The Social and Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC) is celebrating 50 years of conducting social science research for Washington State University and others in need of information on people’s opinions and behaviors.

The 50th anniversary celebration comes during a year with a “perfect storm” of seemingly intractable problems: racial injustice, climate change, and a global pandemic. The SESRC was created during another turbulent year: 1970.

The SESRC began in response to student protests that temporarily closed down WSU. The Vietnam War had created enormous frustration and division, and the U.S. invading Cambodia in 1970 unleashed waves of criticism nationwide. The focus of frustration shifted after a number of racially charged events from January 1969 to May 1970 involving Black WSU students.

As a result, students at WSU marched on the French Administration Building lawn and the residence of then-WSU President Glenn Terrell, insisting that the president do “something.” Students requested University leadership to respond to a list of 11 Black student demands to resolve racism concerns.

Students and many faculty went on strike during the spring semester of 1970. To resolve the conflict, President Terrell made a controversial decision. He agreed to the cancellation of two days of classes to hold racism workshops, as they were called at the time, for all members of the WSU community.

“Many local residents and people throughout the state were reported as being upset at what students and faculty were doing,” said Don Dillman, deputy director for research and development at the SESRC.

Closeup of Don Dillman
Don Dillman

In the midst of this unrest, James F. Short, Jr., founding director of SESRC, and Melvin Defleur, chair of sociology, proposed to President Terrell that they could create a telephone survey laboratory to learn what students and others in the community were thinking. The president agreed. Dillman was asked to form the Public Opinion Laboratory, install phones, hire interviewers, and provide results.

“Professional surveyors did not do telephone surveys in those days; only in-person interviews were considered scientifically legitimate,” said Dillman. “But since I had done a single telephone survey in 1969 just prior to coming to WSU, I was assigned the task. Most importantly, however, those two racism workshops and people’s attitudes needed to be understood.”

After four days of telephone calling, the center achieved an 85% response rate, reaching almost all of the students. Short recalled years later that the WSU Board of Regents was astonished, yet relieved, by the survey results, which revealed broad positive support for the racism workshops. Previously, they had only heard from individuals voicing complaints.

Dillman recounts, “We found that people were cooperative so it only made sense for us to continue conducting telephone surveys for other pressing issues where public opinion was needed.”

The SESRC established itself as a survey innovator early in its existence. SESRC developed methods for doing effective telephone and mail surveys that quickly caught on across the University. In the same timeframe, Dillman released the first edition of his book, titled “Mail and Telephone surveys: The Total Design Method.” His book provided the foundations for a new method of survey methodology that has been used ever since by the SESRC and other research institutions to ensure valid survey results.

When John Tarnai joined the center as assistant director in the early 1980s, he immediately formed a team of researchers and programmers to build a micro-computer-assisted telephone interviewing system, one of the first in the world. The system enabled significant advancements in the effectiveness of telephone interviewing.

In 1985, Dillman agreed to become SESRC’s director, serving in the position until 1996.

“When I became director, we started applying for and getting grants, which then allowed us to hire a full-time staff,” said Dillman. “The existence of the SESRC with approximately 20 full-time staff members made it possible to continually run experiments to test and then implement new ways of doing surveys.”

Tarnai became the director of the SESRC in 1996. Under his leadership, the SESRC expanded, moving its telephone interviewing and mailing facilities to the WSU Research Park and adding the Puget Sound Division to better respond to state agencies’ research needs.

In 1998, the SESRC was among the first to conduct and publish methods for doing surveys over the internet. Nearly a decade of research followed that provided the theoretical understanding of how people processed aural (interview) and visual (web and mail) survey formats. The research paved the way for the creation and testing of web-push methods for improving survey response and data quality. These methods are now being used throughout the world for conducting censuses and surveys.

Closeup of Lena Le
Lena Le

In 2014, the SESRC welcomed its current director, Lena Le. She has over a decade of survey expertise and a wealth of experience working with public land management agencies. As a result, the SESRC now hosts a database of 25 years of social science research collected via visitor surveys at national parks, the largest collection of its kind in the nation.

To date, the SESRC has surveyed more than a million people with mail, telephone, internet, or mixed-mode data collection.

This article is a short story of the SESRC 50-year history. The full story can be found on the Office of Research website.