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Stephen Klineberg, a professor at Rice University, has been tracking demographic changes in Houston for three decades.
Stephen Klineberg, a professor at Rice University, has been tracking demographic changes in Houston for three decades.

Urban Studies

BY LYNN GOSNELL

On a perfect spring day in April, more than 700 Houstonians got together over lunch, at $100 a seat, to listen to a college professor talk about his latest research. During a slide show complete with pie charts, bar graphs, and color-coded maps, all eyes and ears were on Stephen L. Klineberg ’61 as he delivered the latest findings of the 33rd annual Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey, the longest-running study of a U.S. metropolitan area.

Conducted by phone each spring, the Houston Area Survey has tracked changes in the city’s economic base, demographic characteristics, and quality-of-life issues. Residents have expressed their opinions on ethnic relations and diversity, public safety and crime, the environment, and even that relentless headache for commuters—traffic. They’ve also weighed in on historically divisive social issues like gay rights, gun control, and capital punishment, often revealing a good deal more open-mindedness than today’s overheated political rhetoric would suggest. (For example, surveys have documented a drop in support for the death penalty.)

“Even when they’re not entirely happy with what the data are telling them,” says Klineberg, “people now see this as a kind of institutional snapshot to get every year.”

During this 2014 survey rollout event and a circuit of media appearances, Klineberg, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, manages to engage his audience with a youthful exuberance that belies his 74 years. It’s that confidence in the data, paired with a passionate concern for the city he’s called home since 1972 (through boom and bust and, for now, back to boom again), that has people hanging on every word.

“It’s Houston’s destiny—no one having chosen this—to be at the forefront of the demographic transformations occurring across all of America,” says Klineberg, during a recent interview in his decidedly modest office on Rice’s campus. “The census projections for the U.S. in 2050 is the same picture as Houston is today. So this is where the American future is being worked out.”

“He’s become a great convener of senior people from various professions that can come around and talk about solutions,” says Mustafa Tameez, the founder and managing director of the public-affairs firm Outreach Strategies. “He has built this following of people that have not just respect, but great affection for him.” A prime example of Klineberg’s convening power is realized through his work with the Center for Houston’s Future, a nonprofit that advances the city as a place to live and work.

Klineberg is an award-winning teacher—after receiving Rice University’s top teaching award eight times, he was retired from the competition in 2008. And he’s also that rare academic whose public scholarship has made him a respected voice within Houston’s civic circles. Access to education as a hedge against poverty is a key theme he touches on when talking to these groups. He’s especially concerned about a younger Houston population at risk.

Of Harris County residents under the age of 20, Klineberg notes, 51 percent are Latinos, 19 percent are African American, 8 percent are Asians, and 22 percent are Anglos. “That means that 70 percent of the young people in Harris County are Latino and African American, two groups which are the most likely to be living in poverty. If Houston’s African American and Latino young people are unprepared to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, there’s no positive future.”

Klineberg has an answer for those who find the survey’s results either surprising or frightening, or some combination of both: “Data matter.”

Eugene H. Vaughan, an entrepreneur and the founding chairman of the Center for Houston’s Future, regularly invites Klineberg to speak at the center’s Business and Civic Leadership Forum, a training ground and catalyst for local leaders to become more active in civic affairs. “He’s remarkable in the way he conveys his knowledge in a way no one else in Houston does.” To date, almost 800 people have graduated from the forum. “Because he’s been doing this survey since 1982, Houston knows itself better than any other city in the world,” says Vaughan.

Klineberg’s research has bolstered advocates of universal preschool and kindergarten. Carol Shattuck, the CEO of Houston’s Collaborative for Children, first met Klineberg decades ago at a local Quaker Meetinghouse.

“He says frequently in his work that if we don’t make sure that these children get through high school and to a two- or four-year credential, we will live in a very different community 20 or 30 years from now,” Shattuck says.

It’s ironic that Houston owes this wealth of self-knowledge, in part, to the great oil and gas crash of 1982. A few years ago, Klineberg was the subject of a documentary titled Interesting Times: Tracking Houston’s Transformations Through 30 Years of Surveys. In the 24-minute video, he recounts the story of how the survey started, ended, and then continued.

“It was a one-time survey back in 1982. Houston was booming! Two months later, the oil boom collapsed and 100,000 jobs were lost by the end of 1983. We said, my god, we better do this survey again. … And for 30 years, my students have been … asking people identical questions over the years. How do you see the world? What is happening in your life? We’ve sat back and watched the world change.”

Klineberg grew up in New York and attended schools in both Europe and the U.S. before setting foot on Haverford’s campus in 1957. His Quaker upbringing (his father was Jewish, his mother was Quaker, and Klineberg and his two siblings were raised as Quakers) has made him a natural advocate for the underprivileged and for Houston’s diverse population. “The one belief you have to have as a Quaker is that there is that of God in every person,” he says. “I came [to Houston] with that prejudice of equality, a prejudice of equal value and equal worth.”

After graduation (B.A. in psychology), he married his Bryn Mawr sweetheart, Margaret Kersey, and went on to earn degrees from the Sorbonne and Harvard. After a brief stint at Princeton, he joined Rice’s sociology faculty.

Klineberg, who served for many years on Haverford’s Board of Managers and as a member of the Corporation (which focuses on enriching the College’s Quaker character), says his next project is to write the definitive book that sums up and analyzes the wealth of data he’s collected over the years. “There hasn’t been a significant book written about Houston since 1991,” he says.

As co-director of the Kinder Institute, he’s also working to broaden the center’s impact. “The goal is not only to do research that is transparently reliable, but to use that research to inform and inspire the community on which it is based—to be a catalyst for informed decision-making.”

In the meantime, Rice’s campus holds a special joy for Klineberg and his wife—three grandchildren are enrolled there as undergraduates.

Reflecting on his undergraduate education, Klineberg says, “What Haverford does so well is say, ‘It’s not enough just to know things; you need to make the world a better place. There’s a powerful statement in Quakerism, ‘Let your life speak.’ ”

As a teacher and scholar whose reputation extends far outside the 100-acre campus of Rice University, Klineberg’s life not only speaks, it speaks in a way that invites people to listen to what he—and the data—have to say.

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer issue of Haverford magazine.

Lynn Gosnell is a freelance writer and editor in the ever-fascinating city of Houston.

The Climbing Stone, by Peter Rockwell '58, is located outside Magill Library.

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