James Q. Wilson 1931-2012
Lessons of noted University alumnus James Q. Wilson recalled by friends, peers
The political scientist, famous for co-authoring the 1982 “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic Monthly, died March 2. He was 80.
March 6, 2012—Friends and peers of James Q. Wilson remember the man who went to college “by accident” as one of the greatest minds to graduate from the University of Redlands.
James Quinn Wilson, born in Denver, Colo. May 27, 1931, grew up in Long Beach, Calif. He attended Jordan High School where he caught the attention of at least two people who would change his life—future wife Roberta Evans ’52, and a high school English teacher, Richard Crossan, who recognized his intellectual potential.
The March 5, 2012 U.S. News & World Report article “Remembering James Q. Wilson: A wise professor and exuberant cowboy,” quotes remarks written by Wilson detailing the importance of his relationship with Crossan.
“I was the first member of my family for as many generations as I could count who went to college and that by accident. My high school English teacher visited me the summer after I had graduated from his school. I was busy learning how to fix carburetors in my father's auto repair shop—I was going to be a mechanic. He said I should go to a nearby college (Redlands) and he had arranged admission. ‘When does it start?’ I asked. ‘In a month,’ he answered. ‘And they will give you a scholarship.’ So off I went.”
That teacher was one of three men Wilson said changed his life.
“The three men were these: Richard Crossan was my high school English teacher and debate coach who somehow saw potential in me. Robert Morlan taught me about politics at the University of Redlands. And Edward C. Banfield was my University of Chicago thesis supervisor and the best teacher I have ever known.”
University Trustee Richard Hunsaker ’52 attended both high school and college with Wilson, and remembers his concentrated focus on academics.
“He wasn’t into campus life. He was always the smartest guy in the room. He had a great curiosity and impressed people with his brilliance.”
Wilson’s college classmate, University Trustee Jess Senecal ’52, drove from Compton to attend the University and occasionally picked up Wilson in Long Beach and gave him a ride to campus.
He remembers Wilson questioning the law early on.
“We took a constitutional law course from Robert Morlan, and we were analyzing a Supreme Court case on the internment of the Japanese during the war. He (Wilson) was indicating his complete dissatisfaction with the outcome of the case, and wasn’t afraid to say it, because he knew it was wrong. But later he was vindicated when the Supreme Court overturned the ruling.”
Wilson’s ability to state his case led him to national debate championships in 1951 and 1952. He graduated from Redlands summa cum laude in 1952, and served three years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy before heading to the University of Chicago for his graduate work.
He became chairman of the government department at Harvard University in 1969, the same year the University of Redlands conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the institution’s Founder’s Day ceremonies.
Wilson remained connected to the University through the following two decades, returning to campus twice as convocation speaker. In 1982, the University presented him the Alumni Jubilee Medallion as one of 75 alumni honored for the University’s 75th anniversary.
In 1988, Wilson delivered the commencement speech, “Habits of the Heart,” in which he shared his view of the benefits of college.
“The great benefit of college is not that it builds your character, much less that it helps you make money or find a mate. The great benefit is that it stretches and enlarges your mind and helps you see the larger world beyond yourself more clearly and more fully. You derive the true benefits of college, not from your ability to pass the law-school admission test, but from those occasions—I hope they have occurred to you—when you discover the intense and unique pleasures of intellectual excitement: When you feel yourself, after reading a poem, moved to a new level of self-awareness; when after conducting an experiment you say, ‘Aha! So that is how it works!; when after hearing a lecture on philosophy or history you say, ‘now I understand’ or ‘but that can’t be right—I must find out how things really are.’”
Wilson taught government and public policy at Harvard for 26 years, and also at UCLA, Pepperdine University, Boston College and the University of Chicago.
As a trusted adviser to Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan he served on several crime task forces and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
Wilson wrote 17 books and nearly 100 articles for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, New York Magazine, New York Times Sunday Magazine and others. But he is likely most well-known for the “Broken Windows” article.
Former Redlands Chief of Police and Redlands alumnus Jim Bueermann ‘87 said anyone in policing who is paying attention knows about the broken windows theory.
“It is the idea that if you don’t attend to the small things, they become bigger problems.”
Bueermann once called Wilson to ask him “a bunch of questions.”
“His work was instrumental to me, since I was a young impressionable police chief. It was foundational to the kind of work we were doing in Redlands—community policing,” Bueermann said.