Cornell celebration, national meeting will honor Christopherson

Susan Christopherson

The late professor of city and regional planning Susan Christopherson, who died in December at age 69, will be remembered this month on campus with events April 28-30 in Milstein Hall. She also will be honored by her colleagues beyond Cornell at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) annual meeting this week.

The Cornell celebration of her life and work will include an exhibition depicting her Cornell career, research and publications; and a tribute at the Cornell Women’s Planning Forum April 28.

The forum features alumnae Martha Armstrong, MRP ’96; Susan Boyle, MRP ’82; Allison S. Rachleff, M.A. ’94, a historic preservation planning grad; and Katelyn Wright, MRP ’10. Topics will include career development, life as a woman in the workplace and their current roles.

Celebrating Susan Christopherson: The Joy of Learning in Service to the World,” April 29 from 2-5 p.m. in Milstein Auditorium, is a memorial service and celebration with presentations by colleagues, friends and family from Cornell and beyond, plus live music and a reception. All events are free and open to the public.

Christopherson joined Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP) in 1987. She was the first woman to be promoted to full professor in CRP and in 2014 became the first woman to chair the department in its nearly 80-year history.

She conducted policy-oriented projects and international research, integrating scholarship with public engagement. Her research and teaching focused on economic development, urban labor markets, and location patterns in media and other service industries. She also disseminated policy reports on the risks and impacts of transporting crude oil by rail, and served on a National Research Council panel considering implications of shale gas and oil development for local communities. She also was on a review committee for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $1.5 billion 2015 Upstate Economic Revitalization competition.

Christopherson’s contributions to her field in research, public engagement, teaching and service earned her numerous honors, including the AAG’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award. The award announcement said she “pushed the boundaries of academic inquiry … in a way that addresses issues of public concern and provides information to policymakers and citizens alike.”

At a memorial panel April 7 at the 2017 AAG meeting in Boston, colleagues and collaborators will discuss Christopherson’s life, work and leadership in economic geography. The panel is organized and chaired by Jennifer Clark, Ph.D. ’04, who co-authored several papers with her former Cornell adviser, as well as the award-winning 2007 book, “Remaking Regional Economies: Power, Labor, and Firm Strategies in the Knowledge Economy.”

The panel features economic geographers Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto; Shanti Gamper-Rabindran of the University of Pittsburgh; Amy Glasmeier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jane Pollard of Newcastle University; Katharine Rankin ’87, MRP ’95, Ph.D. ’99, of the University of Toronto; and Michael Storper of the University of California, Los Angeles, who also has appointments at the London School of Economics and Institut des Sciences Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. Rankin and two other former advisees, Rachel Weber, MRP ’95, Ph.D. ’98, and Harley Etienne, Ph.D. ’07, assisted in planning the panel, Clark said.

Clark first encountered Christopherson’s work in a 1989 article co-written with Storper on flexible specialization, industrial politics and labor in the motion picture industry.

“Susan’s empirical work from the 1980s proved prescient,” Clark said. “Advanced industrial economies only became more service based, and work has only become more flexible.”

The article “led me to the whole body of Susan’s work on industrial change,” said Clark, noting she applied to Cornell’s Ph.D. program in planning “on the basis of my excitement about that work and found a mentor and collaborator in Susan.”

Clark is an associate professor of public policy and director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Georgia Tech. She cites another piece by Christopherson, “On Being Outside ‘The Project,’” also from 1989, which “had a profound influence on me and how I viewed (and I suspect she viewed) the career and the field. [It] underscores the two things I now take away from her mentorship and guidance with the greatest clarity.

“First, the Project is the most important thing – it is bigger than the sum of its parts … In other words, keep your eye on the Big Picture and the Big Questions,” she said. “The empirical work is necessary and important; the grants you write to resource that research are important; but it is not enough to move from project to project publishing small results … you need to make a contribution to the Project. It’s more work. But, it matters.

“Second, the Project itself is socially constructed – like so many other things,” Clark said. “Academia is no different. Academic fields are places in constant dialogue. If you are not part of the social construction of the Important Projects in your field then you need to ask yourself: Who is? And: Why isn’t it you? And then, get in there!”

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