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New Kinder Institute Director Isn't Interested In Band-Aid Solutions For Houston Inequality

In her new role as director at Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Ruth López Turley wants to do more with data, moving from diagnosing symptoms to identifying real solutions to the struggles faced by Houstonians. 

Turley joined the Kinder Institute in 2010 and shortly thereafter founded the Houston Education Research Consortium, a partnership with Rice and Houston-area school districts that researches education inequality. The consortium has received $33M in grants over the past decade, including funds from the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, along with several national childhood and scientific institutes.

“When we founded HERC, we wanted to do research in a different way — connecting research directly with decisionmakers. That approach will be infused throughout the entire institute,” Turley said in a release. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to move beyond describing problems and symptoms and begin tackling root causes with real solutions.”

Ruth López Turley

Turley, who grew up in Laredo before attending Stanford and Harvard universities, said in a Kinder blog post that she's less interested in identifying how to tackle symptoms of Houston inequality, and more interested in identifying solutions to the root causes — moving beyond Band-Aids.

Her promotion comes amid a greater changing of the guard around Rice. She started her new position the same day Rice's new president, former provost Reginald DesRoches, took the helm. Turley replaces Bill Fulton in a role he'd had since 2014, weeks after founding Director Stephen Kleinberg retired. Amid the reshuffling at Kinder, the institute announced a new partnership with the United Way of Greater Houston, created the Houston Population Research Center, and promoted several Kinder employees to leadership positions, including Terri Arellano to senior director of operations and Dan Potter to senior director of research.

Turley said she has more partnerships on the way aside from the United Way. Bisnow interviewed Turley over email on her plans for the Kinder Institute and why she loves her adopted home of Houston. 

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and style. 

Bisnow: What drew you to studying education so extensively through the HERC? How do you plan on blowing out that education research into greater Houston research as the Kinder director? 

Turley: I founded HERC in 2011 because I wanted to connect education research directly to decision-makers. A jointly developed research agenda, along with joint planning for how the research would be used, were key elements for research impact. We plan to apply that partnership research model to all areas of the Kinder Institute, including housing, education, economic mobility, community health and population research. We also plan to do research that intersects all these areas, for a more holistic approach to solving problems. 

Bisnow: You've worked at the Kinder Institute for over 10 years. How have you seen it change in that time?  

Turley: The Kinder Institute has changed a lot over the last decade. It has grown in size, productivity, research areas, impact and reputation. Along with the growth, we’ve lived in four different locations on the Rice campus, each time acquiring more space and better facilities. I credit those changes to Bill Fulton, our previous director, as well as Steve Klineberg and Michael Emerson, our founding directors. We also have an outstanding advisory board and a supportive university administration. 

Bisnow: What kind of survey projects are you guys considering for the Houston Population Research Center? 

Turley: We’ve set up a representative panel of respondents that will be surveyed multiple times a year on a variety of topics. These could include areas such as population health needs and assessments of specific populations of interest such as our fastest-growing ethnic groups. The Kinder Houston Area Survey, of course, will continue. 

Bisnow: You write a lot about income inequality, and it seems like that will continue with your leadership and the United Way partnership. What goals do you have for researching and discussing income inequality in Houston? 

Turley: The Houston metro area is one of the most prosperous metros in the nation, based on economic growth over the last decade, but it’s also one of the least inclusive, based on how that prosperity is distributed. Needless to say, our future economic growth is at risk if that growth is not inclusive of our largest and fastest-growing groups. This is why we are concerned about inequality. With the right systems in place, we can do both, which we refer to as inclusive prosperity. 

Bisnow: Are there any urban research areas you guys haven't explored yet, or haven't explored in enough depth, that you're eyeing at Kinder? 

Turley: Our most developed areas are education and housing. Although the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been around for decades, we plan to build on the area of population research extensively, developing many other surveys. Our currently less-developed areas are economic mobility and community health, which we plan to develop a lot over the next five years. 

Bisnow: You're starting your new role the same day as Reginald DesRoches starts as Rice president. What are the two of you brainstorming for the future of Rice research? (That you can share, at least!)

Turley: Because the Kinder Institute director reports to the provost, I’ve been working with Reggie DesRoches since before my new role was announced to the public. We’ve been working together to ensure that the institute’s plans for the future align with the university’s plans in a mutually beneficial manner. For example, we’ve discussed how the institute can play a role in the university’s plans to improve its research infrastructure, how the institute can leverage the university’s expertise in urban research, and how the institute can facilitate interdisciplinary research that is typically more challenging for departments.  

Bisnow: Where do you see the Kinder Institute's place in nationwide urban research in the years to come? 

Turley: I expect the Kinder Institute to play a very important role in nationwide urban research, both because there are very few urban research institutes in our region of the country and because the Houston region currently looks like what the rest of the nation will look like in a few decades. [Klineberg previously told Bisnow that Houston’s diverse demographics, in particular its racial breakdown where only 38% of residents are White, will one day be more common in major U.S. cities.]

Bisnow: You've lived in Houston for over a decade and are a native Texan. What's your favorite thing about living in Houston?

Turley: I love the people of Houston. I especially fell in love after Hurricane Harvey hit. I immediately saw people all around me come together to see how they could help one another. People whose own homes had flooded were going around neighborhoods offering assistance. I regularly saw people giving away money, groceries, tools, clothing and labor. I saw people opening their homes, kitchens and laundry rooms. Student groups, church groups, everywhere I turned, people were organizing and working hard to help one another. I saw it again during the freeze. The people of Houston are truly amazing. That’s why I love the work that the Kinder Institute is doing, and I’m honored to be the new director of what I and my team see as a labor of love.