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04/06/94

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Youth Studies center to shut down for lack of funding

STANFORD -- After 20 years of supporting often groundbreaking research, Stanford's Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth is scheduled to shut its doors on June 30, Director Shirley Feldman, professor of sociology, announced.

The center, founded in 1974 with initial funding from Boys Town of Omaha, has produced a body of interdisciplinary work that has not only influenced scholars but affected public policy on the local, state and national level.

Feldman said the center is based on the premise that no single discipline can answer questions as complex as those faced by today's families. It promotes collaborative research among faculty from the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Education, Law and Medicine.

Essentially self-sufficient since its inception, the center conducts research that transcends disciplinary boundaries to address issues such as child custody, single parenting, day care, television and children, families and schools, depression and obesity in children, premature infants, and legal and social policy.

Feldman said that while the independent center has been successful at obtaining funding for research projects, "it has become increasingly difficult to raise money for core support." Since university support is unavailable, Feldman and her steering committee felt they had no choice but to close the center.

As a result, two staff positions will be eliminated, including the one held by Pat Shallenberger, the center's administrator for the past 15 years.

Feldman, consulting professor in human biology, said it is somewhat ironic that the center should be forced to cease operations in 1994.

"With the Clinton administration, children are once again high on the agenda of this nation," said Feldman, who took over as director in 1991. "Given our history and track record, we are ideally positioned to lead the nation in research in this area.

"It is significant that a major research university of Stanford's stature thought this topic was important enough to have its seal of approval," Feldman said. "The demise of the center represents a major loss for the nation."

The closure came as no surprise, however.

"The writing has been on the wall for some time," Feldman said. For that reason, the center has not initiated any major new projects in recent months. However, many efforts that were started under center guidance probably will be continued by the researchers involved.

Looking back, Feldman and former director Sanford Dornbusch, professor of sociology, said one of the things they will miss most are the weekly seminars of affiliated researchers.

"This is one of the few places on campus where faculty members can have interdisciplinary exchanges that really work," Feldman said. "Because the same members interacted with each other over many years, each became aware of the restrictions imposed by the assumptions of their own disciplines.

"This has resulted in a broader-based approach to the complex problems facing families and children," she said.

"Since the beginning, the leadership of the center emphasized getting people from different fields together," she said. "Without the center, these collaborations would not have taken place in the past, nor are they likely to occur in the future."

Dornbusch added: "The university is often thought of as a collection of collegial groups. But, in fact, faculty seldom get feedback from one another." The center, he said, provides a "friendly forum for constructive criticism."

Another aspect of the center Feldman and Dornbusch take pride in is its ability to foster research via "seed grants."

"To get major research funding, you have to be pretty far along in your research," Feldman said. "It's not unreasonable to have to work on pilot studies for a year or so before you can develop a project to the point where it might attract funding."

To help research efforts in their earliest stages, she said, the center would usually award between 15 and 20 seed grants a year.

As to projects the center has supported over the past 20 years, Feldman and Dornbuschoffered this "epitaph of greatest hits" among the many research efforts conducted under their auspices:

  • A pre-election analysis of state Proposition 65, the welfare reform ballot initiative, conducted by Michael Wald, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, that is considered to have had a major impact on the 1992 election. Wald found that if Proposition 65 passed, it would substantially harm the great majority of the state's poor children without accomplishing most of the reforms that proponents claimed.

"The margin by which Proposition 65 was defeated can be attributed to a Los Angeles Times editorial against it," Dornbusch said. "That editorial was based on Wald's study, which was the only scholarly work done on the topic before the election."

  • A major series conducted by Dornbusch and associates on the homeless youth and families in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Released in 1991, the studies provided a complete look at homelessness, examining homeless families rather than individuals and emphasizing the plight of homeless children. The results were widely reported locally, statewide and nationally, and have been used by policymakers.
  • Various projects on divorce conducted mostly by psychologist Eleanor Maccoby, psychology, and former faculty member Robert Mnookin, family law. For their most recent book, Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody, they tracked for four years about 1,000 California families who began divorce proceedings in 1984-85.
  • The center provided seed money in the 1980s for a major study on premature infants led by Dr. Ruth Gross of the department of pediatrics. The seed grant facilitated the receipt of outside funding for $32 million, one of the most expensive social science research efforts in history.

"This research," Feldman said, "was without a doubt the best work ever done on premature infants." It involved 1,000 children at eight medical centers around the country, and showed how early intervention could improve developmental and behavioral outcomes of premature babies.

  • A 1980s study by Wald and Dr. P. Herbert Leiderman, psychiatry, explored what happened to abused, neglected preschool children depending on whether they ended up in foster homes or were left in their abusive households.

"The question was, what was better for the children," Feldman said. "That was a question other researchers might not have raised."

And, just recently, Dornbusch led a study on tracking in high schools that showed the system of placing some students in college prep courses and others in easier courses is "harming millions of students in American society."

Tracking, he found, doesn't limit opportunities for the top tenth or so of students, but can have disastrous results for students whose abilities fall into the middle range.

While the center may be closing down, it is leaving behind a bouncing baby.

That progeny is the Curriculum on Children and Society, which was developed over the past few years by Dornbusch.

The certificate program currently has an enrollment of 90 students, up from 48 one year ago. While the center started the curriculum, attempts are under way to get the program funded by outside donors and have it administered through another department.

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