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The Q&A: William Fulton

In this week's Q&A, we interview William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

William Fulton, the new director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

William Fulton is the new director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, with extensive public education research projects. Fulton has served as director of planning and economic development for the city of San Diego. He was founder of the think tank Solimar Research Group and remains publisher of California Planning & Development Report. Fulton served as mayor of his hometown of Ventura, Calif., from 2009 to 2011. Fulton is the author of several books, including Guide to California Planning, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles and The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl, which he co-authored with Peter Calthorpe.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: You were selected as the new director of the Kinder Institute in the fall. What direction is the research headed now?

William Fulton: Since its founding in 2010, the Kinder Institute has focused on urban metropolitan issues associated with greater Houston. The signature research project is the Houston Area Survey, which has been traditionally undertaken by sociology professor Stephen Klineberg. That is the longest-running annual survey of residents in any American city. The Kinder Institute currently does a bunch of other urban research, including public education and urban health.

What we are now trying to do is broaden the institute’s role, both on campus, in the city and also nationally. The institute has been largely housed in the sociology department up until now. We have made it an independent, freestanding think tank. We are partnering with architecture, civil engineering, computer science and a bunch of other departments to try and broaden the scope and define topics we are going to undertake. Our goal is to not just think but do, in the sense that we want to identify urban issues, use our research to help find solutions and then work with civil and political partners to actually implement the solutions on the ground to see if they work. In addition to that, work with other think tanks, other universities, other cities around the country, to improve Houston and other American cities, from this research and implementation. So it is more like a think-do tank, rather than just a think tank.

Trib+Edu: What are the current goals for education research?

Fulton: One of our current programs is the Houston Education Research Consortium. It is a partnership with Houston ISD, where we have a very large, confidential database of student performance and we use that database in collaboration with HISD to do research projects. We are assessing how various programs of HISD are performing. That is the biggest research project associated with education. Mostly what we do is try to fulfill the university’s research mission, not its education mission. Rice has always had a very strong tradition of involving undergraduates and graduates in our research projects. We will will continue that tradition.

Trib+Edu: What led to your role as director?

Fulton: The university decided the Kinder Institute should take on a broader role, campuswide and in the city. The university undertook a national recruitment to find somebody who was not necessarily a full-time academic but someone who was able to straddle the worlds of academia, urban policy and politics. My background was pretty well suited for that. I’ve been an academic, I’ve never been a tenure track professor, but I’ve been an academic researcher and professor. I have been a practicing planning consultant all over the country.

Trib+Edu: What is the impact you hope to achieve in this role?

Fulton: There are two things we are trying to accomplish. One is to identify specific issues in metropolitan Houston where, if we bring the research and policy analysis capacity of Rice to the table, we can come up with solutions that will actually work on the ground. Secondly, our goal is to help use that to inform urban policy everywhere in U.S., especially in the Sunbelt. I’ve been in the Sunbelt most of my career. My observation would be that urban policy is created mostly in the Northeast, in that Boston to Washington corridor. It is shaped with older cities in mind like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Chicago. Urban policy issues in the Sunbelt are different.

All of the large cities in Texas and in the Sunbelt have important urban issues and urban problems, and yet our economies and our populations and urban areas are still growing rapidly, instead of stagnating or declining, as they are in the Northeast or Midwest. That is a very big difference. There really is not an institute in the country that focuses primarily on urban issues primarily in the Sunbelt. In addition to trying to make a difference in Houston, we also hope to become the leading institute in the Sunbelt convening people from different cities here at Rice.

Trib+Edu:  What is the institute’s main focus regarding education?

Fulton: There is a wide variety of topics that we work with HISD on. HISD is at the forefront of innovative reform programs for large school districts in the nation. A lot of what we do with them is working back and forth to look at programs to see how well they are working and how can they be made to be better.

Houston is a great laboratory. Nationally and internationally, it is not recognized as a great city and great laboratory. One of the things we hope to do is use the Kinder Institute to highlight the fact that Houston is a large city that has great advantages and also has a full panoply of urban issues. As a learning exercise, we are going to simultaneously try to make Houston better and use that to inform us on how to make urban policy around the country better, as well.

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