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  • The Roper Center

    What America Thinks
    The End of an Era

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, July 6, 1998

    Everett Carll Ladd, who has served for 21 years as director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, has announced that he is stepping down from that post, effective next July. He made the surprise announcement at the annual meeting of the center's board of directors.

    Ladd's decision marks the end of an extraordinarily contentious 18 months in the life of the center, the largest archive of academic, commercial and media polling data in the world.

    During the past year and a half, Ladd publicly battled with the board over articles he wrote that criticized the performance of the 1996 preelection presidential polls. He also clashed with some members of the board over the center's survey unit, which conducted polls under contract for a variety of clients in the public and private sectors.

    Those surveys generated about $1 million a year in revenue. About half that amount went directly to the Roper Center to fund data acquisition efforts and to support graduate students working at the center.

    Last summer, the university decided to separate the survey unit from the Roper Center, sending the staff scrambling to make up for the precipitous drop in funding.

    In an interview, Ladd cautiously described the events that led to his decision. "By next July, I will have been director for 22 years," Ladd said. "That's a long time. In that amount of time, one has a fair chance to do something. But one also gets a little weary of some of the stuff that needs to be done. There are books I want to write. I welcome having the additional time to pursue research more fully .... I am tired. The organization needs some new energy to continue ahead."

    But Ladd freely acknowledges that his decision wasn't prompted by a desire to reduce his workload. "It's not the whole story at all." He admitted he had made a "serious error" in publicly criticizing the performance of media pollsters in 1996 in an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

    Some media organizations, including ABC News and The Washington Post, briefly stopped sending their polling data to the center to protest what they considered Ladd's overly harsh and inaccurate characterizations of the 1996 preelection polls, which other independent reviewers found had done a better-than-average job predicting the actual outcome.

    "My Wall Street Journal article was a mistake," he says. "It was a polemical piece. The center was bruised by the reaction. That certainly got the ball rolling, though rolling in directions that no one expected. If I had apologized earlier on, we would not be where we are. It was clearly an error on my part."

    But it was the decision last August by the university to separate the survey unit from the Roper Center that even more dramatically complicated Ladd's life. That decision came two months after a contentious board meeting in which – in addition to sharp criticism of Ladd's Journal article – the commercial survey work was questioned by some members of the center's board, which includes representatives of the Gallup Organization, Roper Starch Worldwide and Louis Harris and Associates. These members expressed deep reservations about the center eventually becoming a competitor (I also am a member of the Roper Center's board of directors).

    Those fears eventually found their way to university administrators, giving them the impression that the board would not object to removing the survey group from the center. It was the final event in what Ladd says was a "confluence of circumstances and misunderstandings worthy of a novel."

    "I never thought we should be a large survey center; that would be incompatible with the basic mission of the center," Ladd says. "But I don't think that doing some carefully crafted original research was incompatible with that mission. I thought we were beginning to do that. We were returning to the Roper Center $500,000 to $600,000 a year for general development, and to support graduate students."

    Ladd entertains some hope that the survey unit – and its revenues – will be returned to the Roper Center. But for now, the split "is a fact of life." The center is in for a financially rocky couple of years. He and the center's staff are actively pursuing grants and other money to stabilize the center's finances.

    But the money chase is wearing and frustrating, Ladd says. "We were right on the cusp of really charging ahead," he says. "Then to have to cut back significantly and to look ahead to two or three years of hard labor to bring us back to where were were in August of 1997, well, I felt it was appropriate for someone to step in who was unscarred by these feelings to attempt to lift the rock up further."

    Replacing Ladd will be difficult, board members agree. His national reputation as a political scientist, his broad vision and his flinty New England pragmatism have served the center well – so well that it's difficult to think of the center without picturing Ladd. He has urged the university to seek a new "director who is not narrowly defined by one discipline, who has broad interests in the study of society, who primarily isn't interested in polling, but interested in studying society."

    Ladd says he hopes to remain affiliated with the center, perhaps as a senior researcher. He currently is editor of Public Perspective, the center's highly regarded magazine. He says he would welcome continuing that association.

    But he doubts he will change his mind about stepping down as director. "My announcement was not a ploy, but a judgment I arrived at after a lot of thinking and I believe it will stand. To say that there is no circumstance that would cause me to reconsider is incorrect. Yet I strongly doubt that will occur."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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