In 1951 professor Dick Jessor arrived in Boulder expecting to “slum for awhile before moving to civilization on either the West or East Coast.” Instead he founded the university’s Institute of Behavioral Science and stayed for six decades. Jessor, the longest-serving faculty member at CU, spoke with writer Clay Evans from his third-floor office in the new IBS building completed in 2010 north of the Armory.
What lessons did you take away from fighting at Iwo Jima during World War II?
Almost everyone who landed with me didn’t leave, and I was sure I’d never get off the island. When I did, I realized I had another opportunity to define my life. It also taught me the utter meaninglessness of war. It wasn’t very long after the war that we were dealing with Japan as just another country. The same thing happened with Vietnam.
What do you research?
Since 1959 I have been developing a framework to better understand adolescent behavior, health and development. Known as “Problem Behavior Theory,” it has guided my studies of young people across the globe, including CU freshmen.
Beginning in 1970, we followed the lives of freshmen annually until they graduated. Then we re-contacted them when they were 28 and 30. We assessed drug and alcohol use, sexual experience, academic commitment and religious involvement, among others.
In the later assessments, we covered work life, civic participation and family and child-rearing experiences. Of particular note, we found drug use declined sharply after college as youths assumed work and family responsibilities, but those who had used drugs most heavily in college were still the heavier users when assessed at age 30.
What was the most important contribution of IBS when it was founded?
It was a complete reorganization of inquiry. Instead of looking at things by discipline, we organized around solving problems. Today, the old disciplinary organization of the university is becoming an anachronism.
How have students changed at CU?
It’s very different today — much more benign. During the McCarthy era and Vietnam, you had students looking at issues far beyond the campus, thinking about them. That doesn’t seem to be happening as much now.
You’ve climbed mountains from Cayambe in Ecuador to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. How did you get into climbing?
I remember walking out on the UMC plaza, looking up at the Flatirons and wondering out loud what it would be like to climb them. I had a female graduate student who said her husband was a climber. The next weekend he shows up at my house with a rope over his shoulder. We hiked up to the base of the Third Flatiron. He climbed up a pitch, so I followed him up. I was hooked.
Why climb mountains?
I spend my week in the most abstract world where I’m dealing with concepts. I love the immediacy of climbing. There is the excitement of being on the edge, of there always being risk involved.