involved with many of their projects. So, with this change, it was decided that CCC would need to move out of the Kenan Institute. Basically, I stepped in and suggested to Roberto that CURS would be willing to handle the budgeting and administrative side of CCC. I assured him that they could maintain their separate identity – it wasn’t going to be a program of CURS, it was just that we were going to provide our services to support their research efforts. Also, for the College of Arts and Sciences, where CURS resides and where much of our budget comes from, the fact that Roberto and CCC would be coming into the College was a really good thing. CCC didn’t have to get a financial person, they didn’t have to get a human resources person, so it really made sense. It was a symbiotic win-win arrangement. It’s been a nice relationship. When they publish, they don’t need say anything about CURS. They have their own identity and that is perfectly fine.
During this whole transition time they had to keep the momentum going with their deadlines. Not only did they have projects, but the mother of all projects in the housing and community development area with the Ford Foundation. They were getting consistent multi-million-dollar grants. One project was a longitudinal study of people who got affordable mortgages. They conducted several waves of interviews with a very large sample size. I think they’re in their last year of Ford Foundation funds but over the course of about 20 years, somewhere around 20 million dollars came in for that project. So, again, we managed all that.
Tell us about two other initiatives you’ve started at CURS – the Scholar-in-Residence Program and the Research Development Initiative.
In 2001, I developed the Scholar-in-Residence program in reaction to an Odum Institute initiative, which announced a program to provide a course buyout to those who secured large grants. That is, if you run a project through them and you get a sizable grant, they would pay for a course buyout (funds for a department or school to hire another instructor). I said to myself, you know, it doesn’t make sense, because if you get a big grant, you don’t really need the course buyout – you could use the grant to pay for the buyout. The real trick is to get the grant to begin with, so that led me to come up with the idea of having a competitive program where faculty say, here’s the grant proposal that I want to develop and here’s where I’m going to submit it and, I’m going to ask for X number of dollars and here’s what the project is going to involve. So each year now, and it’s been going on for 17 years, we solicit applications from faculty members in the College. We put together a review committee and that committee decides on the best proposal, in terms of not only academic potential, but also in terms of its likelihood of getting funded – we get the money for this program from the College and we need to show that this is a good use of its funds.
So, the Scholar-in-Residence gets a course buyout, they can get some office space at CURS, we give them a thousand dollars beyond the buyout for proposal expenses. All that we ask of them is to do a presentation of their proposal toward the end of the semester that the buyout takes place, and to submit a proposal. And we’ve had great success.
The proposals get written and we’ve had quite a high rate of success. And the investment-to-outcome multiplier is always 3:1, 4:1 or 5:1 so it’s been a money maker for the College. Plus, the faculty member has a good chance that they’re going to be able to get this research done and add it to their accomplishments. That’s what a big part of this whole enterprise is all about – doing research and then publishing that research to the betterment of the society.
We also support graduate students in developing proposals and getting funding for their dissertations, or for other kinds of projects, so we serve students as well as faculty.
A more recent creation is the Research Development Initiative (RDI). What we realized is – we’ve got a lot of Faculty Fellows but there are quite a few that aren’t grant writers. We wanted to help faculty members that either haven’t written many grant proposals, or sometimes haven’t done any, and help them understand how to develop an idea. How to write a successful proposal. How to develop a budget. What kind of hoops you need to jump through like the Institutional Review Board certifications for your research, and so on.
We’re finishing the second year of that now and again we’ve had some good success with the first cohort. The program participants have developed strong proposals, got them funded and are currently doing the research. Usually, there’s four or five people to a cohort and one of the core concepts is peer support. So rather than being isolated in your office and having to set your own deadlines and sometimes you don’t really have anybody to bounce ideas off of, the RDI gives them a peer group. A lot of what we do when we get together with the RDI program is we all read people’s drafts proposals or a letter of interest that gets sent to a foundation. At the last session, we were reading 15-page proposals and asking questions and making recommendations. The other people in the room aren’t subject matter experts but proposals have to be clear to non-specialists. They need to speak to the specialists but also to others. Some of them are more quantitative, some are more qualitative and even when they don’t have a whole lot that they can contribute, they’re learning a lot about how the other half thinks – developing more respect for another method of epistemology.
So that’s what makes me proud. Those were my ideas. I didn’t take them from somebody else, except the Faculty Fellows idea, which I got from the Carolina Population Center. Before becoming CURS director, I knew the head of the Pop Center at the time – Ron Rindfuss – and we went to lunch and he laid it all out – how they worked – and I thought their idea of having faculty fellows was marvelous. A way of bringing lots and lots of people in from outside rather than building up this…almost consulting business…within the University.
Do you think your Faculty Fellows model is more likely to bring in graduate students and even undergraduates, because the faculty need research assistants and students are a pool they can draw from rather than hiring an outside consultant?
Yes, and a grad student needs to start their research agenda and work on their skills, so yeah, exactly.
What impact have your co-workers had on you?
Well, that question leads me to think about the role of the associate director at CURS. I’ve always worked pretty much as a team with the associate director. I’ve never said, okay, this is what we’re doing – make it happen! There was always discussion: We have to make this decision, here’s what I think, what do you think? And, you know, I don’t know if I remember ever really having a huge disagreement or a huge difference in how the associate director and I saw things. Or maybe there was, and I saw it right away and said, oh yes, that’s a much better idea. So, it was always very cooperative, very collegial.
The first associate director was Regina Brough, who I hired away from Duke. Then there was Mary Beth Powell. Mary Beth was here eight or nine years. Todd Owen has been here now almost 15 years. So, in terms of impact – I’d say the associate directors have been really important to the success of the Center.
I would also say that I’ve been very fortunate in terms of the support staff. Holly (McPherson Day) has been an important staff person and she’s been here pretty much from the beginning. I hired her away from DCRP to become our grants manager. When I told Dave Moreau, chair of DCRP at the time, he said, you SOB! (laughs) Holly’s very good at what she does and gets it done right. She understands all the intricacies and the many different moving parts. You just have a look at her office to see how organized she is!
As director, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
I guess this comes down to two things. One is hire really good staff. Two – don’t micromanage them. Let them know what their responsibilities are, make that clear, and let them do their jobs. I don’t want to be intrusive and it’s really all about getting the work done.
What are some of your favorite memories about CURS?
One favorite memory is the Faculty Fellows luncheons. They were always fun – I tried to make them fun with my bad jokes, sometimes not so bad! They were always kind of festive. Linda (Comer) does a terrific job with the flowers and music, and the food was always great. And the fellowship. Great people sharing their interests and good conversations. We’ve had good participation from the administration, so those luncheons were always a good time.
The luncheon helps people know what our other Fellows are doing and this has led to collaborations. At the very least it allows people to say, oh, I know somebody who’s doing “this” – to refer inquiries to the best people on campus. The University is terribly siloed – it’s the size of the University, with some three thousand faculty members spread out over a thousand-acre campus. There’s the College, there’s the School of Government, the School of Education, the School of Social Work – they have their own buildings, so how would you expect these people to ever meet? The Faculty Fellows luncheon shows that there’s more commonality than one might think in research interests across these departments and Schools. Like food research for example – you have people all over the University interested in food.
What have been some of the challenges leading CURS?
From the beginning, but especially starting in the mid-to-late 2000s – budget cuts.
The University has had some significant budget cuts and CURS shared a piece of that. Centers took a bigger hit than the departments did, so frankly we went from being somewhat flush with resources to being barebone. We never had to use our overhead funds to support staff, but now we do. We use overhead funds to support a share of the non-personnel budget that’s not picked up by the grants – copier paper and phone lines and all that stuff. So that’s certainly been a challenge.
There’s also competition for our Fellows. To some extent we’re competing with the Pop Center – that’s like a David and Goliath competition. (laughs) Competition has led to us losing a share of our research portfolio to new places such as the Institute of the Environment. The Institute was developed in the mid-to-late 2000s. So, we lost some of the environmental focus that the Center had. Environmental research was a very important part of the CURS portfolio.
What are your hopes for the future of CURS?
I would love for it to continue to be a place for cross-disciplinary research. A place people work through because they feel that it is in their best interest; that CURS supports them in ways that they find valuable. My original concept that I talked about when I first interviewed for director was a vision of having to constantly step aside when I’m walking around Hickerson House because there are so many people working at the Center. A Center for interaction. So that’s what it continues to be, and I hope it grows as a place for people to come for research support and intellectual enrichment.
What made you interested in doing research on housing and community development issues?
I grew up in a very suburban environment on Long Island, and then went to the University of Buffalo which was anything but suburban – in terms of the history of the city, where the university was located, and where I lived in Buffalo. My major was psychology and sociology which I really enjoyed, but then it came time to start thinking about what I was going to do when I graduated! I had a roommate who was in the Environmental Design School at Buffalo and he would come home and make little models of buildings and so on, which I found kind of interesting. Then I found that there was an emergent field called man-environment relations; it also went by the name environmental psychology. I was already fascinated by the old neighborhoods’ tenement buildings in Buffalo so it all came together when I realized I could apply my social science education to the design professions. I took some classes my senior year in environmental design and that led me to want to continue studying and doing research on the issue of how the man-made environment impacts human behavior and social relations. So, that’s the program I ended up applying to at Penn State. It was called Man and Environment Relations and its focus was the application of the social sciences to the design professions.
After graduate school, I was really happy to get a faculty appointment at UNC-Chapel Hill, which was, and still is, one of the top programs in the country. I was originally hired to replace Stu Chapin, who was basically a land use planning person. The first courses I taught were in land use but I was always interested in neighborhood planning. Over the first five years or so, I morphed from land-use to housing and community development, so the neighborhood planning was kind of the in-between stage. Then I got involved with Mike Stegman, who did a lot of housing research and we started teaming up on research projects that were more in the housing field. Somewhere along the line in the late 70s, early 80s, we created a housing and community development specialization within the department.
What impacts has your research had?
That’s always really hard to say – you’re never really sure. You do the research. You write a report. It goes to the agency and usually they don’t give you a whole lot of feedback in terms of – oh, this is great and we’re going to use it to do X and Y, and make X, Y and Z changes to our programs. You give it to them and a lot of times you move on to the next projects. Of course, from the beginning you also try to think about a journal article. You ask, what kind of a broader look can we take on this project so that people beyond the agency would be interested in the results. So, you publish articles in professional journals and you don’t know if anyone is reading them. It’s a little bit better now because we have metrics that show how many people cite it, but that’s relatively recent and it’s just a number. You don’t really know if people liked it or didn’t like it. Sometimes they cite an article because it has problems. One of the nice things about going to conferences is you run into people, more typically young people, who come up and say “oh wow, you know I’ve read so many of your articles and they’ve been very helpful in my own research!” That’s always wonderful to hear.
Every once in a while, your research clearly has a policy impact. The research we did on the impacts of work requirements certainly had an important policy impact on policy. Most of the time it’s very indirect – you’re part of a body of literature that causes policy to evolve. But that particular study was the first piece on the impacts of work requirements in public housing, so that definitely had an impact on the policy discussion. In a kind of a strange way, even though the findings were very positive in terms of the impacts of work requirements – in this one example in Charlotte, North Carolina – we also made it clear that the results were a function of major expenditures in services to public housing residents such as transportation assistance and daycare assistance. They also had monthly meetings with case managers. We documented how expensive that was, so when the Trump administration realized that this wasn’t a cheap fix – that for this to be effective they would have to spend money, they lost interest. HUD is not pushing work requirements on public housing any longer, so in a weird way, we found that it worked, but they were unwilling to pony up.
Our research also showed that the jobs secured were typically part-time. The work requirement specified 20 hours a week, so it had to be at least half time, but working half time at a low-wage job does not produce the income needed to rent housing on the private market. Policymakers hoped that the work requirement would lead to people graduating from public housing; leaving public housing and entering the private market. It became very clear that there were a lot of benefits of the work requirement, but one of them was not moving a significant amount of people out of public housing. They typically don’t have the education or the job skills to be able to command a salary that would allow them to move out of public housing.
Describe your approach to research.
I’ve always been a believer in mixed methods – which essentially means a combination of quantitative approaches and qualitative approaches. Collecting secondary data from the census, from agency databases, from surveys – that is the quantitative piece of the research. The qualitative piece might be the focus groups or in-person interviews, which can provide a much more comprehensive and deeper understanding of whatever it is you’re studying. You get the big picture through the quantitative analysis but you don’t get the depth. The only way you get the depth is talking to people. You might find a relationship between the program and the program outcome, but you’re often hard-pressed to understand why. To do that you need to talk to people involved in the program: what attracted you to this program and why did you decide to participate? If you’re interested in policy recommendations then it’s questions on program changes: what would make this program work better? So, many of my studies – not all by any means – but many have been mixed method. That’s the key to doing research that really has both the breadth and the depth on the topic.
How has your research overlapped with your role as a teacher?
To some extent, they’re mutually reinforcing. You bring some of your research into the classroom as examples as some of the latest findings on a particular topic and then the students ask big questions and get you thinking about different aspects of a particular issue, and that may in fact lead to a new research idea. You know, I always feel like I should be doing more in terms of bringing my research to the class. The University is now pushing us in that direction, which is a good thing.
Talk about developing relationships with government agencies and foundations.
There’s two aspects to it: one is how do you get your foot in the door. That depends upon your past history of research and publication. For both government and foundation people, they’re trying to keep up with the literature, they’re trying to keep up with who’s writing about the issues that they’re particularly interested in. So, you start with a smaller project on a particular topic – when I say a smaller project, it could be a case study or two case studies that you develop and then write an article on. Now you have something out there that shows that you know something about the topic, and you have some credibility and ideally they come to you. I call it “coming over the transom” projects. That’s how our major Charlotte Housing Authority project came about.
Or you seek out conversations with key people in your area of interest at government agencies and foundations. You tell them, I’m interested in these topics, is there a question that you want addressed that we could research? Sometimes you walk out of a meeting and you know it’s not going anywhere, and sometimes it clicks and you have follow-up meetings. You can also meet foundation and government officials at policy conferences. We’ve also gone to the Ford Foundation and others and we’ve identified a program officer and just say, we’d love to come by and talk to you about our interest in doing research on some topic that we think you might be interested in. Most of the time, particularly if you’re known entity, they’ll say, “sure, I’m interested in hearing what you are doing.”
The second step is to perform. To do the work at a high quality – get it done on time. If it’s done well, then there is a lot of return business. We’ve been working with the Charlotte Housing Authority now for 11 years and our contract runs for another four years; that’s based on performance. It’s based on the quality of our reports and, to some extent, on the fact that we get the word out. We have our own mechanisms for dissemination, so we add to their own publicity functions. The research ends up being discussed in journals and we go to some of the policy meetings and talk to their colleagues about the work we’re doing in Charlotte.
And responding to Request for Proposals (RFPs)?
Yes. As Center director, one of the things I always wanted to make sure we did is to find those RFP opportunities and get them out to our Fellows. I was frustrated with the Center not being able to do that on a consistent basis before I took over. I would hear about an RFP that came out only a week or two before it was due – and there’s no way you’re going to compete on that timetable. We’re competing with consulting firms which are meeting with funders and finding out what’s about to come out. They’re totally ahead of the curve. So if we don’t get that RFP out to our Fellows quickly, there’s no way they can be competitive.
What are your current research projects through CURS?
Right now, we’re a subcontractor on a project for Habitat for Humanity International. The lead organization is a consulting firm called Community Science. Our role is to evaluate the impacts of ten neighborhood revitalization initiatives that Habitat for Humanity International has supported. These initiatives are all around the country, so over a five-year period, we will be collecting lots of data on the initiative and on the characteristics of the target neighborhoods both before, and after, the implementation of the revitalization strategies that each city will be developing and implementing. It’s totally mixed-methods, including secondary data from the census and other data sources. It’s surveys of the people in the neighborhoods at two points in time, early and late. It’s doing direct observation of conditions in the neighborhoods – looking at housing and street conditions. It involves interviews with the people who are involved in the programs and analyses of reports that these programs are providing to Habitat on a regular basis.
A second research project is the long-standing project with the Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA). CHA is a “Move to Work” organization, which gives them great flexibility in what they can do with their money and with public housing program rules. Our role has been to document the changes and their impacts. Which ones have worked, which ones have not worked. Our particular focus is on the work requirement which I think is the most interesting and policy-relevant of all of their innovations. We do a lot of special studies for them along the way as well, so right now we’re doing one on the attitudes of landlords toward the Section 8 program: why they participate, why they don’t participate and what could be done to make them more likely to participate. We’re currently in the middle of that research project.
Number three is a grant from HUD to do a more rigorous research project on the impacts of the CHA’s work requirement. CHA was not willing to give us money to create a comparison group. Since Charlotte has now gone from a demonstration program, where they only implemented the work requirement in five sites, to the entire Housing Authority, both public housing and Section 8 – we didn’t have a comparison group, which is fundamental to trying to see if there are any changes to in employment can be attributed to the program. We wanted to use the Raleigh Housing Authority, which does not have a work requirement, as a comparison group. So, we got a grant from HUD to fund that part of our larger study on the impacts of the work requirement.
The fourth research project is another HUD grant, which is a collaboration with the Carolina Population Center. That study is looking at the health impact on residents who lived in public housing during their teens. We’re working with something called the Ad Health (adolescent health) data set. Ad Health interviewed a large sampling of teens back in 1995 and has followed them through time, with periodic detailed surveys, interviews and – particularly exciting – biometric markers, including blood pressure, body mass index, diabetes info and all kinds of other health indicators. We are identifying people who lived in public housing as teens and then pulling a comparison group of similar people on five or six different characteristics – family status and so on. We will then compare the HUD teens with a similar group of non-HUD teens. This will allow us to answer the question, does living in public housing hurt people’s long-term health, because of trauma or because public housing is in high crime neighborhoods. Or, does it improve long-term health because it’s more stable; there’s more money for other things because you’re paying less rent?
The fifth project is the new project that Michael (Webb) is primarily responsible for, which is the Housing Opportunity Finder. We won the University’s C. Felix Harvey Award for this project, which came with a $75,000 prize. We will be developing a web app that will ‘scrape’ rental housing listings and help people with Section 8 certificates find, not just housing, but housing in high opportunity, better quality neighborhoods.
Those are the projects I’m juggling right now!
You received two Fulbright scholarships to study in Barcelona and Glasgow. Tell us about those experiences.
There were similarities and differences between the two Fulbrights. As a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, I had the opportunity to take a research and study assignment. Typically it’s one semester for every seven years. So, back in 2003 I knew I was due and thought, why don’t I use the opportunity to go overseas and study urban revitalization in another country? My wife speaks Spanish and I wanted to learn Spanish – so this would give me a reason to take language classes. And then the question was, where would we go? We thought Spain would be an interesting place to get to know better. It certainly has an interesting history. Then it came down to a choice between Madrid and Barcelona, the two biggest cities. I talked to colleagues who knew both cities fairly well and we decided that Barcelona was the more interesting of the two places. I thought if I could get a Fulbright, it would provide money for transportation and lodging and also help me make connections. It’s a State Department program so you go to the embassy and you meet with other Fulbright Scholars in the country. So, I applied and I was very excited when I got the email – I did a big holler!
While in Barcelona, I spent six months interviewing people, taking pictures and doing archival research on the revitalization of a particular section of the city. This was the northern waterfront section of Barcelona which the city began revitalizing for the 1992 Olympics and then continued afterward. The Olympics reclaimed some of the beach – there was no beach before, basically riprap and rocks. For the Olympics they rerouted the rail line and opened up access to the coast. But opening up access is one thing, developing the coast is a whole other thing.
So, this was a good experience, and of course we travelled a little bit around Spain as well. Our two kids went to an international school during this time. It’s demanding to live in another country and my Spanish never really got to a comfortable conversational level. So, it’s always difficult being in a place where you can’t fully converse with people. Plus I didn’t really have any colleagues over there so I felt a little bit isolated. But overall it was a great experience.
When the next sabbatical came up, I jumped at it. It came from a solicitation through Fulbright that said the Glasgow School of Art was looking for a person to come and do research on the city of Glasgow. I thought that sounded great. Number one – they speak English, sort of (laughs) – some of them you can’t understand. And number two – I thought, oh, I’ll have people to work with. But actually, it didn’t work out that way. In a very short period of time, six months, you have to conceptualize and carry out a project. So there was pressure to pick something and get going, do some general interviews – and then I decided on a topic that, in hindsight, wasn’t a great one. It was an urban design topic that had to do with the linkages between revitalizating neighborhoods and the rest of the city. There hadn’t been a lot written about it, because it was something that almost was taken for granted in the profession. But the project just didn’t result in any new insights. Also, I showed up in Glasgow at the beginning of January, which is a really horrible time to be showing up in a place – particularly for trying to find housing! But the two Fulbrights overall were good experiences and I learned a lot that has been useful in my teaching.
Having worked in Hickerson House for 25 years, what are some of the stories about this place?
We kid a lot about the “haunted” bathroom and it’s just amazing that people can work in this building every day and come in and out of the back door without knowing about it. There’s an old abandoned bathroom cantilevered off the back of the building. When you’re walking into the building, you’re right next to it and you never think to yourself, what the heck is this? What is this protrusion? You can’t really see that there’s a door in the back stairwell, so it’s kind of understandable, but at the same time I always get a kick out of our “haunted” bathroom. It hasn’t been touched in almost 50 years. The windows have been painted so it’s dark and unused and very spooky!
Dr. Hickerson was a professor who lived here and taught geology at the University. We have a copies of his books – he was a civil engineer who taught in geology. So, it’s kind of related to planning, which is fitting. In his later years, he took in student boarders so he basically modified the house to accommodate the students. He wanted to give them their own bathrooms, hence we have the bathroom that is attached to Andy’s (Berner) office with the tub and the tile floor that is now just a closet. You see all kinds of medicine cabinets where you wouldn’t expect one. It’s just a funky old house and, of course, a wonderful place to work. There’s nothing institutional about it.
Has the house been used for anything other than Dr. Hickerson’s home and CURS’s home?
I can’t say that I know the exact history, but I think either he willed it to the University or they bought it from his estate. It came to the University right away as far as I know, and I think the first occupant was the Center. Again, I don’t know that for sure but I certainly hadn’t heard any other talk about someone else being in here before we moved in around 1972. For a while, the Center had two old houses on campus. The Evergreen House on the other side of campus was the Center’s original home. Then there was need for additional office space and it expanded to Hickerson House. As time went on, the number of projects shrunk and so CURS was consolidated here. At one point, the University was showing us other office space that was bigger, but it was all off campus. Going off campus just didn’t sit well because we want our Faculty Fellows to have easy access to come talk with the staff and hold meetings on their research projects.
What are you most proud of during your time at CURS?
I feel proud of building an organization that matters to a lot of people. CURS has made important contributions to the careers of both faculty members and students and has produced a large body of policy relevant research. It’s a well-respected organization. We’ve increased our visibility at the University, state and national levels.
What’s next for you?
Three things: First, more self-directed research and writing. As center director you need to go after projects that you think you can get, because the whole enterprise is about bringing in external research funding and helping Faculty Fellows find financial support for their scholarship. Frankly, a lot of that came from the way I’ve defined my responsibilities – bring in projects that can help generate overhead which helps keep the staff on board, helps pay for the non-personnel costs, helps us hire people like Michael (Webb). Michael is 100 percent funded with soft money. I’ve helped provide research opportunities for graduate students – we’ve always had at least one PhD student as an integral member of our Charlotte Housing Authority work. Right now, Attie Jaramillo is working on the health data set for his dissertation and he has brought fresh energy to the work we have been doing in Charlotte. You know, lots of PhD students have gotten their dissertation research from the projects that I brought in.
So, as I move into phased retirement, I can say, I’d rather focus on some other non-funded project. Of course, as we talk, I’ve got five projects! But it’s not all that satisfying to be jumping from project to project, so I’d like to be able to dive in and really be more involved with some of the data collection and the interviews, and just be able to focus my creative thinking about a particular topic – rather than chasing after new grants and contracts.
Another thing I’m looking forward to is more travel. In the next year, I’m going to be teaching two courses in the fall so I will not have to teach in the spring. That will allow my wife Jamie and I to travel to the southern hemisphere in January and February where it will be summer. We plan to travel to places like Chile and New Zealand.
The third thing will be just having a bit more free time – a bit more leaving work at four o’clock, deciding I’m not doing Fridays. I’ll take three-day weekends – I don’t know about regularly – but more three-day weekends. Just stepping it down a bit and dialing down the treadmill. But I’m not going anywhere. I love North Carolina and UNC-Chapel Hill so I have no plans to move. So, whether people like it or not, I’ll be around!