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CURA director Tom Scott retires

Center for Urban and Regional Affairs director Tom Scott has been with the U more than 30 years

By Peggy Rader

Tom Scott

October 20, 2009

You've directed a highly visible and successful research and engagement center at the University of Minnesota for 30 years. What do you say at the time of your retirement?

If you're Tom Scott, a low-key political scientist, who has just stepped down as director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), you say with a smile, "I didn't expect to do it for so long."

When asked to list the highs and lows over 30 years, he continues in that low-key vein. "Not any huge peaks and valleys. To me, the important thing is what the University is doing and what CURA is doing to support that. I like the land-grant mission—good teaching, good research, and connecting those two activities through work with the community. Every time we can accomplish something in that broader context, we've done well."

The mere survival of CURA is a feather in Scott's cap. It has remained viable and well respected through sometimes tempestuous politics both within and outside the University, and survived occasional bouts of indifference to urban issues that might have broken a center with less gravitas.

Deep roots
Other similar centers were founded around the United States—almost all, like CURA, during the years of urban unrest in the 1960s when universities were called upon to help bring the vision of civil rights into reality. Almost all have disappeared, sometimes through lack of funding, sometimes by being incorporated into a university’s design school or urban planning unit.

Under Scott's leadership, initiatives have bloomed within CURA and then been adopted and sustained by external organizations or University units. "We hosted early biomass research and GIS work," he says. "We did a video on agricultural pollution in southeast Minnesota and an environmental course catalog. We were pioneers on some of these issues, and now the University has an entire Institute on the Environment."

Other CURA research areas have included the study of aging (now housed in the School of Public Health) and public design (now in the College of Design).

Scott characterizes CURA as an "oddball" structure within the University, and he’s fought to preserve its unique status as it has been moved from one vice president to another. Currently it’s under the senior vice president for system academic administration.

"To me, it was essential that we remain linked closely to research and teaching," Scott says. A critical part of Scott's strategy has been strong faculty involvement in CURA's work—not surprising for a professor who has headed the University's faculty consultative committee and served as a department chair.

"I used what I call the seduction model to get faculty to do projects with us," he says. "I would tell faculty members that coming here to do research would be good for them, good for our community partners, would help educate a graduate student, and contribute to the teaching standards of the University."

As a result, faculty support has remained steady and, Scott says, the administrations that have followed that of Malcolm Moos, who was president when CURA was founded, have been supportive "because we've done enough kinds of things to create linkages with faculty from across the University."

Esther Wattenberg, a professor in social work, a nationally known researcher in child welfare, and a policy and program coordinator at CURA, says working with Scott has always been full of surprises. "Along with his clear-headed knowledge of complicated systems both inside and outside of the University, Tom was usually ready to add sharp and witty observations on the political scene, ecclesiastical calls for moral duty, and quick solutions to the frailties of the human condition," she says.

Scott is valued by not only internal colleagues but also external partners. Mike Brinda, former director of the Minneapolis Neighborhood Employment Network, remembers his work with Scott as a time when important linkages were created between academics and public workforce policy.

"The importance of basing public policy on a solid research footing is often overlooked in favor of the politically expedient," Brinda says. "Tom always advocated for the step back, the second look. He was always ready to identify the real problem, assemble a team that could address the problem, and then work with us to provide practical solutions."

Scott initially got involved in the center through his urban studies research as a political scientist. "I wasn't particularly involved in getting CURA started," he says. "It had a very activist focus in its early years and I wasn't interested in activism. John Borchert was CURA's first director. But after I stepped down as department chair, I took a half-time position in CURA." When Borchert began a phased retirement from CURA, Scott found himself phasing into the director's chair.

 "The nature of our work is always in a process of change," Scott says. Most recently, "the term 'engagement' hit the streets. It's a shift in how we think about our work, and the emphasis on the value of public engagement, community engagement, has given what we used to call outreach more legitimacy in relation to research and teaching."

Scott understands the drive to provide more commitment to and higher visibility for engagement activities on U.S. campuses. "In a time of increased accountability," he says, "public universities need to answer questions from the public, who are asking: 'What are we getting for our money?'"