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Ross Stagner for President

Paul E. Levy
University of Akron
Barrack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney…forget about them— let’s talk about some other presidents in this year of the presidential election. Ross Stagner—have you heard of him? Surely, you have heard of Bruce V. Moore (the first SIOP president), Edwin Ghiselli, Raymond Katzell, Marv Dunette as well as contemporaries like Neal Schmitt, Wally Borman, Nancy Tippins, and Gary Latham, but I bet you don’t know much about Ross Stagner. Well, Ross Stagner was the president of SIOP in 1965–1966 just prior to Dunnette. His first academic job was at a place near and dear to my heart, the University of Akron in 1935 where he became quite involved with the Rubber Workers union in what was then the “Rubber Capital of the World.” He did some work with Harry Harlow and was a peer of Abraham Maslow at Wisconsin. Other academic appointments include Dartmouth and 15 years as the department head at Wayne State. His work was in the area of social stereotypes, fascist attitudes, and industrial conflict. In his autobiography, while at Akron, he describes himself as “one of a small group of socialists entirely surrounded by Stalinists and Trotskyites.” Indeed, Stagner led an interesting and productive career.
Prior to writing a piece for the History Corner, I always like to visit the Archives of the History of American Psychology (AHAP) in the Center for the History of Psychology (CHP) right here on my own campus. My colleagues there are always helpful, encouraging, and have good ideas. On my most recent visit to the AHAP I began looking through Ross Stagner’s files after being clued into his connections to both SIOP and Akron by Dave Baker, the director of the CHP. While reading through correspondence, chapters, SIOP documents, and so on, I came across an unfinished project that I found pretty interesting. Stagner wrote an American Psychologist article in 1981 called “Training and Experiences of Some Distinguished Industrial Psychologists.” He used information culled from autobiographies written by himself and 12 other former presidents of Division 14 to present trends in training, experiences, and graduate education. To provide him with data for his article, he invited these 12 former presidents (Philip Ash, 1967; Douglas W. Bray, 1971; Harold A. Edgerton, 1953; Donald L. Grant, 1974; Robert M. Guion, 1972; Raymond A. Katzell, 1961; William McGehee, 1962; Bruce V. Moore, 1945; William A. Owens, 1969; Stanley E. Seashore, 1968; Carroll L. Shartle, 1949; and Joseph L. Tiffin, 1958) to write about their childhood, important youthful experiences, schooling, graduate school experiences, early work experiences, and other observations. I found the 1981 paper interesting as he shared a view of the history of I-O psychology through the experiences and backgrounds of these distinguished leaders of our field.
As I worked through the Stagner collection, I stumbled onto a letter written on June 14, 1981 to “Harold” (Edgerton?), but it appears as if this letter went to a bunch of former SIOP presidents including the 12 mentioned above and perhaps others such as Mary Tenopyr (1979), J. L. Otis (1952), Arthur C. MacKinney (1981), Orlo L. Crissey (1961), and Brent N. Baxter (1964). In the letter Stagner thanked his colleagues for submitting their autobiographies, attached a copy of the American Psychologist article, and reported on some of his recent work. He noted that he had shopped an idea for a book to a few publishers and that the publishers said they would be interested in a book on the history of industrial psychology that used quotes from the biographies of famous psychologists along with traditional historical data to tell the story of industrial psychology. Stagner also reported that he didn’t quite have the energy to tackle this book project and asked his colleagues in the letter if any of them were interested in taking this on. As far as I can tell from my work in the AHAP, no one took him up on the offer and the book never materialized. I don’t know if he ever planned to get back to the book, but he did have the autobiographies of about 30 former presidents in his files by the time he passed away in 1997.
Although the book was never written, we do have the American Psychologist piece as a rough idea of what Stagner was trying to do. My own reading of that piece results in the following themes that I think Stagner wrote clearly about in 1981: (a) the role of chance events as critical to successful careers, (b) that I-O emerged as a second or third choice career for many of the scholars, (c) the influence of war on their careers, (d) the influence of the Depression on their careers, (e) that some had a PhD in a field other than I-O, (f) that many had some type of formal training outside of I-O, (g) that most had the opportunity for practical field experience that they saw as very important to their development, (h) that many talked about the opportunities they had to bring what they learned in laboratory research to organizational contexts, and (i) the importance of the civil rights movement in their development.
I thought it might be interesting to read through a series of SIOP presidential biographies from more recent years (focusing on the 1990s) and pull some quotes from them to identify important elements of training and growth. Perhaps this would result in the identification of some themes as a way to add some historical context much as Stagner did but for a different era. My thinking, of course, was that some of the same themes might emerge but that most of the themes would differ as a function of the changes in the world, the field, and I-O training. An extra perk would be to have some fun with some quotes from our distinguished colleagues. So, I read the biographies of Frank Landy (1990), Paul Sackett (1993), Wally Borman (1994), Mike Campion (1995), Kevin Murphy (1997), Elaine Pulakos (1998), and Angelo DeNisi (1999). [History Chair’s note: If you are a former president of Division 14 and have not written your autobiographical statement, this is my final plea as History Chair for you to come through on this request, please send them my way.]
First, there is a sense among our group of the importance of chance factors in their career development, much as it was in the work of the earlier presidents as described by Stagner. Sackett describes the way in which he connected with a particular professor, “In my sophomore year, though, I experienced one of those quasi-random events that in retrospect I realize altered the course of my life.” Campion believes that chance events play a role, but how they play out is more about what one does with those chance opportunities. Campion states, “If there is a chance component to career success, part of it is recognizing and take(ing) opportunities.” DeNisi finds it somewhat amazing that his career developed as it did because of his background and the culture that he came out of. He wrote, “Everyone believed that education was the ticket to the future. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of role models for how to get a real education, or what to do with it later.”
Second, it doesn’t appear that any of these folks came out of the womb wanting to be I-O psychologists! We all remember wanting to be doctors, lawyers, or baseball players as far back as we can remember but I-O psychologists?? The data from these autobiographies suggest that it wasn’t even in the picture for most of them for many years. DeNisi: “I began wanting to be a history major….I gave some serious thought to majoring in theatre, especially after I received a standing ovation for my final exam….in my acting class.” Pulakos: “As time went on, it became increasingly apparent that my heart was in psychology and not business administration, so I transferred to the I-O program.” Murphy: “My first rude awakening was when I applied to graduate school. I sent applications to 20 top clinical schools and was turned down by everyone.” Campion: “Like so many people it seems, my choice of profession was somewhat circuitous…. I could only name three professions —doctor, lawyer, and Indian chief, and there were not many jobs for the latter. So, I did what every other ambitious freshman did in those days—I majored in pre-med.” Landy: “It is November of 1961. I begin my undergraduate career a year ago in mechanical engineering. It was a mitigated disaster. I was awarded an F in every required course.” Three theoretical physics courses in one semester was more than enough for Wally Borman to switch out of physics (and who could blame him?!). Paul Sackett began school with no clear understanding of the subfields of psychology. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but you get the picture—most of our distinguished colleagues had to grapple a bit with other areas and ideas before arriving at the one field that really captured their interest and focus. As a father of three teenage boys who hear way too much, way too early about college major and career choice, I may take a few minutes to share this finding with them so they don’t beat themselves up in 8th grade because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. (How did we get to the point where we have to know what we are going to be before we even get to college? Oh well, that’s a topic for another day.).
I found it interesting that many of these scholars easily identified experiences (either specific or general) that played pivotal roles in their development. Landy identified two types of experiences that he felt really helped him. First, the experience working in APA and SIOP administration helped him to see the field more broadly. Second, with respect to his extensive travels to many countries he noted, “I believe that my appetite for things un-American provided me with a considerably broader and deeper understanding of work behavior than I might have otherwise accumulated.” I think that many of us would benefit from this approach and the depth of knowledge and understanding gained by us would certainly enhance the field. For Sackett, the identified experience was a little different: “Most importantly, Milt Hakel decided to step down as editor of Personnel Psychology, and I was offered the editorship. This changed life in anticipated and unanticipated ways….I broadened my knowledge of the field and honed my critical analysis skills.” I can certainly speak to this one—for me, personally, serving as associate editor of OBHDP for the past 5 years has had a similar effect on me as the Personnel Psychology experience had on Sackett. Wally Borman’s defining experience was yet different from these others as well. For Borman, the experience was a large and important consulting project, “As mentioned, this contract [Project A] profoundly affected PDRI and my career. Getting to work on this high profile, research-rich project for 9 years made a huge difference professionally to several of us.” For both Mike Campion and Kevin Murphy it came down to motivation and the extent to which their motivation was channeled toward the field of I-O. Murphy says, “I was not a great student in high school, but once I had the opportunity to work with really good professors, my interest, motivation, and performance took off.” It’s clear that there were different key experiences that these scholars pointed to in their autobiographies, and it’s interesting to see how much they differed.
We are left with seven distinguished I-O psychologists who served the division very well as president and who had some similar and different experiences. If you are a student who is not quite sure if I-O is the field for you or a student who doesn’t know much about I-O psychology and maybe stumbled onto this article, take some solace in the fact that many of these scholars didn’t immediately gravitate toward I-O psychology: history, theatre, business, engineering, physics, and the list goes on. Sometimes it takes a while to find what you are looking for, but when you do, you recognize it and delight in it. It’s pretty clear from these seven biographies that each believes that he or she landed in a great place for him or her. It’s also clear that sometimes the route is circuitous and that sometimes there is a defining moment or set of experiences. Whether it’s a cutting-edge, high-visibility consulting project; trips abroad; an important editorial responsibility; or just finally finding the right mentor, doors open and we need to be prepared to walk through them.
Finally, a couple of notes from the “more things change, the more they stay the same” file drawer. Today we talk a great deal about how hard it can be to find employment for dual-career couples. This isn’t new: Paul Sackett had his heart set on Purdue, “My dream was to go to Purdue. I pored over their graduate catalog. I could have drawn a campus map from memory.” However, his fiancée Pat was a chemistry student and Ohio State offered them both fellowships, so off to Columbus they went; this seemed to work out pretty well. Mike Campion discovered the power of publications early in his career, “Publications are sort of like the six-guns of the Old West, they make everybody equal.” Of course, if you publish in the RIGHT journals, you are more equal than others! Finally, Frank Landy noted that he and Art Elbert submitted a paper to JAP in 1967. “About 2 months later, we hear it has been accepted—with no revisions!! We decide this publishing stuff is not as tough as it is made out to be. This is the last article that I will submit in 37 years for which no revisions are required.” Ah yes, some things never change!!!
[Box M3415, Stagner Papers], Archives of the history of American psychology. The Center for the History of Psychology–The University of Akron.
Stagner, R. (1981). Training and experiences of some distinguished industrial psychologists. American Psychologist, 36(5), 497–505.