‘World-Class’ and Right Here

November 23, 1998

by The Register-Guard Staff

Terrie Moffitt, an internationally known expert on juvenile delinquency, got the jitters before addressing a hushed anteroom at the University of Oregon library recently.

The audience of suit-wearing psychologists, who waited politely on folding chairs, didn’t appear intimidating. But many in the room were connected with the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center, a powerhouse of psychological research that has defined a generation of thought about aggressive and antisocial behavior.

“This,” Moffitt said before taking the podium, “is Mecca.”

For the past two decades, the learning center has studied more than 2,400 Lane County families, pumped more than $38 million into the local economy and established principles likely to change local, state and national policies regarding troubled youth.

“They are world-class. They are literally recognized all over the world. And they are right here,” said Hill Walker, a University of Oregon professor who serves on the center’s board.

The center was established in Eugene by chance. One of the founders, Gerald Patterson, was on a troop train chugging through the Willamette Valley during World War II.

He hailed from northern Minnesota, a bleak and colorless place in the winter, and was enchanted by the valley’s year-round green. When he got the chance, he settled in Eugene and started doing research. He developed an observation-based theory that would soon win him nationwide attention and regard.

He hooked up with other researchers, including John Reid. The two are pictured on the back of a 1975 book, looking sideburned and earnest, as if they belonged to a psychological “Mod Squad.”

They chose a lucky subject to research, Patterson said: aggression in children. Unlike the more obtuse areas of psychology, such as repression, an out-of-control child is easy to see, and the general public has a stake in finding a solution. Federal grants started rolling in.

The researchers started out with $400,000 to $500,000 a year. Today, the center brings in $6 million a year, according to state records on nonprofit groups.

“I’m sorry I sound so excited about these guys,” said Eve Moscicki, an associate director at the National Institute of Mental Health, the major source of the center’s money. “But I really like the work that they do. This is a wonderful investment of the taxpayers’ money.”

The effects on Eugene are far-ranging. The center put up a 22,000-square-foot building this summer at the corner of Fourth and Pearl streets. About 155 people work at the center, a work force in the league of Rexius Forest By-Products, Willamette Beverage and Mobius Co.

Thousands of Lane County families have enrolled in the center’s studies, receiving various therapies and treatments for free, just for lending researchers their experiences.

The learning center recruits subjects through fliers hung on downtown windows or through newspaper advertisements.

At the moment, researchers are looking for “mom and stepdad families” in which the children are in kindergarten through third grade. “You can earn $650 or more!” according to a recent ad.

Center researchers quietly make a mark on the community. They serve on local nonprofit boards, they testify before government policy-makers, and they helped out with 24-hour community counseling in the wake of the Thurston High School shooting.

So why have so few Lane County residents heard of the Oregon Social Learning Center?

The researchers generally shun publicity. They don’t especially want reporters interviewing their subjects out of fear that stories would skew their results. Similarly, they don’t want to publicly contradict local officials, because they depend on those officials for their supply of troubled kids to study and treat.

On the wider stage, however, the center is famous. The British Broadcasting Corp. and The Wall Street Journal featured the learning center in recent stories. Producers from “Frontline,” the PBS documentary series, are working on a piece.

Senior researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Justice Department have sought the center’s assistance.

The center’s Monitor program for deeply troubled teenagers was recently chosen by the U.S. Justice Department for duplication in 10 other cities. Baltimore may be the first.

The center set the standard for psychological research, said Moscicki of the National Institute of Mental Health.

The local researchers begin their big studies with rigorously controlled laboratory experiments, and then they test and retest their theories in successively more realistic environments. The design of their experiments is highly creative.

“It’s really exciting stuff,” Moscicki said.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1998, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com.