Stephen Klineberg:
A retrospective

Houston understands itself a little more clearly thanks to 40 years of insight from this social psychologist turned urban visionary.

1982: Houston in boom and bust

Through most of the 20th century, Houston thrived. This was a one-horse industrial town, riding its location near the East Texas oil fields to continued prosperity. The city was also world-famous for having imposed the least possible controls on development of any city in the Western world. Houstonians proclaimed themselves to be the epitome of what Americans can achieve when left unfettered by zoning codes, government regulations, or excessive taxation.

More than 80 percent of the city’s primary-sector jobs in 1980 were associated directly or indirectly with the value of oil, and the price of a barrel increased 10-fold between 1970 and 1982, with no lessening of world demand. During that 12-year period, while the rest of the country was languishing in the “stagflating ’70s,” nearly 1 million people poured into the Houston region.

Meanwhile, as Robert Fisher, professor of social work at the University of Houston, observed at the time: “The ideological thrust in Houston in the twentieth century has been anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-planning, anti-taxes, anti-anything that seemed to represent in fact or fantasy, an expansion of the public sector or a limitation on the economic prerogatives and activities of the city’s business community.”

It’s around this time when a Rice professor has an idea that will shape the trajectory of his professional life and the life of his adopted city for the next half-century. In the fall of 1981, Stephen Klineberg, an associate professor of sociology at Rice University, was preparing to teach a research methods course in the following spring. He originally thought of getting the class involved in developing a survey that would compare Rice freshmen and seniors in their assessments of the university and their perspectives on their personal futures.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a more intriguing possibility arose. Two friends of his had just launched a new professional research firm in Houston called “Telesurveys of Texas,” and they were looking for new projects to get better known in the community. With the help of a firm like this one, he and his students would have an opportunity to study Houston itself, to conduct a systematic survey to measure how area residents were assessing life in the Houston area, and to get a sense, through objective sociological research, of the kind of city its inhabitants were hoping to build with all that oil-based affluence. The research on student attitudes at Rice would have to wait.

Klineberg and students pictured in 1982. (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

Klineberg and students pictured in 1982. (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

The 1982 survey, conducted in March of that year, included a variety of questions designed to measure the way area residents were balancing the exhilaration of the city’s spectacular expansion with rising concerns about the “social costs” of its unfettered growth, such as the mounting challenges of traffic congestion, the spread of toxic pollution, and soaring crime rates.

Then, suddenly, just two months after that first survey was completed, the boom collapsed. A global recession had suppressed the demand for petroleum products just as new supplies were coming onto world markets. The price of a barrel of oil fell from $35 to $28 almost overnight, but Houston’s business community had been building and borrowing in the confident expectation of $50 barrels. By the end of 1983, this once-booming region recorded a net loss of more than 100,000 jobs.

It was clear to everybody that it might be good to conduct the survey again with a new class the following spring to measure area residents’ reactions to the sudden turn of events. Then, as the changes accelerated further and the city emerged from the deep recession in the late 1980s into a rapidly changing America, Steve continued to offer the class and to conduct the surveys in all the years after that, now 41 and counting.

The beginnings

One could say that social psychology was in Steve’s DNA. His dad, Otto Klineberg, was a distinguished professor at Columbia University, whose pioneering studies on the environmental determinants of race differences in intelligence scores contributed to the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark school desegregation decision—Brown v. Board of Education. With dual professorships in social psychology at Columbia University and the University of Paris, along with a great love of travel, which he shared with Steve’s mother, Otto’s work took the family across the globe, including several years in France and Brazil during Steve’s childhood.

Growing up in Scarsdale, about 25-miles from New York City, Steve was the youngest of three children. Those close to him remember Steve as a perceptive, precocious, and personable child. His older sister, Rosemary Coffey, says “Steve learned to read in Portuguese even before he learned to read in English. He also had a fantastic memory. I recall watching him read fluently from "A Historia do Bebe" ("The Story of Baby"), turning the pages as he went until somebody noticed that he must have memorized the entire story, since he was holding the book upside down!”

[1] Steve as boy with his dogs. [2] From left: Stephen, Rosemary and John. [3] From left: Rosemary, Selma (mother), Stephen, John, Otto (father). [4] Steve, age 20. — Photos courtesy Rosemary Coffey

Coffey adds that when her parents hosted a dinner party, Steve would often be invited to come into the living room after dinner to play his clarinet. “Why was this?” Because, she explains, “the family dog would ‘sing’ (howl intensely) along with the instrument!”

Steve’s affable personality followed him through high school: His classmates voted him the “friendliest” male in the senior class. His outstanding academic achievements and Quaker upbringing brought him to Haverford College, a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia, well-known for its academic rigor and its explicit attention to values, to the uses to which one’s knowledge should be put.

It’s at Haverford, where Steve meets two people who will help shape his personal life and professional career. He becomes a psychology major and decides against a medical career. Under the tutelage of psychology professor Douglas Heath, he says he learned how “to read judiciously, how to take effective notes, and how to ask at least some of the right questions.”

While honing his clarinet skills in the joint Haverford-Bryn Mawr orchestra, he meets and soon falls in love with Peggy Kersey, who was a year behind him at Bryn Mawr College and played the violin in the orchestra.

Steve receives a varsity letter in wrestling and graduates in 1961 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Haverford B.A. awarded with “High Honors.” He begins his first year as a graduate student in “the Department of Social Relations” at Harvard in the fall of 1961.

Early research

He and Peggy are married in June 1962 and set sail that evening to spend the first year of their married life on a fellowship in Paris, where his parents are now living. He enrolls in the University of Paris, studying for a “diplôme d’études supérieures en psychopathologie” (similar to an M.A. in “clinical psychology”). During that year, he conducts the research that will result in his Ph.D. dissertation, exploring the different ways in which children and adolescents experience the personal future. His interviews with French children showed clearly that the images we develop of ourselves in the future may remain a realm of wish-fulfilling fantasies for 10- or 11-year-olds but become by age 14 or 15 a place demanding much more realistic and serious reflection.

Back at Harvard, amid courses and teaching assistantships, Geoffrey is born in November 1963 and Katharine in March 1965. Steve stays on for another year after the Ph.D. as an instructor in the Department of Social Relations. Then, having been offered a coveted “bicentennial preceptorship” by Princeton University, he becomes an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology in Princeton’s Sociology Department.

As part of the “preceptorship” award, the family of four spent the year 1969–1970 in Tunisia. There he conducted, with the help of university students, the first systematic survey of residents in the inner city of Tunis, interviewing adolescents and their parents during a time of extraordinary transformation. (For example, only 10% of the mothers in the survey had had any formal education whatsoever, but 90% of their daughters had been to school and 63% were still in school at the time of the interviews.)

The Tunisian experience consolidated his interest in studying the psychological impact of social change, to understand more fully the shifts that take place in people’s attitudes and self-perceptions as they respond to (or resist) the impact of new realities.

“My path seemed set,” Steve writes in his book, Prophetic City (2020): “Life would be lived along the Northeast corridor, somewhere between Philadelphia and Boston, with occasional stints abroad—a traditional Yankee destiny.”

Then Texas came calling.

“I had never been to Texas before. I only knew of Rice University by reputation as an excellent research and teaching institution, where the students were every bit as good academically as the students I knew at Harvard, Princeton, or Haverford. Peggy and I figured we’d stay at Rice for a couple of years, before heading back to the East Coast.”

Ten years after arriving at Rice, the collapse of the oil boom becomes the impetus that changes the trajectory of Steve’s professional journey. The city that defined the golden age of petrochemicals in the 1970s turned out to be the place where he would spend the rest of his academic career, tracking the remarkable ongoing evolution of the city itself and measuring the changes in the attitudes and beliefs of its inhabitants.

Stephen in 1994 (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

Stephen in 1994 (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

Funding the surveys

In the early years of the surveys, Steve would crisscross the Houston region, sharing the findings, delivering about 100 talks a year, because, as he puts it, the surveys are a resource that “belong to the people.” In response, a growing consortium of local foundations, corporations, and individuals stepped forward during the early years to provide the funds that would ensure the continuation and expansion of the annual surveys.

In 2010, Steve and his sociology colleague Michael Emerson became the founding co-directors of the new Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. The primary goal of the Institute, Steve says, was to continue and expand our research on urban societies and to ensure that the data we collect will be used to inform and inspire the broader community on which the research is based.

Soon after the launch of the Institute, a Houston Chronicle editorial celebrated the promise of the newly inaugurated think tank, calling the three decades of survey findings “an unparalleled achievement … the longest-running close examination of any city’s economy, beliefs and population in the United States… . It’s no exaggeration,” the Chronicle concluded, “to say that the Rice institute could one day shape decision-making for other cities as well.”

Then the Institute receives what Steve describes as “the gift of a lifetime”—a transformative donation from Houston philanthropists Nancy and Rich Kinder. The couple endow the Institute with a $15 million gift, and in their honor, it is renamed the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. And the annual survey becomes the “Kinder Houston Area Survey.”

“The Houston Area Survey is what initially attracted us to the idea of an urban institute. The survey served as the foundation of the Institute in 2010, and we are fortunate to have the 40 years of surveys to inform our work and inspire other cities,” says Nancy Kinder, President and CEO of the Kinder Foundation.

“The institute has provided the Houston region with deep analyses and valuable tools for becoming a more vibrant, sustainable city,” states Rich Kinder, Chairman of the Kinder Foundation and of the Kinder Institute Advisory Board. “In particular the work on flood recovery, resiliency, and understanding the challenges of K-12 education are areas that we feel are particularly relevant.”

In 2020, the Kinder Houston Area Survey became the basis for Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America, published by Simon & Schuster. Steve describes the book as “the story of Houston as told by the people of Houston,” since it combines both the quantitative findings from the first 38 years of systematic surveys with intensive interviews with more than 60 area residents from the city’s varied communities, whose voices and experiences greatly enrich the book’s depiction of this remarkable city.

[1] Steve with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. [2] Steve with Rich and Nancy Kinder

Urban visionaries

Reflecting the broad-based interest in the Houston surveys and in their nonpartisan objectivity, more than a thousand luncheon attendees converge annually in a downtown Houston ballroom to hear about the latest findings. In 2020 and 2021, because of the pandemic, the annual luncheon shifted to a webinar format, with more than three thousand listening in. The in-person luncheon resumes May 17, 2022 .

And every year, the mayor of Houston has taken part in the luncheon.

“From his involvement in founding Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research to his call for embracing our diversity, Dr. Klineberg’s work has been influential and transformational,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Steve was the inaugural recipient at the 2016 luncheon of “The Kinder Urban Visionary Award.” The following year, the award was renamed in his honor, as the “Stephen L. Klineberg Award,” to be conferred annually in recognition of an individual who has had a lasting and positive impact on the development of the Houston metropolitan area.

Tom Bacon, self-declared “chairman of the Klineberg fan club,” was the second winner of the award. “Stephen Klineberg taught me about our city, consistently and over decades, with insight that was available no place else,” says Bacon.

Anne Chao, this year’s recipient of the Klineberg Award, is a well-known and beloved philanthropist and teacher, and the manager of the Houston Asian American Archive that captures the immigration experiences of Asian Americans in Houston.

Student voices

The recipient of 12 major teaching awards at Rice, including the prestigious George R. Brown Lifetime Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Piper Professor Award, Klineberg retired from teaching in 2018 into the status of Professor Emeritus of Sociology.

Throughout his teaching career, Steve has touched the lives of countless students. His class, recalls Albert Wei, was the “birthplace of deep conversations around how we want to live, what we imagined for the future of whatever city we lived in, and what values were rooted in how a city serves its people.” Wei, who graduated in 2012, now serves as the chief innovation officer at ProUnitas, a Houston nonprofit dedicated to connecting students with the support services they need.

Wei says Steve’s positive energy was infectious. “I even started to roll up my button-up shirt sleeves to three-fourths of their length, like he always did in lectures, when I started working in the classroom as a teacher.”

Alec Tobin, now a research fellow at the Kinder Institute, is a true example of Steve paying it forward. Tobin, one of the students in Steve’s final class, is assisting with the 41st Kinder Houston Area Survey, the last survey that Steve will present at the annual Kinder Luncheon in May.

Transformations and challenges

Looking back over the 41 years of surveys, Steve says that three big themes have emerged, identifying what are arguably the most compelling long-term challenges facing this city, state, and country today:

The knowledge economy. To prosper in today’s high-tech, global economy, Houston will need to make significant investments in new centers of industry and innovation, to develop the emerging technologies in such areas as wind and solar energy, in data analysis and life sciences. Above all, the city will need to drastically improve its public schools and nurture a far more educated workforce, and it will need to find effective ways to reduce the deepening inequalities that have resulted from the combined effects of worldwide competition, declining unionization, advances in computers and robotics, and concentrated political power. The surveys have shown that area residents are much more prepared today than in past years to support government initiatives to reduce the disparities in opportunities and to significantly increase our investments in the public schools, from birth to college, from cradle to career.

The demographic transformation. If this region is to flourish in the years ahead, it will need to evolve into a much more united, equitable, and inclusive multiethnic society, one with real equality of opportunity for all area residents in all communities, positioned to capitalize fully on its remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity. Here, too, the surveys have shown that area residents, increasingly over the years, are embracing Houston’s diversity and feeling more at home in a world of thriving friendships across ethnic populations, religious groups, and sexual orientations. And they are developing a deeper sense of community solidarity and mutual trust.

Quality-of-place attributes. To attract the talent that will grow its economy, the city will need to evolve into a more aesthetically and environmentally appealing urban destination. It will need to continue making major improvements in its parks and bayous, its mobility and transit systems, its air and water quality, its venues for sports and the arts, and its resilience to severe storms and rising sea levels. The surveys have shown how much area residents value these quality-of-life amenities and recognize the critical need to mitigate future storms. In addition, as their life circumstances and comfort levels evolve, many more Houstonians are now seeking homes in the walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods that are sprinkled throughout this traditionally automobile-dependent, sprawling metropolis.

It remains to be seen whether Houston’s business and civic leaders can build on the attitude changes the surveys reveal and can summon the political will to undertake the sustained investments that we know will be required to position Houston for broad-based prosperity in this new era of economic, demographic, and technological transformation. It will be valuable to keep tracking the evolution of area residents’ attitudes and beliefs into the next 40 years of the Houston story. And it will be especially important to find ways to translate that evolving understanding into sustained and effective action.

Downtown Houston in 1985 (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

Downtown Houston in 1985 (Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University)

Into the next 40 years

As he looks to retire from Rice, Steve says he’s tremendously grateful for the support of so many over so many years, and he remains optimistic if still concerned about the long-term future of his adopted city.

He’s even more grateful for the support of a beloved family. In June 2022, he and Peggy will celebrate 60 years of marriage. And in what he thinks of as “truly magical,” four of his five grandchildren are Rice alums. The fifth went to Vanderbilt.

The new Stephen L. Klineberg Legacy Fund is being established, with the goal of providing financial support for the Houston surveys in perpetuity. The survey that began as a one-time class project back in 1982 will continue in the years to come, contributing further to the unique record tracking Houston’s evolution.

“I commend Dr. Klineberg for his exemplary leadership and immeasurable contributions to improving our city. His vision will live on through the important work of the Kinder Institute and will continue to be an instrumental resource for generations to come,” Mayor Turner said.

The institute Steve co-founded in 2010 is now considered a powerhouse among urban institutes, thanks in part to the leadership of Bill Fulton during the past eight years. On July 1, 2022, Ruth N. López Turley, who has been director of the institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium, becomes the new executive director of the Kinder Institute itself. Turley is the first woman and first Latina to lead the organization.

Steve’s legacy was celebrated in a heartfelt letter from Emerson, in which he wrote, “Without Steve Klineberg, there would be no Kinder Institute.”


Rose Rougeau is the senior director of external affairs at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.