Interview with Dwight Harshbarger
Dwight Harshbarger, PhD
“I tutored 40 kids when I was 9-12 years old. In college, I became passionate about…catering to children who could do better if we taught them better. Behavior analysis was the vehicle for me to make gains in education.”
“I’ve worked in a variety of industries including automotive, human services, non-profit, print, retail, and oil and gas across a range of companies, from global Fortune 500s, creative start-ups, to local small businesses.”
“We began an instructional program in 1990 with three students. Now there are over a hundred students and more than 10 staff in that program, plus a few other programs in Israel.”
“Getting a child with Autism to communicate with signs, symbols or words when they previously used ‘meltdowns.’…I am happy that the company I created gives opportunities to these kids (and also lots of jobs to talented ABA professionals).”
“I am most proud of the 43 doctoral students I have trained, and the numerous sabbatical visitors who have spent time working with me. These people are the future of our field…”
“Behavior analysts should work on speaking to a broader audience in ways that the audience is receptive to and finding ways to disseminate and tell our story more effectively.”
“I’m proud of my students and their work, and how we developed a line of research related to communication/verbal behavior and RFT/rule governance in organizations. Developing your niche is hard to do and takes courage.”
…my approach is the same: make sure the behavior is doable; ensure there’s motivation and environmental support; reduce or eliminate coercion; always look to the contingencies.
Interview conducted by Michael P. Kranak, PhD, BCBA-D (Formerly a Distinguished Scholar and now an Advisor to the Center.)
How did you end up where you are today?
As a native of West Virginia, Dr. Harshbarger completed both his undergraduate and master’s degree in Psychology at West Virginia University. He had always had a long-term interest in human ecology and public safety in a larger sense, but was focused in social/behavioral psychology at the time. He began to pursue his PhD at Berkeley, but at that time he was called into service in the Army. He was stationed in North Dakota, and ended up enrolling in their PhD program and finishing out his degree there. While he was at UND, he began consulting with a mental hospital in Minnesota. As it would turn out, his director and contact at that mental hospital ended up taking a job as a director at Harvard – he asked Dwight to join him! After completing a post-doc at Harvard, he came back to WVU and taught in the psychology department (something he was MORE than happy to do so). He quickly rose through the ranks to tenured full professor. But, he decided he wanted to get out of the realm of academia. He took a leave of absence and ran a community mental health center in the coal fields of southern WV. He then ended up as a business consultant at a firm in Chicago, IL. He was involved in a lot of management development work at Sealy Posturepedic. He became involved with plant managers, and effectively employed behavior principles into their systems and safety procedures. After a company riff, the new president reached out to Dr. Harshbarger and asked him to get involved again; to connect the two cultures and make the old and new company one. The same colleague who connected him with the hospital in Minnesota and later Harvard reached out to Dwight once more – he was consulting with Reebok at the time, and Reebok had inquired if Dwight would come on board. He agreed and would end up serving as their Vice President of Human Resources. Around that time, he ended up working with Aubrey Daniels for a little over a year. He was currently a trustee of the Cambridge Center. The CCBS had approached him and asked if he would serve as director, a position he held for eight years. He then returned to the hills of West Virginia where he would become a successful author and serve as a professor in the School of Public Health at WVU.
During your second stint at WVU, how did you end up on the Health Sciences campus rather than back in the Psychology department?
He had a huge interest in health and human services, and a friend asked him to come to a presentation. As it turns out, the presenter was the director of community medicine. During this talk, Dr. Harshbarger thought this was exactly what the state needed. He and the director ended up meeting regularly, and the director said they needed someone on board to teach evaluative research and another course or two. To this end, he ended up in the School of Public Health..
What made you decide to write a fictional book about West Virginia?
“In the Heart of the Hills.” Short stories all interconnected in one community. Story of people’s lives before, during, and after WWII, post-war America and how it affected them. One of the characters had an experience at tunnel disaster. Put a damn on New River and dig tunnel to divert water through dam. Men dying of acute sarcoidosis. Men needed work, just kept hiring new men. Buried in unmarked graves in Summersville.
So few behavior analysts in WV, what can we do to fix this?
When on faculty, there was a professional master’s degree. Designed to meet manpower shortage. Need more resources. Need more schools to offer training.
Thoughts on CCBS, and ideas for the student group?
Everything we’re doing now is helpful – hard to have time with all students being in graduate school.
How’d go from typical behavior analysis to BBS?
When at Sealy, saw unsafe workplace. Coworker was killed, thought we HAVE to address this can’t just blame worker/workplace. Got opportunity to be a consultant in Weston at hospital. Learned about behavior analysis, but never practiced it. Apply to social constructs? Could work! Began to meet with staff and putting in order and structure into ward. Amazing what happens when systems are put into place. “This stuff is powerful, I’m gonna keep doing it.”