SESP Celebrates Bart Hirsch’s Career

SESP Celebrates Bart Hirsch’s Career

Bart HirschBart Hirsch

School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) faculty member Bart Hirsch is known as an exceptional mentor – demanding and responsive in equal measure.  Combining encouragement with frankness and high expectations, he has always pushed his most capable students out of their comfort zone.

Those qualities were exactly what drew people like Maria Pagano to SESP. 

“I picked him before applying to Northwestern,” said Pagano (PhD01), who received her doctorate in three years and is now associate professor of child psychiatry at Case Western University. “I saw that he could teach me something. As a development psychologist, he always keeps an eye on where you’re at.”

Pagano was one of several former students who recently returned to Northwestern University’s Annenberg Hall to help commemorate and celebrate Hirsch’s upcoming retirement and a SESP career that spanned more than three decades. In addition to tributes from Dean David Figlio, faculty members Carol Lee and James Spillane, and Assistant Dean Susan Olson, the gathering featured speeches from two of Hirsch’s former students – and later co-authors – Nancy Deutsch (PhD04) and David DuBois.

“Bart helped set the tone and tenor for the school today,” Figlio said. “He played an outsized role in SESP’s history and development by contributing in important ways at key times.”

Hirsch, a professor of human development and social policy whose work emphasized the importance of positive youth development programs, began his career as a quantitative researcher and later discovered the joys of collecting qualitative data. He wrote a trilogy of books looking at urban after-school programs and championed the idea that providing minority youth with “soft” skills would help them better prepare for jobs.

Early days at SESP

Hirsch joined SESP in 1986 where he supported not just students, but junior faculty members, including Lee -- who also will be retiring in June. Barely three years after arriving, he agreed to chair the executive committee during an especially turbulent time when there was considerable conflict between the dean and the faculty.

On two separate occasions, he chaired the Human Development and Social Policy Program (HDSP). During his first meeting as HDSP chair, Hirsch proposed increasing the number of students placed at top universities by strengthening the training program.

“There was enthusiastic support for this initiative, and we reshaped the program in many different ways, effectively changing its culture,” Hirsch said. “This effort paid off quickly.  The group of students that entered the program during my first year as chair accepted faculty positions at Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Washington.  And we’ve continued to place students at top schools ever since.”

As a researcher, Hirsch is known for collaborating with human resources professionals to develop a mock job interview for high school students, an assessment that generated important findings about soft skills and led to his most recent book, Job Skills and Minority Youth: New Program Directions (Cambridge University Press, 2015.)

Hirsch presented his research group’s findings as part of a White House summit called “Beating the Odds: Successful Strategies from Schools and Youth Agencies That Build Ladders of Opportunity,” which was part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, coordinated by the Department of Education.

“A focus on soft skills allows schools to reframe how they think about the relationship among education, academic curriculum, and employment,” Hirsch wrote. “Such a reframing will help... youth get jobs and will be valuable whether students go to college or not.”

In 2012, Hirsch and co-authors Deutsch and DuBois won the social policy book award from the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) for After-School Centers and Youth Development: Case Studies of Success and Failure (Cambridge University Press, 2011) which was based on an intensive study of Boys & Girls Clubs.

Hirsch’s first book, A Place to Call Home: After-School Programs for Urban Youth won the SRA award in 2006, making him the award’s first two-time winner.

A caring mentor

Beyond his research, however, Hirsch was known for his generosity as a mentor during and after the SESP experience, his expressive features – students said they could always tell what he was thinking -- and his ability to balance the demands of academic life with his family.

“Bart bent over backward to give me not just the support but the confidence I needed,” said DuBois, a professor in the Division of Community Health Sciences within the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studies the effectiveness of mentoring programs. “He has a sincere concern for his students and their development as a scholar. He’s not churning people through the mill.”

Like Pagano, Deutsch also came to SESP for her doctorate largely for the opportunity to work with Hirsch. “Bart was both my most honest critic and fiercest champion,” said Deutsch, professor and director of Youth-Nex, a prominent youth development research center at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. “He brings out the best in you because he knows it is there. It’s easy to be a demanding mentor. And it’s easy to be supportive. Balancing the two is difficult, but Bart showed me that it can be done.”

Today, when Deutsch has a difficult conversation with a student, she channels Hirsch, remembering how she did her best when he was direct and truthful. She also works to emulate his commitment to community-based work that responds to the needs of real kids, real programs, and real communities.

“Thank you, Bart, for always seeing in your students what we may not have known was there ourselves,” Deutsch said, capping off the tributes. “And for both pushing us intellectually and supporting us professionally to be those best selves.”


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/1/18