Honoring the program Richard P. Taub built

This June, over 130 students will graduate from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Studies (PBPL)—by far the largest graduating class in program history. All of these soon-to-be-graduates conquered the daunting rite of the BA thesis process.

On June 1 at Noon in Classics 110, three of these graduating students will receive the first annual Richard P. Taub BA Thesis Prize at the senior recognition lunch. Also beginning this year, PBPL will host the first Richard P. Taub Annual Lecture.

Richard P. Taub himself, the longtime UChicago professor who built the PBPL major, will deliver the inaugural Taub lecture and hand out the Taub Thesis Prize plaques at the lunch.

Although Taub came to the University in 1969 for its world-class South Asia studies program because of his own early research in India, he shifted his focus to directing the fledging Public Affairs program in the 1970s.

“I started the program with three students in the major, and no one knew what public affairs were—except that it sounded a little bit like it related to politicians’ sex lives,” Taub said.

In an attempt to make the sputtering Public Affairs major more appealing, Taub implemented three changes in the mid-70s: he changed the name to “Public Policy Studies”; he created the research practicum course; and he gave students the opportunity to get credit for interning with a not-for-profit.

Taub said the new identity for the major removed some of the theoretical aspects that other majors had, and established “a window out of the ivory tower into the real world.” As Taub puts it, the major became a home for both “bookish and non-bookish students,” something the University did not have at the time. The major remains a place where students can explore theory and practice, with an emphasis on rigorous research and writing.

Taub also established introductory courses for PBPL majors including a sociology and policy course, a political science and policy course, and an economics and policy course in an effort to create a multidisciplinary intellectual foundation for the major.

In the decades that followed, Professor Taub was the only faculty member in the Public Policy Studies program. Taub taught “Policy Implementation” (the sociology and policy course) while professors from other departments taught other courses in the program.

As the major grew, demand for more instructors emerged. Taub sought out a faculty member who would be “a really good economist who also believes that there is a role for the government in economic activity.”

It was with this logic that he hired current director Jim Leitzel in 1998. Chad Broughton, who was Taub’s TA for “Policy Implementation” several times in the 1990s as a graduate student in sociology, joined as senior lecturer in 2006.

Taub’s curricular innovations, teaching, mentoring, hirings, and program stewardship eventually led to what is now among the most popular majors in the College with nearly 450 majors—and the largest major by far to require a BA thesis. Taub cites the period in which Leitzel, Broughton, senior lecturer Sabina Shaikh, and program administrator Lee Price all joined the PBPL program as the time that the major grew into what it is today.

The major thrived over Taub’s extraordinary 45 years at the University, during which time he crossed paths with thousands of students and earned many titles, including the Paul Klapper Professor in the Social Sciences, the Chairman of the Department of Comparative Human Development, and Professor in Sociology. In addition, Taub authored seven books during that time, including There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America, co-authored with William J. Wilson.

Now 81 and retired, it is his time with students that he remembers most fondly. Taub recounted how his former students often stop him on the street in Washington D.C., New York, and Boston, and he loves this continued connection. In fact, this past week Taub received a letter from a student he had in 1980 thanking him for his class—a class that had stuck with him through the years.

When Taub learned about the annual prize and lecture being named in his honor, he said he was "totally surprised and very happy about it. I loved all of my years at the University and like having some kind of continuing memorial.”

Honoring the founder of PBPL, the Taub Thesis Prize will be presented each year to three graduating students, each of whom will receive a $250 award. This year, 20 BA theses were nominated for the selective new award.

“We’ve had a stellar batch of BA thesis projects from our fourth-years in 2017-2018,” Broughton said. “It’s been a real challenge for us to winnow it down to the 20 that are under consideration. It will be even more difficult to select just three from all these terrific projects.”

When asked about what the committee looks for when choosing a winner, Broughton identified original and extensive research and exceptional writing as two key factors.

“It’s a high standard, even for practicing scholars, but the committee wants to see that students strive to create new knowledge, to make an intellectual and empirical contribution of some kind,” he said. Similarly, Taub admires “deep research on a topic that has social consequences.”

Dean of the College John W. Boyer will introduce Professor Taub at the lunch. Boyer highlighted the evolution of the program and Taub's devotion to his students.

“The Public Policy Studies major in the College is an extremely imaginative, interdisciplinary program that now draws upon significant and widespread support from the faculties of the College, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and the Division of the Social Sciences."

"The current success of the program would have been impossible without the  creative leadership of Professor Richard Taub, who first founded the program in the 1970s. Richard’s devotion to our students is legendary, and his deep commitment to transdisciplinary research and teaching established flexible models of curricular innovation from which the Public Policy Studies major has profited greatly over the past forty years.”

Taub said he is looking forward to presenting the awards to the first annual Taub Thesis Prize winners on June 1.