Alumni Spotlight: Irshad Altheimer

Irshad is forward facing and smiling.
Irshad Altheimer.

Next in our Alumni Spotlight series, we caught up with Irshad Altheimer, who earned his PhD at WSU in 2005. Irshad is an associate professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology as well as the director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives. His current research focuses on addressing dispute-related and retaliatory urban violence. We had a great conversation with Irshad about his trajectory and advice for graduate students, current exciting and important work, as well as his fond memories of WSU, including the late Professor Charles Tittle.

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Irshad: I know we don’t have that much time, but, Sadie, I have to tell you a story about Tom.

Tom: Oh, no (laughs)…

Irshad: 1999 I started at Wazzu. I don’t know if you can even say “Wazzu” anymore, but I grew up in the Seattle area, so we’re always going to call it “Wazzu.”

My first class was research methods with Tom Rotolo. He had us read all this phenomenological stuff, and I can’t even say phenomenology. I used to fall asleep reading those articles, and at first I thought, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it (laughs)! But I survived, so it was good, and I learned a lot.

Tom: I arrived in January of ’96 and I had no experience teaching graduate students. So, you’re basically…

Irshad: I was a guinea pig. What he’s saying, Sadie…I was the guinea pig.

Tom: I don’t know if I was trying to impress the students or all those distinguished professors in the department who were going to be evaluating me on my third-year review. Interestingly enough, the department no longer lets me teach methods, only statistics (laughs).

Sadie: It’s funny because Tom’s classes are not known for being like that anymore. I want to ask about the things that may be of most interest to graduate students. Thinking back to when you were in our position, if you knew what you know now, what is your advice for the job market? What might you have done differently or what would you tell us to be doing right now?

Irshad: When we look at the job market now, and even when I was on the market, I think the biggest thing is to submit a couple of things for publication, even if they get rejected and even if it’s not the greatest journal. You may have some snobby professors who say you have to get in the top five journals, but throw something against the wall because there’s certain things you’ve just got to get used to. I think the biggest thing is thinking you know what you’re doing and then getting a million rejections. It’s very humbling.

Charles Tittle was a professor there when I was at Wazzu, and he always said if you have enough rejections to fill up your wall, then you know you’re making progress because everybody goes through this process. So, I think you want to get uncomfortable as much as you can and put yourself in situations that replicate what you might experience once you’re on your own.

Because when I was at Wazzu, people were very nice, sweet, and supportive, and I needed that because I might not have made it otherwise. But once you get out in the world, you’re on your own. You knock on some people’s doors and they’re like, “Get away from me young whippersnapper. I got my own research agenda.” So, you have to embrace failure, and I think that’s hard for people when they go to graduate school. Because people come into a sociology program that’s ranked and has scholars from all these great universities, and then you were a good student, and you don’t want to ask basic questions. You don’t even know what a chi-square is. What is that? How do you interpret a correlation? So you don’t feel like you can ask basic questions because you’ve got professors having you read all these phenomenology articles (laughs).

You don’t even know what a damn independent variable is, you know what I’m saying. So you have to be uncomfortable and be willing to fail because you’re not going to have any success if you don’t fail and fail and fail. I’m still learning all the time. Somehow I ended up managing this research center and we get, like, $2 million dollars’ worth of grants a year. Managing all this stuff at RIT, I’m learning new stuff every day, but I’m so confident now I can ask somebody, “What’s the correlation again?” because I don’t care at this point. I got tenure and I know I’m not going to know everything. But I think graduate students have to embrace that. That’s hard.

Sadie: That’s great advice. The rejection process doesn’t end, so you have to get used to it.

Irshad: And it’s not just with publications. You’re going to fail in your teaching and in your ideas. One thing I didn’t do enough of is take advantage of the people who are there and ask questions. I’m not saying you have to be in people’s offices all day. But nail your professor down for 30 minutes in their office. I didn’t do that. I wasn’t comfortable with that. I’d rather try to read something for three hours, than go into a professor’s office and say, “I don’t know what the independent variable is.” So, ask those kinds of questions and take advantage of everybody.

There’s a couple people I was comfortable with, like Professor Louis Gray. I was comfortable asking Louis stuff and he’d be there with his pipe and his coffee. Professor Gene Rosa…I wasn’t even an environmental criminologist, I was in criminology obviously, but I just thought Gene was so eclectic I could ask questions (laughs).

So all I’m saying is that you’ve got to be willing to do those things and take advantage of all the wonderful people you have there. It is a phenomenal department, take advantage of people.

Sadie: That’s great advice and things that are easy to lose sight of when you’re in it.

Tom: If we could go back for a second, in this newsletter, we have a set of memory pieces about Charles Tittle written by students and colleagues. Could you talk a bit about your memories of Charles?

Irshad: Charles left a year or so after I was in the program. I was very intimidated by Charles, but I think it was his old “Texas Ranger” demeanor that intimidated me, it wasn’t him. In fact, over the years at ASC (American Society of Criminology), he would meet with all his former students, and they always invited me, and I got to see a different side of Charles. He cared so deeply about his students. Even though I wasn’t one of his students he would always ask me how I was doing and encourage me.

The cover of Charles Tittle’s influential book, Control Balance. Source: Routledge.

My first year in graduate school I think his award-winning book Control Balance had just come out. Everybody was talking about him. So I was really intimidated, but over the years at conferences, my biggest memory of him is just encouragement. He was encouraging all of us to do our best and to be great and I appreciated that. Because four years into academia, like, “Oh, man, I’m about to fail and disappoint everybody at Wazzu. Man, this is hard.” (laughs)

Tom: The department did a smaller feature on you in the newsletter a few years ago and it looks like that was right around the time that you were moving from Wayne State to RIT?

Irshad: Wayne State is an interesting story about failure because when I first got there, they said 10 publications to get tenure, and I had 14. The college supported me, and the provost didn’t, so I did not get tenure. I tell people this story, but it’s a tough story. So, you get this letter in the mail, certified mail, you didn’t get tenure, you got to go. “Whoa, what am I going to do?” You work all these years, do all this stuff, and then the dean supports you, and the new provost says, “Nah, you’re not excellent enough so I’m not approving it.” Okay, dang it. I still had to teach that next year and maintain my professionalism. I had to stay active and publishing, I had to apply for jobs, and I had to keep my family sane (laughs).

So anyways, I do all that and I end up at RIT, which I didn’t know anything about. RIT is a really interesting and cool place. I don’t want to say geeky school, but it has its own culture. It’s very tech-heavy, and all the kids who come, they’ve already had businesses and all this stuff, entrepreneurs.

We have this resource center called the Center for Public Safety Initiatives, and the director at the time, John Klofas, was getting close to retirement. He offered me the opportunity to work on some projects in which he already had grants. So when I came on, I immediately became a co-PI on a  project working with our Rochester Police Department on dispute-related violence. From that I started working on more projects and I got tenure here a year later.

Now I’m the director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives—and we get between $1.5 to $2 million worth of grants a year—as well as a professor of criminal justice. So it’s kind of difficult. I’m teaching but I’m also maintaining the grants portfolio and trying to maintain a research agenda. I’m coming up for full professor this year. I think I’m in pretty good shape for that, but at least you don’t get fired if they say no. I can still stay in Rochester.

It’s really exciting work because I get to blend sociology, which I still very much consider myself a sociologist, and criminological theory to understand crime, but also doing evaluative research to see how much of the application works. It’s hard because you’re dealing with people who don’t understand research. Sometimes the only reason you’re there is because the government says you have to have a research partner, and they know I have a research center, but they really don’t want you to do research.

And the university is growing. Since I came here we’ve got some kind of Carnegie designation as a high research university, so RIT’s in this transition of becoming a research university and getting more PhD programs. So, it’s also cool to be in the university during that transition and watch that change.

Tom: Is there anything that you would like to highlight, with respect to the research programs you are doing or any project in particular?

The other thing is, in our department we’ve changed a bit over the years in a good way, in the sense that we realize not all graduate students are interested in academic positions. We have our popular Sociologists at Work Series where we’re bringing in sociologists with PhDs working in non-academic settings, which has been helpful for both faculty and students.

Since you are working with a lot of non-academic sources, we’re interested in your experience with academics working outside of academia, especially given you know a lot of the history and challenges. You’ve acclimated quite well, but the road to get there wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. We appreciate your honesty and you’ve obviously landed on your feet.

Irshad: We have this grant portfolio and I’m PI on like six projects. We have a lot of programs and a lot of staff. The project that I’m really interested in now is we’re about to get funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation to help with the evaluation of the development of a hub for violence victims. We have all this research on re-victimization and lack of social support. But we need systems to carry out those processes, and none of the systems in Rochester work collaboratively. So, we have this medical center that’s agreed to be the hub, and when someone gets shot or stabbed they’re going to provide these wraparound services. They’re going to develop the intervention with us there from the beginning so we can give them all the research about violence and victims, and then we’re going to evaluate the process and the outcomes of it. This involves working really closely with non-academics to help them see the value of research in developing the project, and then getting them to assess their project processes so we can do process evaluation, and then connect those processes to outcomes. This is like a two-year project, but we just got word from the foundation that we’re going to get this money.

That’s really important for me because this project came from other research. For instance, nationally, only about 20 percent of shootings result in arrest. The clearance rate is really low. You hear stuff about Chicago and sixteen hundred shootings a year, but what they don’t say in the news is that no one gets arrested for shooting people. You have a better chance of not getting arrested. So now you have this move for over the last 20 years to coordinate community groups to help fill in that blank. But if you look at the research on that, those community groups don’t have the capacity to go beyond direct street mediation.

So we’re going to link those community groups, to establish community organizations, to develop a systems-wide and citywide approach to deal with violence victims. It’s a really ambitious project. It can either be a really cool thing that helps violence victims, and we can demonstrate that in the research, or it can be a big failure, so there’s a big risk.

That’s the project I’m most excited about. The project is hard because I’ve been meeting with foundation leaders, the CEO of the Health Foundation, nurses, and doctors. The research is only one small part of it because I’m the director of the Center, so I’ve been bringing all these people together, trying to get them to work collaboratively, and communicate how they should view this research and use the resource to respond better to real-life problems. It’s really the culmination of several years of research in RIT, so I’m excited about it but I’m also a little scared because it can fail, big time (laughs).

Tom: That’s interesting. And it’s a great example of wearing two hats. You’re an academic sociologist working outside of academia.

Irshad: Absolutely. I also have to work with university partners such as the legal department and human subject’s review. So, you have to be able to work with a lot of people, which goes back to nonacademic positions. If you talk to people who have these advanced degrees in social sciences, this is what they do all the time, whether it’s working for RIT or these other nonprofit institutes or government. They’re balancing all these hats and they’re rigorous and they’re writing. They’re not sending stuff to the peer-reviewed journals, but if you look at their work and their progress it is very intensive and rigorous.

Tom:  It sounds like you do have a certain fondness for Rochester, New York.  I was born there, so I have an extreme fondness for the area. I’m curious about your experiences with Rochester?

Irshad: It’s been great for me and my family and RIT has exceeded my expectations. I can see myself staying here for a while. I think in terms of my niche, what I do, and what works for me as a scholar and is engaging, this is a good place for me. I don’t think I’ll find another situation where I can run a research center and they’d accept all the things I want to do, so I love it.