Fairfield Now - Winter 2007
Dr. Kurt Schlichting:
By Meredith Guinness
|Dr. Kurt Schlichting, first holder of the E. Gerald Corrigan '63 Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences.|
Dr. Kurt Schlichting's grandparents lived in an Irish neighborhood on Bridgeport's West Side. He was going through some of their treasured keepsakes recently, when he came upon a paper "brick" marked 11,806. They probably bought it at St. Peter's Church, the same parish where their grandson was baptized.
Dr. Schlichting knew what it was immediately. It signified that his grandparents had donated a dollar to the Buy-a-Brick program that the fledgling Fairfield Prep ran in the 1950s to raise funds to build Berchmans Hall, one of two academic facilities supporting what would one day become Fairfield University.
The significance of the flimsy paper brick - one of thousands sold in the churches and schools across the diocese - wasn't lost on Dr. Schlichting, a man who has made a career of studying people, what they dismiss, and what they hold dear. For him it signified both the longstanding bond between his family and Fairfield University and the promise Fairfield held for working class families like his, who presented their endowments one dollar at a time. "What Fairfield has always offered is opportunity," he says.
It's fitting that he should find such an old reminder of his family's faith in Fairfield. Recently named the first E. Gerald Corrigan '63 Professor in Humanities and Social Science, this veteran member of the Sociology and Anthropology faculty is a living example of what Fairfield strives to create: He's "a man for others."
"If our graduates today could emulate the way Kurt has lived his life, Fairfield would be known for its capacity to endow the world with bright, thoughtful, well-integrated graduates," says Associate Academic Vice President Mary Frances Malone. "He is a genuinely good person. He's authentic."
Dr. Schlichting would likely blush at the thought because - like many genuinely good people - he's also genuinely humble. Not unlike the young man who, in 1966, drove his used VW Beetle past the hall his grandparents helped build for his first day of classes at Fairfield University.
Like other "day hops" from Bridgeport, he went to class and then spent time sitting in his car in the dirt lot behind Alumni Hall. With only one other parking lot (where the Barone Campus Center would someday be), they had nowhere else to go. "In that fall of 1966, many of my classmates were the first in their families to go to college," he says. Many of those same students watched with trepidation as the University became a defendant in a 1968 Supreme Court case considering federal grants to universities with religious affiliations, a decision that could have - but didn't - meant an end to crucial funding, including financial aid. "Perhaps each of us had something to prove," Dr. Schlichting says.
Graduating from Fairfield in 1970, Dr. Schlichting moved on to New York University, earning his master's degree and Ph.D. and snagging his first teaching job at Queens College a few years later. When the fiscal crisis hit New York City in the mid-1970s, he decided he'd probably have better job security elsewhere and, returning to Fairfield as a newly minted Ph.D., taught his first classes in 1974. Even then the University was taking further shape, well along in its evolution from humble beginnings to the prominent regional institution it is today. Gifts to endowment, such as the professorship established by Gerald Corrigan, will make possible Fairfield's continued trajectory of growth and recognition, positioning the University for a greater presence on the national scene.
"When I first came here in 1966, the University was really raw and new. It was one of hundreds of institutions across the country that were in the same state," Dr. Schlichting says. "We've prospered. Many haven't. This University has really grown in stature, and to be a part of that has made all of our work rewarding."
Students like American Studies major Colleen Gibson '09 find a mentor in Dr. Kurt Schlichting.
Dr. Schlichting's dedication has not gone unnoticed. In addition to teaching courses in research methodology and statistics, he has, over the years, been asked to serve his alma mater in a variety of posts. He's been the faculty associate dean, the acting dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Sociology and Anthropology department chair, even interim chair of the Communication Department. Before the University launched its formal enrollment management and institutional research efforts, he also did most of the admissions data research.
"And all this in addition to teaching full time and writing his award-winning book," says Dr. Malone, noting his intriguing Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Architecture and Engineering in New York City. "He's extraordinarily generous with his time. He's never refused this University anything it has asked of him."
Dr. Schlichting's department colleague, Dr. Rose Rodrigues, also came onboard in the 1970s and has worked closely with him on research projects, most notably a large-scale survey of Catholics in the Diocese of Bridgeport in the early 1990s. Founder and director of the Fairfield County Research Center, Dr. Schlichting has studied everything from population shifts to library usage, often on a pro bono basis. His list of clients is just as varied, including the state's Department of Children and Families, the New Canaan League of Women Voters, Washington, D.C.-based Catholic League Immigration Services, and the Voices of 9/11, for whom he conducted a national Internet survey of 2,000 people on attitudes toward 9/11 commemoration, preparedness, and terrorism.
But he always manages to tie his research to his teaching, says Dr. Rodrigues. "The thing that most impresses me, in terms of Kurt's career here, is his willingness over the years to work with students in his research projects," she says. "In any project he pursues, he's always thinking of ways to include them."
He'll have more opportunity in the coming years. As holder of the Corrigan Chair, he will mentor Corrigan research assistants, giving the next generation of sociologists invaluable experience in data analysis and digital mapping, tools that will likely shape much of their research in the future. And that's the point of any endowment - to create opportunities that change lives, influence professions, and add to current knowledge - in perpetuity.
Dr. Schlichting freely admits he loves learning and studying new things and he's not one to stick with one subject for long. Currently, he's working with colleagues from Hunter College and New York University assembling data on the migration of African-Americans who settled in Hartford. Studying census data from the 1870s through the 1930s, they're digitally mapping how once diverse neighborhoods evolved into middle class enclaves and ghettos, not the other way around. Another project for the Bridgeport-based International Institute of Connecticut evaluated assistance for and awareness of victims of human trafficking.
In his downtime, Dr. Schlichting used to play rugby, that is until he was injured, which, he chuckles, is the inevitable, abrupt end to many a career in the rough-and-tumble sport. Now he and his wife, Mary, spend time sailing, a "lifetime sport" that has evolved into some racing opportunities for him and the chance to visit her hometown of Newport, R.I., to watch top-notch competitions.
In the coming year, he'll be working on a second book, which dovetails with the subject of Grand Central Terminal, a fascinating volume that won the 2002 Best Professional/Scholarly Book Award from the Association of American Publishers. Dr. Schlichting's first book drew on the papers of William J. Wilgus, chief engineer of the Beaux-Arts masterpiece. His new work will consider Wilgus' post-GCT career, which included construction of the George Washington Bridge - and the country's parallel shift from rail to road. In his New York Times review of Grand Central Terminal, writer Eric P. Nash hailed Dr. Schlichting's ability to look "behind the façade to see the hidden engineering marvels."
That observation could serve as a review of much of Dr. Schlichting's work: As a sociologist, author, and teacher, he's constantly charged to go deeper to find out what makes people and places what they are.
"There's always a danger in being spread too thin," he says of his busy career. "But that's the beauty of this profession: You get to think about what you want to think about, and you get to bring it into the classroom. The glory of the academic world is you can follow your muse."