Sunday, April 1, 2007

Honorary Degree: Lewis R. Goldberg

In anticipation of college commencements that will soon occur throughout the United States, this week’s post focuses on identifying an appropriate candidate for an honorary degree award at my home institution, the University of Southern California (USC). During each annual graduation ceremony, USC awards at least one nominee with an honorary degree, and this recipient delivers the commencement speech to the graduating class (pictured to the right). One purpose of such an accolade, according to the criteria on this campus, is to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship… but who may not be widely known by the general public.” Author and former president of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, James Freedman, pictured to the left, notes the importance of selecting the right recipient for this recognition, which is bestowed by numerous American universities, for when granting honorary degrees, he states: “a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.”

With Freedman’s admonition in mind, the doctoral degree that I am proposing for this year’s USC commencement speaker is for distinction in science, more specifically psychology. I believe that the most deserving person is Lewis R. Goldberg, pictured to the right. Through his research, Goldberg has exemplified the ideal qualities of scholarliness and ambition that are inscribed on Tommy Trojan, USC’s beloved mascot (pictured below). Currently writing scientific journal articles at the Oregon Research Institute, he has been a professor at numerous universities, such as University of California at Berkeley. Over the course of his career, Goldberg has received various honors for his contributions to psychology (for example, the Block Award for Outstanding Scientific Contributions) and was involved in leadership positions in his field, such as his recent presidential position in the Association for Research in Personality, a field where he has established himself at the forefront. Goldberg’s most important contribution has been his findings on the five main personality dimensions, first discussed in his 1981 article entitled “Language and individual differences: The search for universals in personality lexicons,” in addition to more recent work, such as his co-authored essay “The international personality item pool and the future of public-domain personality measures.” Goldberg is one of the major proponents for the Big Five Theory of personality, as opposed to the Five-Factor Model, and argues that the basic personality characteristics are urgency, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intellect. In "An Alternative ‘Description of Personality’: The Big-Five Factor Structure," Goldberg describes some of his findings on personality, concluding that "trait adjectives" such as agreeableness or conscientiousness "can be viewed as blends of five major features," the basic personality characteristics "that relate in a gross way to Power, Love, Work, Affect, and Intellect."

Goldberg’s research is controversial in the eyes of supporters of an opposing theory for personality, the Five-Factor Model. Researchers such as Paunonen and Jackson have “argued that [Goldberg’s] study used too loose a criterion for inclusion in the Big Five,” meaning that results were not actually statistically significant, despite the researchers claims that the findings did in fact support the hypothesis. Paunonen and Jackson are essentially asserting that Goldberg set up his experiment so that any minimal results would seemingly maintain his argument. They might claim that he is not the proper recipient for the honorary degree because, according to them, his research is not the most accurate in his specific field. This has implications, for the expert James Freedman would not support a candidate, nor would USC, who was not respected for an honorary degree, since he sees this award as “ a practice rich in opportunity—but… also ripe for abuse.” Additionally, those opposed to personality testing might not support the results of Goldberg’s findings, and therefore be in opposition to his nomination. For example, many believe that personality testing can only capture a portion of a one’s identity, and is not precise enough.

However, Goldberg’s qualifications do not end with psychology, and given my emphasis on the intersection of psychology and business, Goldberg becomes even more compelling as a prospective honorand. His criticisms notwithstanding, in my opinion Goldberg’s findings are not only legitimate and important to the field of psychology, which is based on the study of individuals, but his notions of personality traits have been applied in the business world as well. Personality testing during the interview process, in addition to many other areas in the work place, has become a widespread and important resource for numerous employers. Because the time and monetary costs of turnover and employee dissatisfaction are high for businesses, with some companies reporting “costs at more than $30,000 for each lost worker,” personality assessment has become a valuable tool in combating turnover and dissatisfaction before they can begin. Goldberg’s Big Five theory is utilized by businesses in a specific test, called the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP). Such achievements make Goldberg qualified for the honorary degree, which may be awarded to those who are "highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor."

One of the most important aspects of the honorary degree is the commencement address given by the honoree. In his commencement address, Goldberg would be able to integrate information about how this research was utilized by multiple fields. Goldberg might speak to the audience about his experiences with persevering during studies and research, in addition to handling criticism in a professional manner—this knowledge will encourage graduates that are struggling professionally after college to behave ethically and have a positive attitude about the future. Additionally, Goldberg could describe the satisfaction he has derived from contributing to the psychological and business community, and from working with the Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “studying human behavior and developing programs to improve the health and well being of individuals, families and communities.” One hopes that this would motivate students to be involved in philanthropic activities and take pride in their achievements. Lastly, he can integrate personality testing into his speech by explaining how each individual’s unique personality will be key in their future success, whatever field they plan to pursue. In sum, when candidates for USC’s honorary degree in my field are held up to the requirements, Lewis Goldberg will stand out for being one who, as Freedman states, has arrived at “distinguished and sublime achievement.”

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