by Jocelyn Rappaport
For almost four decades, Christopher T. Hill has devoted his professional career to science and technology policy. In 1994, he joined the faculty of Mason's Institute of Public Policy where he served as director of the doctoral program from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2008 to 2010. From 1997 to 2005, Hill served as vice provost for research at Mason. He is retiring from Mason where he has been a professor of public policy and technology, and moving to Tennessee. As of February 2011 he will have Professor Emeritus status.
Hill's career did not develop as he had imagined. A good student in math and science, he was in high school when Sputnik went up, and he and everyone else assumed he would become an engineer or scientist, he says. He planned to follow the typical career path at the time of studying and landing a good job with an established company, working there for 35 or 40 years and then retiring with a good pension. On reflection, he says, "How different the world has become and how fortunate I am to have been able to grow and change with that world and follow a path very different from the one I set out on. Looking back, there are things I should have done differently or better, even as I deviated from the expected path. That said, I am happy with how things have gone."
Fortunately for Mason, Hill's career path landed him here. Hill was attracted to Mason by the opportunity to join the faculty of a new venture in the field of public policy.
"I was especially pleased that the Institute of Public Policy [which later became School of Public Policy (SPP)] had a strong commitment to technology and science policy as evidenced by the early appointment of Don Kash to the faculty, as well as by the fact that all the other founding faculty members—Kingsley Haynes, Roger Stough, Marty Lipset, and Wayne Perry—were interested and engaged in topics that took explicit account of the important role that technological change and innovation play in public policy matters," says Hill.
Hill says he also found Mason attractive "because, as a new and growing institution with visionary leadership, it was open to doing new things and was not dominated by the traditional fiefdoms of the academic disciplines and their guilds." Hill says he had no idea that the small Institute of Public Policy would become SPP with a thousand students, 50 faculty members, and a growing international reputation. "Mason's meteoric rise in regard, in visibility, in genuine accomplishment, and in importance to the region, the commonwealth, and the world has gone well beyond anything I imagined back in 1994."
His interaction with students is what he will miss most as he retires from the university faculty.
"I will miss working with the students who challenge me to think through my own understanding and assumptions every day, as well as with those who need a little extra support and encouragement to be successful," Hill says. "On the research side, my time at Mason and SPP has been a time of great growth in my own understanding and appreciation of ideas from an incredibly rich array of fields, perspectives, methods, and approaches. The faculty and doctoral students in SPP make up an outstanding intellectual community."
Colleagues, alumni, and students voice agreement in their praise of Hill and his valuable interactions with them. David Hart, professor and director of SPP's Center for Science and Technology, valued the opportunities that Hill and he had to talk about issues in their field. Hart says that Hill "always knows what's going on and has something interesting to say about it," pointing to Hill's recent important article in Issues in Science and Technology that discusses the need for the U.S. government to have a permanent institutional framework for innovation policy development and implementation.
According to Hart, Hill is a link to some of the pioneers in the field of technology and innovation policy.
"His depth and breadth of interest and experience in Washington and around the world, especially in East Asia, is unmatched. He is a man of great integrity, both as a scholar and as an administrator," says Hart. Hart adds that he hopes he can contribute to the next generation of scholars as well as Hill has.
Professor Jim Finkelstein says that Hill seems to have no more than two degrees of separation from just about anyone in the policy community.
"Every time we wanted or needed to contact someone with whom we didn't have an apparent connection, without fail, either Chris genuinely knew the person or could get to them with one phone call or e-mail," says Finkelstein.
Finkelstein remembers that at the end of each semester after teaching a course with Hill, the two of them would discuss each student's work and reach an agreement on a grade. He says, "What struck me was not how seriously Chris took teaching, but how engaged he became with each student. He never gave up on anyone." Finkelstein also observed that Hill, as director of the PhD program, would get to know each doctoral student as a future colleague and not merely a student.
Ron Hira, currently associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, was one of those students. Hira says that many SPP professors had a significant impact on his intellectual development but Hill contributed the most. "Given our shared background in engineering there was a natural connection. Most important, he showed me how to connect the practical to the theoretical and the value academic research could provide in real-world decision making," says Hira. Hira also agrees about Hill's generosity of time and counsel and his willingness to share his extensive network of contacts.
"Chris Hill provided words of encouragement and support at all the right times," says Hira. "I wouldn't be where I am without him." Hira knows that even with retirement Hill will still be active in the technology policy world. He believes Hill's recent work on the post-scientific society will continue to shape the thinking in the field for years to come."
Christine Pommerening, SPP research assistant professor, recalls first meeting Hill 11 years ago when she was a first-year PhD student and his graduate research assistant. She had just arrived from Germany and, according to her, was unfamiliar with studying and working at a U.S. university. She says, "It's hard to think of anything that I didn't learn from Chris back then."
Pommerening observes that Hill has the rare ability to be both an excellent researcher and an exceptional research manager. She says, "Chris conveyed that elusive tacit knowledge about how research works, and I still greatly benefit from that." Pommerening adds that she considers herself privileged to have him as her mentor.
Current students feel just as strongly about Hill. Dana Dolan says in his role as director of the PhD program, Hill encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone and explore new areas of public policy. "As a returning student after a 20-year career in technology, I needed that permission, and a gentle push, to open the doors of possibility and excitement," says Dolan.
And current student Tim Tian reinforces the image of Hill being there for his students and conversing with them as future colleagues. Tian did an independent reading course with Hill and recalls, "Each week, we met in his office and he patiently listened to what I learned from the literature. His comments were useful because he always shared his experiences and observations in the American science community. I still have the notes of our conversations during that period."
In his retirement, Hill plans to continue to write, lecture, advise, and consult. "There are some interesting possibilities for continued engagement in public policy matters at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville," he says. Yet, his retirement will include more than policy. He recently dusted off his saxophone with the intention of getting back into music performance, and he has given thought to finishing a long-term project on family history. In addition, Hill and his wife hope to do more traveling and invest more of their time in areas of interest to them such as mountain hiking, art, and architecture.
SPP is planning a January 2011 celebration to honor Christopher T. Hill. Please visit the SPP faculty directory page to learn more about him and his scholarly research.