Robert Rosenthal, a father of meta-analysis who was named one of the 20th century's top 100 psychologists, died Jan. 5 at 90.
Twenty-five years ago, following his retirement from Harvard University, Rosenthal joined the UC Riverside faculty. He was named a University Professor in 2008 by the University of California system, a distinction shared by only 40 professors in UC’s history.
He retired from his full-time UCR professorship in spring 2018 but continued teaching part-time in UCR’s Graduate Division through fall quarter 2023.
Rosenthal gained worldwide notoriety in 1968 with the publication of his book Pygmalion in the Classroom. It concluded that K-12 classroom outcomes are predetermined by teacher expectations. “The Pygmalion Effect,” also called “The Rosenthal Effect,” became part of the popular lexicon. He made the front page of The New York Times, and was interviewed on the Today Show by Barbara Walters.
The fame and controversy his book generated were uncomfortable for Rosenthal, who preferred the quiet life of an academic.
With statistician Gene Glass, he co-founded modern meta-analysis, which transformed scientific research by combining studies to compound probability. He is also among the fathers of psychological principles including experimenter bias and interpersonal expectations.
In 2002, “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” was published in the Review of General Psychology. Rosenthal is No. 84 on that list, which includes the likes of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and Carl Jung.
He was chosen for tenure at Harvard over Stanley Milgram, and he inherited the Harvard office of the disgraced Timothy Leary.
For all his professional accolades, colleagues emphasize Rosenthal’s gentle nature.
“It transformed our department to have someone here who was not only a legendary authority but also about the kindest, least pretentious person you'd ever meet,” said David Funder, who first taught with Rosenthal at Harvard in the 1980s, then at UCR. “What a role model, in a field (academia) not exactly known for humility or self-effacement among its luminaries.”
“He is the most consistent person I've ever met, both in his temperament and the way he treated people," Funder said. "If an undergraduate poked their head into his office, or the president of the university happened to stop by, they would both find themselves treated exactly the same way -- with kindness, respect, and genuine interest.”
Peter Blanck was Rosenthal’s friend and colleague since 1979. Blanck is a University Professor at Syracuse University who collaborated with Rosenthal on many research papers, including “The Appearance of Justice,” in 1985, which parlayed the Pygmalion classroom dynamic to the courtroom.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘mensch’; if there ever was a mensch, it was Bob,” Blanck said, referring to the Yiddish word meaning “person of noble character.” “He was a giant, but you would never know his stature from talking to him.”
Rosenthal’s wife, MaryLu, predeceased him in 2010. He is survived by three children, Roberta, David, and Virginia, and six grandchildren.
To read a 2018 profile of Rosenthal marking the 50th anniversary of “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” follow this link.