D. Dwight Harshbarger, PhD

Dwight Harshbarger, PhD

Interview conducted by Michael P. Kranak, PhD, BCBA-D (Formerly a Distinguished Scholar and now an Advisor to the Center.)

The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies is sad to report that we lost this distinguished member of our community.
Dr. Dwight Harshbarger wrote of “sliding doors” in his autobiography in CCBS’ Behavioral Science: Tales of Inspiration and Service as discrete moments when opportunities arise that send one’s life in a different trajectory.  As we learn of his passing, at home with loved ones, all behavior analysts using the science to reduce suffering are the beneficiaries of Dwight’s work and relationships as we pass through sliding doors in our careers.  Dwight’s distinguished career culminated in the Executive Director position within Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, the founding (along with Bill Hopkins) of the Commission on Behavioral Safety Accreditation and the 30-year run of  Behavioral Safety Now.  Dwight was the author of many seminal scientific articles and books before productively spending his last years writing popular novels historically documenting the harm humans can do externalizing corporate objectives. (His novels are found at dwightharshbarger.com.) Dwight was recognized for his lifetime achievement by the OBM Network and was a fellow of the Association for Behavior Analysis. 

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.”

Learn more about Dr. Harshbarger’s life and work in his obituary.