The Possibilities are Endless: Schlichting

Fairfield Citizen-News November 7,  2007

Being installed as the first holder of the E. Gerald Corrigan Chair at Fairfield University is a great honor for Dr. Kurt C. Schlichting, a professor of sociology and anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Not to mention, too, that the distinction will offer financial support to the studies the professor and students conduct in Connecticut communities dealing with government and nonprofit organizations. "Working with the students is really enjoyable," Schlichting said. 'These are smart youngsters. They like to be outside the classroom experiencing."

The establishment of the Corrigan Chair was announced in June, and the installation took place in October, along with the public disclosure of a $5 million gift from Fairfield University alumnus and trustee E. Gerald Corrigan, Ph.D., the managing director of Goldman Sachs. The gift also made possible the establishment of the E. Gerald Corrigan Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Schlichting is a researcher, author and political consultant. Over time, he has carried out small-scale research projects for nonprofits and local government. In 2005, he conducted a project for the National Jesuit Volunteer Core, a program similar to AmeriCorps in which young people give up a year of their personal life to improve the lives of others. That survey dealt with the impact of volunteering on the students' lives.

Schlichting always has involved students in that kind of research work. Now with grants from a research fund through the  E. Gerald Corrigan endowment, he will continue the work he enjoys doing; studying how systems work. The honor will also allow him to pay students as research assistants for the projects.

In an interview in his campus office, Schlichting discussed three community projects that engage students. One is to study women who lived at Malta House of Good Counsel, a home in Norwalk that offers shelter to homeless pregnant women and mothers of newborns. Founded in 1997 by the Order of Malta, a lay order of the Roman Catholic Church, Malta House provides a nurturing environment, support services and independent living skills to expectant mothers of all faiths and to their babies. The home accommodates 10 mothers and their children. The mothers are welcomed to stay at Malta House for one year after their baby's birth.

"If things go well, we should have a report by Christmas," said Schlichting, who noted the idea to study Malta House residents came at the suggestion of a former university trustee, the late John Swanhouse.

Schlichting and students will be conducting a survey to find out what has happened to these mothers since leaving Malta House. The purpose is to see if Malta House did indeed make a difference in their lives.

"Malta House is a perfect project," Schlichting said. "It's community-based research.

In the second project, Schlichting will be partnering with Professor of Economics Ed Deak and students to study the issue of affordable housing in Greenwich. The study came at the request of the Greenwich United Way. The group will be looking at where the employees of the town live, including those in government departments, the Board of Education and the major nonprofit agencies.

Another project deals with the International Institute of Connecticut, an immigration advocacy group based in Bridgeport. It received a grant from the Department of Justice to provide services to people who are victims of human trafficking and to build public awareness. As a recipient of the grant, the institute had to have an outside evaluator to evaluate the program. Schlichting and his students will be working to determine if these victims are aware of the services available to them through the institute.

"Part of the message of Fairfield University is a commitment to justice and engagement and this is how I can apply my expertise to the larger community," he said.

By engagement, Schichting said, "We have a responsibility to be active citizens in the community and that could take all different forms.

"We live in a society where some people have blessed lives and other people don't, right? To be good citizens we have to be engaged. Our research projects are about lending our expertise where it is appropriate. The Malta House and United Way projects are perfect examples of community-based research."

A native of Bridgeport, Schlichting is a graduate of Notre Dame Catholic High School. After graduating from Fairfield University in 1970, he earned a master's degree and a doctorate from New York University. He always has found sociology a "fascinating discipline to find out how the systems or structures work.

He also has an interest in urban life in America and has an academic interest in the history of technology. He was doing research for an academic article and found the records of the engineer William Wilgus and his work with Grand Central Terminal. He decided that the story of the terminal had not been told so he decided to write "Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Architecture and Engineering in New York," which was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2001.

He received the 2002 Best Professional/Scholarly Book: Architecture & Urbanism Award from the Association of American Publishers for the book, and is now in the proposal stage for a sequel. He is using Wilgus as the touchstone to talk about the changes that took place around the time of Grand Central from 1900 to 1920. This was a period when the railroad age was coming to an end and the automobile was coming into existence.

"That series of disjointed decisions to build bridges, car tunnels instead of improving the railroad had enormous consequences," Schichtling said. "Wilgus was in the middle of that. So, I'm using his biography to tell a larger story."

Why is he interested in that story?

"I guess I'm curious and that's important. Look, we never really solved the problem of New York, which is an island surrounded by water. When Wilgus was working we were bringing huge amounts of goods and materials onto the island of Manhattan and shipping it all over the world It was chaos. While we no longer do that on Manhattan, but a million people a day come into the city and how do you move these masses of people around is a problem that has never been solved?

"Early in his career, Wilgus advocated mass transit. He made the transition to being an engineer on the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge. He was trying to solve New York's transportation problems by improving the rail system and that was an opportunity missed. He planned a railroad tunnel from Staten Island to Brooklyn exactly where the Verrazano bridge was built Of course, he couldn't have imagined the automobile and the population explosions of Nassau and Suffolk counties, Schichtling said.

He said it would be too ambitious to think that his next book would offer solutions to solving today's transportation problems. However, he said, "We need to invest massively in mass transit. Thank god, Metro-North is still here."

The solution lies in mass transit, he said, not building a fourth lane on Interstate 95. "The focus is wrong.

"To sit here every day and watch that chaos on that two-lane parkway twice a day is chaos, really chaos.

The Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., president of Fairfield University noted that the honor bestowed to Schlichting was of special significance for the university because it involves two alumni, "who through their very distinguished careers and generosity, are committed to contributing significantly to the education of our present and future students."

Corrigan, a 1963 graduate of Fairfield University who earned his Ph.D. in economics from Fordham University, joined the New York Fed in 1968. He served as a special assistant to former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker from 1979 to 1980. He was then named president and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank where he served from 1980 to 1984, and then was appointed president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. During his tenure with the Federal Reserve, he earned a reputation for mastering the art of financial crisis management. Following his career at the Fed,. Corrigan joined Goldman Sachs in 1994 where he became a partner and managing director in 1996.

In presenting the gift to the university, Corrigan said in a press release, "I have every expectation that Fairfield University will continue to flourish in the future while maintaining its tradition of excellence and its service to the community, especially to those segments of the community that have the greatest needs."