Interview with Jerry Clubb, ICPSR Director 1975-1991

By Dan Meisler, ICPSR Editor

What do you consider ICPSR's greatest achievements during your time as director?

The latter 1970s and ’80s were not good times for higher education. The national economy was marked by recession and inflation, and for an extended period the two coincided. For higher education, that meant reduced financial support coupled with rising costs. To make matters worse, the surge in enrollments and the rapid expansion of the post-World War II years were now replaced by a dwindling college-age population and the need for retrenchment. The reaction to this situation sometimes verged on panic. As one academic pundit put it: "A specter is haunting higher education: the specter of decline and bankruptcy. Experts predict that between 10 and 30 percent of America's 3,100 colleges and universities will close their doors or merge with other institutions by 1995."

Photo of Jerry Clubb

This was not an encouraging situation for ICPR. Our income was primarily derived from college and university member subscriptions, and in many cases membership fees were paid by a single department, political science. We were widely perceived as oriented toward elite institutions, as disproportionately beneficial to the University of Michigan, and narrowly concerned with electoral behavior. While these perceptions were not entirely accurate, they involved elements of truth.

The need for change was apparent. There was concern in earlier years that political science was too narrow a base to sustain the organization, and many of us recognized that it was not realizing its full potential for service to the social sciences. In the mid-’70s these concerns were more pressing, and we recognized that better realization of our potential might well be the price of survival.

Reflecting these concerns, we undertook a continuing effort to change both the orientation and perceptions of the organization. Adding the word 'social' to the name might seem merely cosmetic, but it was also an expression of reality. Through various avenues, we called attention to the value of existing ICPSR data holdings and its Summer Program for disciplines and specializations other than political science. An aggressive search for funding beyond membership income allowed us to add data relevant to other research areas without neglecting political science. We invited individuals from diverse disciplines to join our advisory committees and to participate in our governing structure. We worked at making our operations and financial management more open to our governing council, to the representatives of member institutions, and to interested social scientists more generally. To gain efficiency, we consolidated our operations and began the long, complicated, and often painful process of adapting to technological change. To make membership feasible for a greater range of institutions, we emphasized the group (federated) approach to membership. Of greater importance, we did not raise member fees for the better part of a decade, thereby allowing inflation to reduce the real costs of membership.

These efforts enjoyed some success. In the late 1970s, membership growth resumed. By the mid-1980s the membership included a large number of predominately undergraduate institutions and smaller liberal arts colleges, while the 90 or so major doctoral-granting institutions continued as members. There was indication that use of ICPSR data extended well beyond political science. But the annual Summer Program provided the best indication that the Consortium was now serving a broader and more diverse constituency. Political scientists still constituted a plurality of participants, but over two-thirds were from other disciplines and specializations. The program faculty followed a similar pattern, and these trends would continue into the future. At many, perhaps most, member institutions, the member fees were no longer borne by a single department but were seen as a multi-department obligation. The Consortium had become a much more diverse institution. Some of the suspicion of the University of Michigan had dissipated, and the University was increasingly recognized as a good and generous host.

These achievements were not solely a product of staff initiatives, although that was a central factor. Several of our major projects originated outside the Consortium. We frequently benefited from the assistance, advice, and criticism of prominent and not-so-prominent social scientists at ISR, Michigan, and many other institutions. Even the efforts of the Reagan Administration to "defund" the social sciences sometimes worked to our benefit. Reductions in funding called attention to the value of our resources and services. The equipment grants from the National Science Foundation were an expression of recognition of our value and were absolutely vital to our efforts to adapt to technological change. As the 1980s passed, the Consortium became and was increasingly seen as an important, perhaps vital, part of the social science infrastructure.

What were some of the obstacles to creation of the aging and criminal justice archives?

In my recollection, creation was not the problem, maintaining was. The initiative for both archives came from outside the Consortium. The Law Enforcement Assistance Agency approached us in 1974 and asked if we would provide archival, dissemination, and related services for data in the area of law and criminal justice. Initial funding came from LEAA and was later continued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Harold Johnson, the Director of the University's Institute of Gerontology, approached us about similar services for the field of aging and brought us into contact with the Administration on Aging. The first funding came from that agency and was continued by the National Institute on Aging. The first grants were for joint projects involving the Institute of Gerontology and ICPSR.

Law and criminal justice and aging were, of course, both disciplinary specializations — really multidisciplinary specializations — in which we had little or no substantive expertise. This compounded problems that are always present in funding continuing programs as opposed to relatively finite and limited projects. In the case of the former, peer reviewers, review committees, and agency personnel always ask questions as to whether "payoff" is sufficient, when will payoff occur, and the like. These were also service projects, which naturally provoked questions as to how much service is enough and whether funds would be better invested in actual research rather than research support. We confronted questions of this sort on a continuing basis, and they were, of course, questions that admit of no definitive answers.

These issues were painfully exacerbated by understandable questions concerning our substantive competence to carry out the projects. The argument that data are data whatever their substantive relevance, which we made, was not convincing to much of anyone, and rightly so. Problems of this sort were less severe in the case of the aging archive. Here we benefited from our association with the Institute of Gerontology. With their help we were able to assemble highly credible national and local advisory committees composed of prominent and substantively diverse social scientists. Our local university committee included specialists in demography, social gerontology, public health and medicine, and social work. A national committee was characterized by similar substantive diversity. Relatively late in my years at ICPSR, the project was also funded to support a guest resident scientist in the field of aging, which also reduced but did not eliminate questions of competence.

We employed the same approaches where the criminal justice archive was concerned but with less success. We were able to recruit a young PhD candidate in criminal justice from another university who managed to gain a good bit of credibility with the funding agency for herself and for the Consortium. Here again, difficulties of maintaining the archive were reduced but by no means eliminated.

There was, I think, a further and more nebulous problem that plagued our efforts to maintain the two archives. Both involved areas of research that were often perceived as stepchildren of the mainline social science disciplines, and their practitioners were often treated with a measure of condescension. Indeed, it was sometimes questioned whether gerontology could be regarded as a social science specialty rather than a branch of public health or medicine. The problem was more pronounced where such specializations as criminology and penology, both integral elements of the criminal justice archive's constituency, were concerned. I am afraid that we also sometimes showed a measure of condescension where the latter research areas were concerned and did not always treat the concerns of practitioners seriously enough. Getting started was not a problem, but at the end of the ’80s the two archives, particularly the criminal justice archive, were still not on a completely firm footing. I have to accept a degree of responsibility for that situation.

How important is international cooperation in social science research, and why?

I can only address this question from the perspective of ICPSR and what I thought of as its role and mission. The international memberships — national as well as individual institutions — and cooperation with data archives in other countries provide social scientists with greater access to good data regardless of national location. They also facilitate methodological exchange and cooperation in the development of what might be called data technology — data collection, management, documentation, privacy, security, and so on.

Promoting cooperation and communication between social scientists in different nations is simply part of the larger mission of the Consortium. That mission involves several elements. One, of course, is simply to increase the number of social scientists who are able to use sound data and methods in research and instruction. The greater the number of social scientists engaged in sound research, the greater the progress in developing knowledge of human behavior.

A further element is to contribute to reduction of the parochialism characteristic of the social sciences by overcoming barriers to cooperation and communication. Barriers include disciplinary boundaries, interdepartmental and interuniversity rivalries, and national borders. The social sciences are not discreet areas of inquiry but have a common subject matter, human behavior. Similarly, the issues confronted in social science are not limited to particular nations but are general. Greater communication and cooperation regardless of discipline, institution, or nationality are vital to progress.

Still a third element is to contribute to a certain democratization of social science research and instruction by providing social scientists with access to data and methodological training regardless of institutional location. Given access to sound data and methodological training, advanced research and quality instruction can occur at less prestigious institutions as well as at those of greater prestige. This was particularly important in the latter ’70s and ’80s. In those years the collapse of the job market meant that graduate students from even the most prestigious institutions could find employment only at less prestigious and less advantaged universities and colleges.

Were there any things you would have liked to get done at ICPSR but were unable to?

The list is too long to do more than begin. Probably the first thing is that we didn't progress far enough in broadening the basis and changing the orientation, or at least perceptions, of the Consortium. I thought we were moving in the right directions, but we didn't move as far or as fast as I would have liked. Fortunately, in later years a highly competent and dedicated staff was able to move a great deal further and also move in important new directions.

I also hoped that we could do more to facilitate use of data and social science methods in teaching. It seemed to me that students would find it exciting to use social science data and methods to explore concrete social issues and problems, and thereby also improve their critical thought and reasoning skills. I thought, probably naively, that this would be possible not only for undergraduates but also for students in secondary schools. Educational experiences of this sort would have important long-term value for the development of the social sciences, or so it seemed.

We did take some steps in these directions. We invested some effort, perhaps quixotically, in developing an elementary statistical software package designed for student use. A book that Erik Austin, Gordon Kirk, and I published was a kind of experiment using approaches of this sort to explore historical problems. I also experimented with use of historical data and elementary social science methods in a couple of freshman seminars. All of the results were encouraging, but the broader effort never got much beyond the wishful thinking state.

To keep things short, I will only mention one more failure. I was never able to gain the kind of recognition — monetary and in other forms — for the Consortium staff that was deserved. Fortunately, many staff members chose to remain with the Consortium even though they could have done a good deal better elsewhere. I hope that my successors have and will continue to do better.

What do you see as some of the future challenges and opportunities for ICPSR?

I have been out of the game for a long time and my information about ICPSR comes only from somewhat desultory observation "from afar." However, I imagine that the challenges of the future will remain much the same as they have always been: accurately identifying the needs of the social sciences and devising means to aid in meeting those needs. Keeping abreast of changing information technology is and always has been a major challenge, but identifying and remaining current with substantive goals and needs is a more difficult and probably more important challenge.

At the risk of registering more specific ignorance, I would guess that a major future challenge will be research at the intersection of social and biological factors in shaping human behavior. This would mean working with new forms of data and also meeting new challenges where privacy and confidentiality are concerned. But whatever the challenges of the future, the past record indicates that the ICPSR staff will be able to meet them.