Richard Jessor, distinguished professor of behavioral science and co-founder of IBS, retires after 70 years of service to CU Boulder
Three sentinels watch over Richard Jessor’s desk: a disarmed Japanese hand grenade, a vial of Iwo Jima’s sand and a Purple Heart medallion.
They signify Jessor’s 28 days as a U.S. Marine on the island of Iwo Jima in World War II. And they foreshadow his decades as a pioneering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Now 96, Jessor retired in June. He is the longest-serving faculty member in CU Boulder history, having taken his first position here, as assistant professor of psychology, in 1951.
During the ensuing 70 years, he co-founded and later directed the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS), became a distinguished professor and conducted pioneering research that laid the foundation for Problem Behavior Theory.
Along the way, he played key roles in pivotal times: He wrote an influential report on the lack of ethnic diversity on campus, and he found himself in the eye of a storm of campus unrest in the 1960s.
But all of that came after Iwo Jima.
With the financial help of his family, which was “really quite poor,” Jessor was studying at the College of the City of New York in 1943. There, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, which sent him to Yale University. From Yale, he went to war.
Jessor was in the fourth wave of Marines to land on Iwo Jima, which the Japanese had heavily fortified. Jessor leapt from the landing craft, which was stuck in volcanic sand and under merciless artillery fire. His first sight was a fellow Marine, lying on his back, blood bubbling from his mouth.
“That was my introduction to war,” Jessor said.
After four days of fighting, he and his company were pulled from the front line and allowed to write one letter. Jessor wrote his parents. He thanked them for everything. And he said goodbye. “I don’t think I’ll get off the island alive,” he wrote.
Back in battle, other Marines were taking souvenirs from dead Japanese soldiers, and the Marines were particularly interested in Japanese flags, which were often tied around the soldiers’ waists.
Jessor remembers emerging from his foxhole one morning and seeing the body of a Japanese soldier nearby. Jessor bent over to see if the man had a flag under his shirt.
“And as I’m bending over, I see that he has letters in a pocket on his shirt,” presumably from the man’s family. “I suddenly have this epiphany: I have letters in my pocket in my shirt.”
“I was like, what are we doing here? What is this about? What difference could it make?”
At that time, Jessor notes, he had already said goodbye to his parents. He vowed never to go to war again, whatever the reason. “I made a personal resolve that I wanted to do something that made a difference. And that has really animated me from that time on.”
Jessor kept that resolve.
Returning to America, and academics
After the war, Jessor earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1946, his master’s at Columbia University in 1947, and his PhD from Ohio State University in 1951. Jessor focused on clinical psychology.
Victor Raimy, a psychologist who moved from Ohio State to Boulder, invited Jessor to join the CU Boulder faculty as part of its clinical-psychology unit. Jessor was hired by Karl Muenzinger, who was then chair of the psychology department and whose namesake building on campus houses the department today.
As Jessor describes it, he worked in that area for several years, until he decided that, “I couldn’t change the world one person at a time.”
He sought opportunities to undertake “large-scale community research on important social problems.” One way to accomplish this, he reasoned, was to capitalize on the synergy of scholars from different disciplines working together to understand complex problems.
To catalyze such research, Jessor and a colleague co-founded the Institute of Behavioral Science in 1957. The institute champions interdisciplinary, collaborative work to understand complex social behaviors, employing researchers from social and behavioral sciences.
Jessor and a colleague pitched the idea of IBS to the CU president, Ward Darley, in 1956. At the time of their meeting, Darley was sick and in bed at the president’s home, which is now the Koenig Alumni Center on campus.
Once they found the president’s bedroom, Darley asked them, “What do you boys want?” Standing by his bedside, “We laid out our proposal in some detail, after which he said he approved and that we should proceed with our plans,” Jessor recalled.
Later, Jessor led a research project in the small Colorado town of Ignacio, then home to about 3,000 people. Working with interdisciplinary researchers, Jessor and colleagues set out to understand why different ethnic groups had different rates of excessive alcohol use and “other forms of deviant behavior.”
I made a personal resolve that I wanted to do something that made a difference. And that has really animated me from that time on."
The result was Jessor’s first book, published in 1968, Society, Personality, and Deviant Behavior: A Study of a Tri-Ethnic Community. In the journal Social Sciences Review, a colleague of Jessor’s hailed the work as a “truly pioneering effort in the field of interdisciplinary behavioral research.”
That work laid the foundation for what later became Problem Behavior Theory, which has been described as a way of predicting the likelihood that adolescents will engage in unconventional or deviant behavior, both in their youth and later in life.
It also buttressed Jessor’s academic career, during which he wrote or edited more than 140 publications, including 13 books. He has been named a Highly Cited Researcher by Clarivate Web of Science, which is a designation reserved for researchers who are ranked in the top 1% of citations (which are a measure of academic influence).
He served as the director of IBS’s Research Program on Problem Behavior from 1966-1997 and as the IBS director from 1980-2001. Additionally, he’s won a host of fellowships and awards and was named a distinguished professor of behavioral science in 2005.
Through it all, Jessor remained committed to interdisciplinary research, which can be seen as a buzzword now and, Jessor said, was a buzzword in the 1950s. He noted that what some view as interdisciplinary work could be as simple as publishing a book in which one chapter is written by an economist, another by a psychologist, a third by a sociologist and so on.
In such cases, Jessor said, the scholars are doing what they would normally do: work within the confines of their own disciplines. He distinguishes that approach from “true interdisciplinarity,” which he describes as “a conceptual framework that borrows concepts from multiple disciplines and organizes them in a coherent way.”
He noted that his landmark research in Ignacio, Colorado, exemplified this approach. “It showed me that you could do hard-headed social science in the actual communities in which those problems reside.”
Life on campus and beyond
Jessor was also an important actor in key chapters in the university history.
For instance, in 1970, Jessor chaired a CU Faculty Council committee charged with studying the marked absence of non-white students on the Boulder campus.
Jessor wrote the committee’s report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity and the University of Colorado.” Later known as the Jessor Report, the document noted the “bleak fact” that “access to colleges and universities has been open only in a token sense to youth who belong to America’s main minority groups.”
The Jessor Report marked the beginning of the university’s attempts to improve access to higher education. It was cited in CU Boulder’s 2019 Inclusion, Diversity, and Excellence in Academics Plan.
Jessor noted that the university still grapples with issues he raised in 1970. “I wrote about the fact that faculty don’t feel comfortable moving to Boulder because it’s all white, and what we have to do is make provisions for housing our faculty here” so non-white faculty can have a community in Boulder instead of commuting to Denver.
Earlier, Jessor played a key role in helping the university understand campus unrest. In the late 1960s, former CU President Joseph Smiley appointed Jessor to his Commission on the Academic Community, which was charged with examining the causes of student unrest.
After a year-long investigation, Jessor wrote the commission’s “Report to the President,” which found a widespread animosity among students, faculty and staff to the CU Board of Regents. The report noted that some viewed the regents as the enemy of the university.
The late Joseph Coors, then a regent, took exception to the report and confronted Jessor as the professor sat at a table in the University Memorial Center. Jessor recalled that Coors, who was quite tall, was “towering above me and shaking his finger at me, and saying, ‘Professor Jessor, you have just damaged the university.’”
Outside of academic life, Jessor has been physically active for decades. He credits mountain climbing with helping to keep him at CU Boulder even when other universities made enticing offers to leave.
Jessor has joined mountaineering expeditions and summited peaks in South America and the Himalayas. He describes climbing as “multi-dimensional,” challenging and a good way to approach aging.
He summited Peru’s Ishinca Peak, which is 18,200 feet, at the age of 80, and he continued climbing until he was 85.
I wanted to be in the world in full possession of who I was not just cognitively, but physically. And so part of it was, ‘How do I age and, and remain in charge of this last part of my life trajectory.’"
“I wanted to be in the world in full possession of who I was not just cognitively, but physically. And so part of it was, ‘How do I age and, and remain in charge of this last part of my life trajectory.’”
He continued: “I wanted it to be interesting, challenging: that is, a continuation of how I lived earlier parts of my life, rather than a transformation into sedentariness.”
Jessor ran his first New York Marathon at age 65, then ran it each year for the next seven years.
He has also bicycled extensively with Jane Menken, a distinguished professor of sociology who succeeded Jessor as IBS director. The two distinguished professors are also married.
Last year, at 95, Jessor gave up cycling because he was less sure of his balance. The idea of winding up in the hospital with a fracture was not appealing, he said. Still, his outlook remains positive.
He recalls Iwo Jima and says the experience probably strengthened him in ways that he’s not totally aware of.
“I sometimes actually verbalize it: If I could get through Iwo, well, I can get through anything.”