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IPR Faculty Tackle Urban Challenges at Global Conference


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Education experts take questions about university partnerships. From left: IPR associate James Spillane, Marco Oberti of Sciences Po, Charles Payne of the University of Chicago, and Steve Tozer of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

By 2050, the United Nations projects that more than two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants will live in major urban centers, rising from more than half today. At a recent international conference, several IPR faculty led and participated in sessions exploring how university research could address some of the major structural challenges to living in an increasingly urbanized world.

Global Urban Challenges: The Role of Universities” welcomed leaders from more than 25 research universities from around the world to Chicago on November 18-20. It was hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois. Participating IPR faculty were education experts James Spillane and James Rosenbaum, social policy expert Fay Lomax Cook, sociologist Lincoln Quillian, and education economists David Figlio and Morton Schapiro.

A major aim of the program was to establish better ties between the participating universities, and IPR faculty were able to connect with some of their established international partners, which included representatives from Sciences Po in France and Fundaçao Getulio Vargas in Brazil, in addition to others such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Peking University, and Mexico’s Universidad Panamericana.

The conference’s working group sessions explored research methodologies, data use, and effective researcher-policymaker collaborations, supplementing talks with case studies from around the world in which researchers have identified the best practices and most effective outcomes.

Schapiro, Northwestern president and professor, participated in a plenary session on November 19 with the presidents of the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, in which they considered how university research can help meet the challenges of urbanization. On Monday, November 18, Spillane chaired a panel that discussed how university relationships with government, nonprofit, and for-profit institutions could address the challenges of urbanization.

In a November 19 session on applying research to policy and practice, Figlio presented his study showing how an early childhood intervention for autism had a substantial positive effect on behavioral and cognitive outcomes for autistic students. The study suggests a new direction for policies—in particular, the standardization of a universal autism screening during doctors’ office visits in a child’s first two years.

Cook was chair of a November 20 session that sought to identify what is known and what challenges to expect when scaling up research and translating the findings into policy and practice, with panelists including Rosenbaum and Quillian.   

Sociologist William Julius Wilson’s idea of neighborhood poverty concentration was especially influential on assisted housing policy, Quillian argued. He pointed out how changes to housing policies in the name of reducing concentrated poverty, however, sometimes led to policies that are inconsistent with Wilson’s original conception.

Rosenbaum discussed his studies of the Gautreaux Project, where he and his colleagues documented how the desegregation of Chicago public housing led to poor black families moving into predominantly middle-class white suburbs, with some indication of improvements in their life outcomes, particularly for children. These studies generated a national discussion over housing, sparking the establishment of the 1994 Moving to Opportunity housing mobility experiment, and even led to some residential mobility initiatives where children attended better schools.

“It was fascinating to hear perspectives on translating research to policy and practice from our international panelists,” Cook said, noting the differences from research conducted in the United States.

She pointed to an international example of challenging research presented by panelist Alex Awiti, a professor at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya. He described the government's attempt to clear slums by sending their inhabitants back to their rural home areas. Despite the terrible slum conditions, the dwellers refused to leave due to the better job opportunities in the cities.

“Comparing experiences across countries allows us to have a better understanding of what is unique to the American experience and what cuts across national boundaries,” Cook said.

Conference funding was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Northern Trust, Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

James Spillane is the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change and an IPR associate. Morton Schapiro is Northwestern University President, professor, and an IPR fellow. IPR Director David Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics. Fay Lomax Cook is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow. James Rosenbaum is professor of education and social policy and an IPR fellow. Lincoln Quillian is professor of sociology and an IPR fellow.

Sources: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy and University Relations.