Faculty Spotlight

February Faculty Spotlight with Professor, Neil G. Bennett

february 17 Faculty Spotlight

The CUNY Institute for Demographic Research (CIDR), located at Baruch College, brings together demographers from throughout the University and is the focal point for demographic research and training taking place at CUNY.  Professor Neil G. Bennett, who is the Director of CIDR, was among the group of faculty who helped to create this unique CUNY-wide initiative a decade ago. He talks with us about CIDR and his career in demography, what he enjoys most in teaching, and about his ongoing research projects.

Tell us about one of the courses you love to teach. What takeaway skill do you believe your students find most valuable?

I’ve taught many classes of PAF 9170, our introductory research and analysis course for graduate students.  I’ve enjoyed it immensely over the years and appreciate the main challenge posed each year:  the diversity of background in quantitative analysis among our entering students and the fear that some are burdened with on their first day of class.  I begin pretty much at square one and rapidly bring the class up to a speed that will allow them to be thoughtful consumers, and in some cases, producers of statistical information.  Even if many of our students don’t seek a career at the cutting edge of research, our goal in the program is, by the time they finish our two-semester sequence of research and methods, to make them sufficiently well-informed readers and interpreters of the news and of work being done in their field.

How did you start your career in demography?

I was an Applied Mathematics major in college and was seeking ways to apply my math in a “socially responsible” way.  Given the times, and I’m dating myself here, this means I wanted to avoid the “war machine,” and in that quest I happened upon an intro course in demography.  I was fortunate enough to have been taken under the wing by an eminent mathematical demographer and he launched my career simply with a good word to a potential employer.  I took that demography job – it turned out to be an extraordinary position for a guy who was really a babe in the woods, and in Honolulu, of all places – upon graduation to test the waters before I committed to the long haul that was necessary for a Ph.D.  I loved it and I went on to obtain my doctorate at Princeton, where there, too, I worked essentially under the private tutelage of a great mathematical demographer.  More than learn the facts and figures of demography, the greatest benefit I drew from graduate school was to learn how to “think demographically” (yes, there is such a thing).

What drove you to create the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research?

I was thrilled to join the Baruch faculty back in 1999.  But demographic research was scattered around CUNY and I wanted to belong to a community of scholars that would be greater than merely the sum of its parts.  A couple of other CUNY faculty and I approached the CUNY Central Administration and proposed the creation of both the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research (otherwise known as CIDR), of which I am the Director, and the Demography Certificate Program, now under the terrific leadership of Shiro Horiuchi of the CUNY School of Public Health.  One can earn a five-course certificate en route to a doctorate in any major discipline (e.g., Sociology, Economics, and Public Health).  Strangely enough, there was no demography program in New York and we believed it was an important niche to be filled.  To create a strong program, CUNY gave us nine faculty lines in demography – a remarkable commitment by the University – three of whom were outstanding appointments at Baruch – Deborah Balk, Frank Heiland, and Na Yin.

What is the Institute’s most notable contribution in the field?

Notable scholarly contributions must include the pathbreaking spatial demographic work by Deborah Balk, who was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow this past year, and poverty research by Sanders Korenman and Dahlia Remler, who are CIDR Faculty Associates, that resulted in the development of a new measure of poverty that improves greatly upon the flawed measure that has been used by the Federal government for decades.  The wonderful research among CIDR faculty notwithstanding, I have to say I am most proud, however, of the contribution made by CIDR to graduate student education.  We have created a welcoming intellectual home, where graduate students and faculty learn much from each other every day in both formal and informal ways.

What are some of your current research projects?

I’m in the midst of several ongoing projects, one of which is on the demography of civil conflict.  This is in collaboration with a former MPA student at Baruch, Bochen Cao, who went on to complete a Ph.D. in Demography at the University of Pennsylvania and is a truly exceptional young scholar.  We’re developing forecasting models to try to understand what kinds of factors – demographic, environmental, social, economic, political, etc. – tend to raise the odds of conflict around the world.  Ultimately, our objective is to be able to identify “hot spots,” namely, those countries at relatively high risk of experiencing armed conflict at some time in the next several years.  The hope is that, upon identification, other nations may be in a position to provide positive interventions that would cool down these areas and reduce the likelihood of conflict.

I’m also working with two doctoral students, Timothy Roeper in Economics and Eric Ketcham in Sociology, on the economic well-being of women subsequent to divorce and on the demography of same-sex unions (i.e., marital and nonmarital), respectively.  It’s very exciting work and I’m fortunate to be working with the two of them.