September 27, 2005

Father of Hum Ec Dies

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Urie Bronfenbrenner ’38, longtime Cornell professor, co-founder of Head Start and one of the world’s most renowned developmental psychologists, died in Ithaca Sunday of complications from diabetes. He was 88.

Bronfenbrenner was the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Human Development and Family Studies and of psychology. He retired in 1987.

A giant in the field of psychology, Bronfenbrenner is credited with creating the discipline of human ecology with his 1979 theory of “human bioecology.” This breakthrough forced sociologists, economists and psychologists to reconsider child development through a more holistic lens that considered community, race and other factors. The rise of human ecology led to the drastic revision of national and international child and family development programs.

Bronfenbrenner was described by long-time colleague Prof. Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology, as a “true master” and “someone peerless.”

Prof. Emeritus Henry Ricciuti, human development, a close friend of Bronfenbrenner, said, “His death is a major loss to his many friends and colleagues, as well as to the field of human development.”

In addition to his work on the role of community and other factors in child development, Bronfenbrenner published extensively on cross-cultural studies of family and child development. He was the author, co-author or editor of more than 300 articles and chapters and 14 books, including The State of Americans, The Ecology of Human Development and, most recently, Making Human Beings Human.

Bronfenbrenner was well regarded at Cornell not just for his research findings, but also because of his close connection to students and love of teaching.

Prof. Stephen Hamilton, associate director of the Family Life Development Center, cited the immense popularity and success of Bronfenbrenner’s human development introduction course. The class, taught in Bailey Hall for many years, was so popular that the University had to set up CCTV in another lecture hall for the overflow of students. “There are Cornell graduates … who have said that they learned more about doing research in that intro course than they did in their entire graduate careers because of his teaching ability,” Hamilton said.

Lisa Staiano-Coico, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, said that when she arrived at Cornell last year, she was “amazed by how many alums’ lives he has influenced.” In addition to his work at Cornell, Bronfenbrenner co-founded Head Start, a federal child development program for low-income families, in 1965.

“We are forever grateful for the contributions he has made,” said Sarah Green, president and chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association. “I have so many powerful memories that stem from my knowledge of Urie.”

Green spoke of her last conversation with Bronfenbrenner, about four years ago, when she called to thank him for a $600 donation. He told her it was his tax refund from Bush’s newly-implemented tax breaks. He asked her to use that money, and other contributions, to fight government proposals that looked to diminish the role of parents in the Head Start program.

In more recent years, Bronfenbrenner has focused on trends in American society that, he believed, are destructive to child development.

“The hectic pace of modern life poses a threat to our children second only to poverty and unemployment,” he had stated, according to an obituatry posted on Cornell’s online news service yesterday. “We are depriving millions of children – and thereby our country – of … virtues, such as honesty, responsibility, integrity and compassion.”

Despite the looming dangers of an alienating society, Bronfenbrenner was optimistic. He explained that because the world now knows the importance of the community in raising successful children, we can invest in making those environmental factors healthier.

In 2004, Bronfenbrenner received a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Association, now known as the Bronfenbrenner Award for Lifetime Contribution to Developmental Psychology in the Service of Science and Society.

Cornell’s Life Course Institute was renamed the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Institute in 1993 in grattitude for his academic contributions.

As an undergraduate at Cornell, Bronfenbrenner double majored in psychology and music and then continued on to Harvard and the University of Michigan for graduate work in developmental psychology. He received his Ph.D. from Michigan in 1942.

Bronfenbrenner served during World War II as a psychologist in the Air Corps, the Office of Strategic Services and the Army Medical Corps. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and then joined the Cornell faculty in 1948.

Bronfenbrenner is survived by his wife, Liese, six children, 13 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. His daughter, Kate, is director of labor education research at Cornell.

The family has arranged a memorial service at Kendal of Ithaca on Oct. 8 at 3:00 p.m. Administrators at the College of Human Ecology, along with the University, are planning a service for the Cornell community, with details to be announced soon.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor