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A Passion for Evidence, by Samuel Hughes
A rare exhibit of artifacts from Uzbekistan at the Arthur Ross Gallery


 

By Samuel Hughes
Photography by David Fields

 

Back in the summer of 1971—the Monday after the New York City Police headquarters had been blown up by the Students for a Democratic Society, to be precise—a bearded young Conscientious Objector named Lawrence Sherman walked into the office of his draft board. He had just finished a nine-month urban-fellowship program in the city, and the questions posed by the draft board involved what sort of public service he would be taking on in lieu of the military.
    “I want to work in the New York City Police Department,” said Sherman.
    “Good,” replied the man in charge. “You might get killed. Approved.
    As it turned out, Sherman almost did get killed on several occasions, and would, as an undercover scruff investigating police misconduct, get himself “thrown out of some of the finest police stations in New York City.” All that is a little hard to imagine today, as he sits in his office on the second floor of the Fels Center of Government, dressed in a dark blue suit and exuding a cheerful, vigorous respectability. After all, he is Dr. Sherman now, the Fels Center’s impeccably credentialed new director, the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations and, arguably, the nation’s most influential criminologist, lauded by a broad coalition of scholars and top cops. But at 50, he has lost neither his appetite for engagement nor his deep-rooted appreciation for what Quakers refer to as the “life of the spirit.”
    “The real paradox for me is that I’m from that tradition,” he says of his spiritual upbringing, “yet so interested in government.” He hints at a smile. “I guess I’m the product of Calvinist and Puritan backgrounds, and that probably explains why I’m here to make the government more Quaker-like.”
    Criminology is not the traditional proving ground for academic government centers like Fels, and Sherman’s decision to shift his focus from the former to the latter surprised some of his colleagues. After all, he had built the criminology department at the University of Maryland into a top-ranked powerhouse during his 17 years there, and even since arriving at Penn in July he has managed to get himself elected president of the International Society of Criminology, nominated for the presidency of the American Society of Criminology, and awarded the ASC’s prestigious Edwin H. Sutherland Award for outstanding contributions to criminological knowledge. But coming to Fels was both an “intellectual evolution” —stemming from his work for Congress evaluating anti-crime programs—and a natural extension of his long-held desire to help “make cities safer and more viable economically.”
    “If you want to deal with inner cities, you’ve got to get beyond the criminal-justice system,” he says. “And when I heard about a place that had a history of local and state government as the focus for its graduate program, and that also attracted really talented people who wanted to get things done in the world—as opposed to really talented people who want to do research—it just seemed like the right transition to make.”
    It’s also directly related to that Alfred P. Sloan urban fellowship he embarked on three decades ago.
    “If you ask me all the reasons why I came here, that may be the most important one,” says Sherman. “I think if I hadn’t been able to start my career in the New York program, coming right out of the University of Chicago [where he earned his first master’s degree in social science], I wouldn’t have learned and become as passionate about these urban issues as I did.” He thinks back to the weekly seminars with cabinet-agency directors—when “all of these functions of government were laid out on the table and kicked around for three hours over sandwiches and beer”—and suggests that the weekly colloquiums held at Fels for most of the past two decades are “exactly the same thing.”
    “For me,” he adds, “it’s almost like coming home.”

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