The head of the state's retirement system gives the program a good bill of health

The Latane Center for Human Science occupies a quiet compound between Vance and McCauley Streets

Public Safety's new officer is a bilingual import from the Czech Republic whose specialties are explosives detection and tracking


Copyright 2004
Retirees look forward to healthy retirement fund
Human science project creates close community
Recruit's nose knows explosives
University Gazette

It appears from the road more a compound than a center, a cluster of four houses and a backyard cottage between Vance and McCauley streets near the Carolina campus. Once, all they had in common were adjoining backyards.

They are now connected by one man, Bibb Latané, in an enterprise once only a dream.

It is impossible to look at these buildings and imagine anything of any special consequence going on inside them. There are no signs out front to convey to passersby that they are home to the Latané Center for Human Science.

Applications being accepted

April 15 is the deadline for graduate students to apply for the Julie Gatewood Latané Residential Fellows program at the Latané Center for Human Science. Applications can be submitted at

For more information about the fellowships, as well as visiting faculty accommodations at the center, contact Bibb Latané at 942-1230 or

Indeed, outside advertising appears limited to the center's official web site, which explains how the center is a community, of sorts, that offers "educational, scientific and cultural programs in support of Human Science." The web site defines human science as "the set of behavioral, cognitive, policy and social sciences, especially in their trans- or meta-disciplinary aspects."

The community consists of graduate students who are awarded housing fellowships that allow them to live in three of the houses rent-free. Each house features private bedrooms and communal kitchens. Residents participate in weekly "intellectual discussion dinners" and seminars.

The fellows also sponsor two conferences a year on human science in southern Florida.

Sounds complicated, maybe too complicated to stick on a sign out by the road to explain what it all means. No such sign is necessary, of course, because the only customers, so to speak, are the students living inside.

But to get a better picture of how it all works and what it all means, you need to know about the man who set it all in motion.

Arrival in Chapel Hill
The anchor and hub of the complex is the elegant, brick house on Vance Street where Latané now lives.

What they say

Here's what fellows at the Latané Center for Human Science have to say about what it's like to live there:

"The house for me was important for a few reasons. By coming here, I was able to create relatively quickly a social network ... It's also helped me with the problem of adaptation to the culture. As a foreigner, you don't know the expectations that will be placed on you. By coming here, I was able to meet both foreigners who had been here a while and Americans who were already accustomed to dealing with foreigners. It was a very important way to be socialized and to understand what it meant to stay here .... Another reason is the conferences and the valuable speakers who come here that give you important openings to disciplines that are not your own. The third reason, which is more on the ground but not less important, is the economic advantage to be able to live without paying a real rent."

-- Christian Sellar, a second-year graduate student in geography from Italy whose work examines post-communist transformation in Russia

"Beyond the free rent and being close to campus, I think, is the ability to work with people from different disciplines. That is most important. Had I not lived here, I would have lived in an apartment, and I would only have known people from within the business school. And the only collaborative work I would have done is with people from the business school. This has given me a broader perspective."

-- Asda Chintakananda, second-year Ph.D. student at Kenan-Flagler Business School from Thailand

"It is a nice experience to be with other students, especially graduate students from other departments. I guess that's been the best thing for me because when you go to graduate school, you tend to hang out with all of the people from within your department. You like stay there, do your research and go out almost never. Of course, that can be boring. The biggest contribution for me has been having other perspectives from other departments."

-- Nicoletta Orlandi, third-year graduate student in philosophy from Italy

It is the same house to which he and his family moved in 1950 so his parents could attend graduate school at Carolina. Both southerners, they had met and married in Greenwich Village. His father, Henry Allen Latané, a transplanted Virginian descended from Huguenot refugees from France, quit his job as a securities analyst on Wall Street and entered the Ph.D. program in economics. His mother, a former belle from Alabama named Felicité Gillman Bibb, entered the master's program in psychology. The house, built in the 1920s for the incoming minister at what is now University Baptist Church, featured huge windows that allowed for sweeping views of the giant oak trees out back.

It fell into decline during the Depression and was sold to a widow who had a "marriageable" daughter and who turned the home into a boarding house and a revolving door for potential suitors.

When the Latanés moved in, the house was reconverted to single-family use, but this time for a family of students with bookcases built in everywhere.

Felicité soon had the house filled with Victorian furniture from her grandparents' antebellum house in Selma. Before long, the house became a revolving door once more, only now for dinner parties featuring such academic luminaries as economist Milton Friedman, whom Latané remembers meeting as a boy. Henry, after completing his Ph.D., was asked to stay on as a faculty member with joint appointments in economics and the business school.

Latané, meanwhile, began his freshman year at Chapel Hill High School, which then stood on Franklin Street where University Square sits today. Latané's 50th high school reunion is set for this summer, and if he attends, balding friends might remark with envy at the thick crop of hair that, while graying, still bears a deep trace of its former reddish tint.

At nearly 6 feet 3, he is a big man by standards of his generation, yet he remembers what it was like to have been the smallest kid in the class.

That status was seemingly permanent as he was also the youngest, having skipped second grade. But then he added a full foot to his 5-foot-3-inch frame between his junior and senior years.

To put that in perspective, Latané said, "I went from being the manager to playing on the high school basketball team."

Left unchanged was his regular position -- the bench. "Even when small, I was slow and clumsy and I never managed to outgrow that."

A passion for discovery
But Latané was never slow or clumsy in a classroom. He shared his father's passion for learning, if not his choice of subject matter.

After graduating from high school in 1954, Latané went off to Yale University where he would begin his lifetime quest of pushing the bounds of conventional academic inquiry.

He majored in "Culture and Behavior," a joint offering from the departments of anthropology, biology, psychology and sociology. Graduating with honors, he was accepted into Harvard Law School but asked for a deferred admission to earn a master's degree in the exciting new interdisciplinary field of "social psychology" he had stumbled upon at Yale.

Part of the reason for the delay was that he was just not ready to buckle down to serious study at a competitive school like Harvard, and he thought he could afford to invest the year he had earlier saved in gaining more maturity and a broader background. As Latané put it, "The notion of being able to discover the scientific laws underlying human behavior seemed to be good preparation for studying the laws of behavior created by legislators."

Once immersed in research, however, Latané never went back to law. After completing a doctorate in social psychology at Minnesota, he went on to teach at Columbia and Ohio State universities and by the early 1980s was back at Carolina as director of the Institute for Research in Social Science (now the Odum Institute).

Through the years, Latané's passion for human science has not waned or wavered. He has been an active researcher, receiving major awards for his research on bystander intervention in emergencies (stimulated by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese), social loafing in groups, and dynamic social impact. Recipient of many NSF grants, he has been a pioneer in applying interdisciplinary concepts from the study of nonlinear dynamics to the emergence of social organization from the interaction of individual humans in spatial networks.

Latané has also been somewhat of an academic entrepreneur -- he was instrumental in founding two successful journals and in weaning a professional organization from its overly controlling parent. As a result, he has been elected to high offices in several organizations -- the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.

In 1980, after taking up flying, he went in with his father to establish a non-profit academic conference center in a large white elephant of a beachfront house across from the First Flight airstrip at Kill Devil Hills. He has organized almost 200 conferences in the 25 years since, first in North Carolina, and since 1990 at another oceanfront location in south Florida. The present center is an outgrowth of this impulse.

A Brunswick stew of intellectual energy
While the center has no formal relationship with the graduate school, there are strong informal ties. Currently, the center is home to 15 fellows who represent 12 different schools or departments, Latané said. The majority have named fellowships at their respective schools, from Royster to Kenan to Reynolds.

Among them is Emily Harville, an epidemiology student from Wisconsin whose research interests include the prevention of birth defects. She once served in the Peace Corps in Poland.

Living in the house is not just a matter of study, study, study, and in many ways the students have come to see each other as family, even those with their own families living with them.

John Gray, a second-year Ph.D. student from Longmeadow, Mass., in Kenan-Flagler's Department of Operations, Technology and Innovative Management, lists outsourcing decisions and operations strategy in emerging economies among his research interests. He lives in one of the houses with his wife Tina and two young children (Abby and Will, who are being raised by the community).

The other married couple in the group is Clark and Beverly Gray, North Carolinians who met as students at the School for Math and Science. Clark is a Ph.D. student in geography and demography, Bev, a first-year medical student. Both served in the Peace Corps as rural health extension volunteers in Ecuador in fall of 2001.

A third pair of residents, Amy Davis from political science and Kevin Ross from statistics, are engaged to be married this spring.

Asda Chintakananda, a second-year Ph.D. student in strategic management at Kenan-Flagler Business School, is originally from Bangkok, Thailand. After completing an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Tokyo and an M.B.A. at Northwestern's Kellogg School, he worked for the World Bank.

Abe Crystal, a South Carolina native with an economics degree from Princeton, is studying human-computer interaction in the School of Information and Library Science.

Swarthmore graduate Gabriel Cumming and Duke graduate Carla Norwood are both North Carolinians interested in how rural communities make conservation decisions.

Nicoletta Orlandi, a third-year student from Italy studying philosophy, is interested in metaphysics and the mind.

Nicoletta Orlandi, a third-year student from Italy studying philosophy, is interested in metaphysics and the mind.

"One of the things that has made all these students such a joy to deal with is that they are not just bright and academically successful," Latané said. "But there is something about wanting to live in a place like this that makes them socially very interesting."

Latané, though he probably would recoil at the titles, serves as both headmaster and landlord.

The descriptions don't precisely fit, of course.

Landlords charge rent. Latané doesn't. Students split the cost among themselves for food and utilities, at a monthly rate everyone agreed to in advance.

Headmasters lecture their students. Latané does not so much lecture as help set the table for engaging discussion with a topic that he or one of the students picks in advance.

And there are prescribed times and days of the week for each of these kinds of events.

Tuesdays at lunchtime, Latané offers a non-credit seminar -- "Introduction to Human Science" in which the group tries to develop common themes from different disciplines that may help lead to a unified understanding of human and social dynamics. Wednesday nights are devoted to group discussions of general topics over dinner. Sunday nights usually feature an outside speaker who joins the group for dinner and then leads a discussion afterwards.

Often the group is joined by Maria Mumford, a well-traveled professor of language, literature and cross-cultural communication. She came to North Carolina to develop the content of a pioneering online program teaching Spanish for M.B.A.s, executives, and other professionals for Kenan-Flagler. For the past two years, she has helped Latané manage seminars, conferences, and other events in both North Carolina and Florida.

The atmosphere is most often light and friendly, even after the plates are cleared and the subject for the day is served for debate. The idea here is not to win an argument but to broaden one's understanding of an issue by seeing the multiplicity of perspectives from which it can be viewed.

On a Wednesday night in late February, after finishing an Indian dish of chicken and rice, students took up the question of corporate influence on university research, weighing the possible benefits against the possible dangers.

In a sense, the center has recreated for Latané the kind of charged intellectual excitement he experienced when he was a student, back when the field of social psychology was still "the mother of all behavioral and social sciences" and had not yet been reduced in scope to a sub-area of psychology or sociology.

"Part of what I'm trying to do with the center is to regain that interdisciplinary perspective," Latané said. "None of this precludes students from continuing on to become experts in their own disciplines, but it may allow them to develop a richer and more comprehensive view of the social world."

Latané said he hopes the personal and intellectual bonds that students form with each other can be extended with the creation of "the Human Science Network," a web-based facility for communication, research and teaching in human science.

The group is currently working on grant proposals to extend the resources already located at to enable offering online courses and research surveys.

Making it happen
The creation in 1980 of Social Science Conferences Inc. in Nags Head set in motion for Latané the general goal of using real estate to promote scientific exchange. The idea for doing so in Chapel Hill began stirring in Latané's imagination in 1985, just before his father's death, when he bought the fine old Victorian house at 223 McCauley Street.

Years later, as his mother was dying of cancer in the spring of 1999, Latané discussed with her the idea of turning the house into a place where students could meet and learn from each other.

It took some convincing.

When he spoke to her, she had already begun the usual process of estate planning and expected to simply leave the property to Latané.

But she liked the idea that the house she had lived in for nearly 50 years would retain its furnishings and her husband's papers and have a useful function after her death.

She liked his idea, too, of using the non-profit public charity that he had founded 20 years before with his father. Donate the property to Social Science Conferences Inc, he told his mother, and the taxes saved would amount to getting a federal match.

She finally agreed, with the stipulation that the center bear the family name, just as she had insisted on carrying forward her maiden name of Bibb by giving it to him as his first name when he was born.

Thanks to the stock market acumen of his father and the frugal lifestyle of his mother -- she loved playing bridge and hated shopping -- the estate included a sizeable amount of securities as well.

Latané used a good deal of it to buy the two additional houses on McCauley Street and to pay for renovations. What was once an unused attic became a two-room living unit. What was once a backyard garage became a cottage with a bedroom, hot tub and kitchen reminiscent of a yacht (Latané makes the cottage available free of charge for visiting faculty). What was once a dingy half basement became a seminar room, a media room, a computer lab and a recreation room.

The family money also was enough to be able to offer the fellowships as well as travel and research grants. What Latané did not share with his mother was his intention to name them the Julie Gatewood Latané Residential Fellows, after his younger sister.

Julie had shared his passion for human science. She graduated from Carolina, then went on to earn a doctorate in social psychology, married and started a university teaching career.

She also applied her research to solving social problems. She was involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. She got involved in issues that affect Native Americans. She worked on programs for early childhood education. And she became active in a center for international conflict resolution.

"She wanted to make a difference," Latané said.

But she also was predisposed toward depression. In 1975, while her parents were out of the country, she hanged herself from a pipe in the basement of the family home.

Her death devastated the family and was a subject his mother could not bring herself to talk about for the rest of her life.

And that is why turning that same basement into a place where bright people are drawn together to discuss what can be done about the social problems of today means so much to him, Latané said.

"It is important to me to take that space that has such a bad memory associated with it and turn it into something positive," he said.