Norwich schools alum now a prestigious MacArthur Fellow

Betsy Levy Paluck, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, is seen Sept. 20, 2017, in Princeton, N.J. (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Betsy Levy Paluck, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, is seen Sept. 20, 2017, in Princeton, N.J. (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Princeton University psychology professor and 1996 Norwich Free Academy graduate Betsy Levy Paluck was sitting in her office one September afternoon, meeting with a group of her graduate students and research assistants talking about their latest projects in what she called the “emerging science of social networks.”

The phone rang, and the female caller told Paluck immediately to “go to a place where we can speak confidentially.” Nervous, Paluck cleared the room for the bombshell.

On the other end of the line, MacArthur Foundation Managing Director Cecelia Conrad was in a room with staff of the MacArthur Fellows Program. She was calling to announce that Paluck was one of 24 “extraordinarily creative people who inspire us all,” as the foundation website labeled the 2017 recipients of its MacArthur Fellowship grants. Those chosen, from all over the world, also include Middletown composer and musician Tyshawn Sorey.

After Paluck recovered her senses, Conrad told her she had to keep it an absolute secret for weeks until the Oct. 11 public announcement.

“They said I could only tell one person,” Paluck said this past week. “I could not choose between my mother and my father, so I told them both.”

Paluck, 39, was born in New London, the oldest child of Alan Paluck and Anne Levy Paluck. The family soon afterward moved to Norwich, where she attended public schools: the Thomas Mahan Elementary School, Teachers’ Memorial Junior High and NFA, where she played volleyball, basketball and ran track. Paluck earned a bachelor’s degree in 2000 and a Ph.D. in 2007 at Yale University.

She now teaches psychology at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton University and lives in Princeton with her 2-year-old son, Lev.

Her father was a special education teacher and later administrator in New London Public Schools. Her mother was a librarian at various libraries throughout southeastern Connecticut. Her younger brother, Nathan, 34, now lives and works in Mexico.

The MacArthur Fellows Program grant — $625,000 spread over five years, no strings attached — thrilled Paluck on many levels, she said. Her field of psychology and social research is neither glamorous nor in the spotlight. The entire award process remains secret, from the nominators to the selection process. The foundation accepts no unsolicited nominations and doesn’t reveal to the recipients how their name came forward.

Paluck knew about the foundation fellows and always loved reading about their accomplishments.

“It was a really meaningful day,” she said of the Oct. 11 public announcement, “because everybody, from old friends to colleagues to family members to neighbors, reached out to me. It was kind of like having a wedding. People from different parts of your life get in touch with you.”

That even includes her former teachers and leaders of her hometown public schools.

Paluck’s NFA honors English teacher Geoff Serra sent her a congratulatory email upon learning of her award.

“She was brilliant, humble, and one of the kindest, open-hearted, tolerant people I have had the privilege of knowing,” Serra said. “She was a scholar in every sense of the word, and her accomplishment comes as no surprise to me. All of us at Norwich Free Academy are excited by Betsy's noble work and recognition.”

Norwich public school Superintendent Abby Dolliver also looked up Paluck’s achievements and called her an “accomplished alum."

“We are honored that a Norwich Public Schools graduate has received this honor,” Dolliver said in an email response to the award. “We are continuing with our focus to provide NPS students with excellent learning opportunities so that our current students can achieve in the future as did Betsy Levy Paluck. We are proud that she is an alum of NPS!”

Paluck said she is a strong proponent of public school education. She was equally thrilled to learn that her Mahan School recently earned a National Blue Ribbon School designation for the success of minority students.

“That’s awesome,” Paluck said of Mahan’s award. “I got a great education there. Going to public schools is really important to me,” she said. “I got a great education in public schools in Connecticut. I’m a big supporter of public education.”

Paluck launched her career studying social behaviors and perceived social and emotional “norms,” including violence and prejudice, tolerance and acceptance, from 2003 to 2006 in Rwanda. That country was mired in a bloody civil war in 1994, when ruling Hutus engaged in a genocide against another ethnic group, killing more than 500,000 Tutsis. The violence was spurred by Hutu government anti-Tutsi rhetoric that started in the early 1990s.

Paluck participated in a research project designed to measure how mass media could influence one segment of the population to turn on another. Her 2004-05 study centered on a popular radio soap opera that included themes of tolerance and intermingling relations between Tutsis and Hutus. In the early 1990s, another popular radio show — even among Tutsis, she said — had turned increasingly anti-Tutsi, with ethnic jokes and provocations toward violence.

But by 2004, the new soap opera might have had the reverse effect, showing the Tutsis and Hutus interacting with one another in everyday life.

“It wasn’t technically successful at teaching people what they should think, but it was very successful at sensitizing people (to) what other people were thinking,” Paluck said, a theme she would pursue in future studies. “They walked away from this radio program thinking ‘while I might not believe in interracial marriage ... we as a people should be allowing our kids to marry kids from another group.'”

It wasn’t totally surprising, she said. Other research had shown that mass media might not be successful at telling individuals what to think, but it broadcasts what others are thinking and doing, signaling bigger trends in society. While the study in Rwanda lasted about a year, she and fellow researchers spent three years setting it up, doing field studies, hundreds of interviews and other related studies.

She said Hutus revealed they didn’t start out hating their Tutsi neighbors, and had associated with them and lived and worked together. But when the violence started, they were encouraged to participate, even attacking fleeing unarmed Tutsis.

“When the violence started, they said it was like violence became the law,” Paluck said of the mid-1990s Rwanda media. “The media constantly reported how people were joining the movement, joining people at roadblocks attacking Tutsis trying to flee. The media was constantly telling people how important it was to help out. That everyone was joining.”

Five years later, as a professor at Princeton, Paluck wanted to bring the lesson home.

In a project funded through grants from the William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation and Russell Sage Foundation, Paluck launched a study of social norms in the realms of bullying, intolerance and violence among students in middle school. She and two research co-authors enlisted 56 New Jersey middle schools to participate, half for active involvement and half for just observation as a control.

In the active study schools, the top 10 percent of students identified by their peers as “the most influential” — kids they respected, wanted to hang out with, wanted to emulate — were treated as “independent thinkers” and recruited to develop campaigns to reduce conflict and violence, well beyond “just say no to bullying,” Paluck said.

The students came up with their own campaigns, from posters to wrist bands, speeches and actions. The theory was that more students would pay attention to these students they themselves had identified as influential, the social leaders of their various networks.

“We felt if they spoke up, their peers would update their ideas on what was normal, because of what these influential people were thinking,” she said. “Their word would have a greater effect because they are influential.”

The result was similar to what happened in Rwanda: an influential media campaign might not have changed an individual’s feelings, but it did change their perception of what other students felt about prejudice, bullying and violence.

More recently, Paluck turned her attention to influential institutions, mainly the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2015, she examined how the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage increased the perception that same-sex marriage was becoming acceptable. Again, she said, the ruling didn’t change personal feelings, but both sides were more likely to say that more Americans would accept same-sex marriage.

“We’re going to have a lot more opportunities to study the reactions to Supreme Court rulings,” Paluck said. “The Supreme Court is very well respected. When we talk about legitimacy as social scientists, the Supreme Court is a body accepted by the people.”

The MacArthur Fellowship grant does not require Paluck or the 23 other recipients to accomplish anything specific with their new funding. According to the summary of the program on the foundation’s website, the grants are intended to “encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations.”

Foundation spokesman Andrew Solomon declined to be interviewed, saying the foundation prefers to give all the attention to the award recipients.

“I’m just going to keep doing the research that I do,” Paluck said. “This is just going to help me do the research better.”

She hopes to train students in how to do the types of research she engages in, including extensive field studies and numerous interviews with people involved in the study. She called the projects “risky,” because outside factors can interrupt. For example, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey during her middle school study, shutting down half the schools during the study.

“And I want to get the public more involved,” she said. “In all of my work, I’ve learned the most from people outside the ivory towers. There are so many practitioners and politicians and people with good understanding on how the world works."

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: MacArthur Foundation Managing Director Cecelia Conrad was in a room with staff of the MacArthur Fellows Program. An earlier article misidentified who was in the room with her.

MacArthur Foundation criteria

MacArthur Foundation lists three criteria for selection of fellows:

1. Exceptional creativity

2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments

3. Potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work

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