George Oser didn’t have a plan. Most doctoral alums have a set of goals to accomplish or a career plan to embark upon, but George views things differently. “I’ve never had goals. I just look around and see what is the most interesting for me at the time. I’ve never had a career plan in my life. I’ve never been bothered by that lack of vision. I think I’ve been able to insert myself in ways I never could have imagined if I had had a plan in place.”
Yet, in the absence of a plan, George has had an illustrious career in Optical Physics and has worked tirelessly for civic engagement initiatives, most notably as the school board president in Houston who desegregated the school system in 1970.
His take on life, graduate education, and the role of good data in policy is refreshing, important and genuine.
The Doctorate as a Lifestyle
“In grad school, research becomes a habit, a way of life. It’s not the chore it seems to some grad students. It does change your life. It becomes a part of your life and a way of looking at your life. It changes the way you look at the world.”
George was able to participate in events that shaped U-M’s history – and the world we live in. He was on campus for the founding of Students for Democratic Action with Tom Hayden and he was part of the crowd at the Michigan Union when President Kennedy founded the Peace Corp. He recalls, “I saw ee cummings present poetry, Itzak Perlman perform, went to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford It was a wonderfully lively place to be.”
George lived in a third story apartment over Slater’s bookstore on State Street, with windows facing the Diag at State and North University. He recalls the fireplace and the church pews used for furniture when they couldn’t afford anything else. He also recalls the people that came through the front door, even hosting a party for GM founder and benefactor of Mott Children’s Hospital Charles Mott and legendary philosopher Hannah Arendt when they received honorary degrees from the university.
While it might seem there was less time for academics with so much engagement outside the classroom, he says, “You can focus only on studies, but you’ll miss a lot if you close yourself off. I encourage grad students to move outside of their own expertise into other areas. I had friends in medicine, English, law, sociology, etc. Find out what’s out there and what’s inside of you and then you’ll have the lifelong task of matching them and contributing to society.”
Called to Action
And contribute to society, George did. He was heavily involved in the integration of the Houston Metropolitan School system. He says, “It was massive change: even 12 years after legislation was passed to desegregate schools, some kids were bussed 23 miles one way to get to the nearest black school. I ordered the move to transfer 4,400 teachers so every school had the same racial balance of teachers. We integrated administrative staff first, placing the emphasis on adults to lead the change, rather than placing the burden on students.”
Those were challenging times, and George remembers the KKK waving flags and singing “This is Our Country” when he made the proclamation to integrate. He recalls, “I definitely felt like I was in danger. That was the era of car bombings; it was a little scary. There were occasions when my kids were threatened. We hired off-duty police protection, but the police department was also racist and refused to help, saying we created the problem and we could solve it ourselves. We formed our own police department to protect our students, teachers and property.”
While George was in a more dangerous situation, students in schools were not. “We provided security in the classroom. Fortunately, in Texas, we had big campuses with fences around the edges. We were able to handle security concerns quite well.”
One of the first things he did on the school board was to hire an accounting firm, and that helped the school system save millions of dollars doing inventory control, establishing multiple depots for school building supplies covering over 400 square miles, and creating efficiencies. He says, “We saved $300,000 alone on inventory control first year and tried to do things that made us more efficient financially. The things we did were not new; just new to Houston. In a public education system, you need a cafeteria of educational choices, you need many different strong programs. We researched and implemented the best fits for Houston.”
With Oser at the helm, the school board accomplished a massive list of initiatives within a two year period: they desegregated the school system, created a community college, mainstreamed special education programs, initiated volunteers in public schools, dedicated a Vanguard program for advanced children, developed magnet programs including a high school for health professions and a high school for performing arts, and cut costs significantly. He says, “Forty years later, nothing, zero, that we did was changed. The magnet schools expanded, community college is now split off from the board of education. All programs and changes remain.”
An Oral History Project from the Houston Public Library provides more detail of the civil rights work done by Oser.
From Tinkering to Ph.D.
“Neither of my parents went to college. I had no idea what I wanted to do other than knew I liked to tinker with things and that I liked math,” recalls George. At Notre Dame as an undergrad, George worked with faculty to carve his own path, taking physics classes in the Science School and the remaining curriculum in the Liberal Arts School. Again working at the interface of different schools and disciplines, he says, “I was able to take the best of both worlds. I tried to do everything that I could and absorb what I could in both institutions. Physics was very interesting to me – not just the doing but the utter beauty of the theory.“
George believes in the opportunity available at the overlap of two disciplines. He says, “I like working at interfaces. I worked at the interface of the physics of optics and the defense department to design laser weapon to destabilize satellites. The interface between computers and medicine was important to me. This is the place where you are connecting existing things rather than inventing – you can get a lot done without being extremely original.”
George came to U-M on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. As a graduate student, Oser worked on issues related to rocket-based observations of stars, examining the strength of ultraviolet radiation from the stars. He then applied his optical physics training to seismic deconvolution theory in underwater oil exploration. He was in the field during a time of significant change, when adaptive modeling could account for seismic reverberations and detect underwater, underground oil-bearing structures. He recalls it being an exciting time, but then he ran for the school board. “We had five bomb scares at work based on my being there. I was asked to leave because of it.”
He spent much of his career after that working for the University of Texas Medical School, teaching evidence-based medicine, instilling the importance of an infusion of good research into the practice of medicine. He says, “My objective was to teach to med students the importance of statistical analysis and early collaboration with biostatisticians. Most classes in medical school at the time didn’t emphasize statistical analysis of the medical literature.”
George has been a constant advocate for using good data. He reminisces about a time when he received a significant number of complaints when integrating teachers in the school system, particularly when sending young, white teachers to what had been black schools. He says, “We asked the district to look at the average tenure of teachers at the schools and found that the school averages were all comparable. Then we looked at the distribution rather than the average. It was bimodal: there were inexperienced white teachers and set-in-their-ways black teachers. We started moving teachers around then to get better distribution of teacher tenure by race, but we wouldn’t have solved the problem if we had stopped at using the most common descriptive statistic. Analysis is a way to affect policy in deeper ways.”
He continues, “Problem solving is rewarding and never ending. Particularly in policy issues, there are no simple permanent solutions; it’s a continuing process to change policies as circumstances change. You always have a temporary solution, no final solution.”
Now retired, George uses his influence in broader ways today, contributing to op-ed pages on issues of local and national concern. He explains, “I look at what’s going on and write op-ed pieces on a range of topics from the scientific method to the funding of public education. It is a good avenue for people who want to influence public opinion outside the halls of academe. “
Outside of the op/ed pages, George can be found spending time with his partner, Dr. Nancy K. Hansel, his three daughters and four grandchildren, reading, or sailing and SCUBA diving.