Tribute to Dr. Ed Latessa
Celebrating Edward J. Latessa: Person, Builder, Scholar, and Traveler
Edward J. Latessa has had a multifaceted influence on the field of criminal justice over a remarkable career that has spanned more than four decades. He has been instrumental in building the School of Criminal Justice and a nationally recognized doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati, has contributed defining scholarly research, and has done more to shape correctional policy and practice than perhaps anyone else. The foundation of his impact, however, has been his unique personality and his commitment to improving the lives of others. This essay celebrates his career, focusing on Ed the person, the builder, the scholar, and the traveler.
In a way, I wish I were not writing this tribute celebrating Ed Latessa. I cannot fathom that we have both reached this stage in our careers and life where remembrances seem appropriate and honors are bestowed. Indeed, I wish that I had a time machine and could whisk us back four decades to when Ed (1980) and I (1982) arrived at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Along with Lawrence (“Larry”) Travis, Patricia (”Pat”) Van Voorhis, and many others, we embarked on a remarkable journey – so special that its eventual outcome was unimaginable when we were but criminological toddlers.
I approached this essay with trepidation for another reason: How could I possibly capture the enormity of Ed’s career, or even the enormity of his personality? But with that caveat in mind, I thought for a while as to what has made Ed so special. I started with what is most obvious: what kind of person Ed is. It informs all other aspects of his academic life. I then asked what made him different, what makes his legacy so special. It seemed to me that three other components mattered: Ed as the builder of our program; Ed as a scholar of consequence; and Ed as a traveler spreading the “gospel” of what works in correctional treatment.
So, my comments will be organized into those four personas of Ed: the person, the builder, the scholar, and the traveler. I will do so with the realization that all these components intersected day to day, week to week, year to year – over four decades.
Let me add one note. This essay was first presented as an address to an online celebration for Ed sponsored by the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati that was widely attended, including by the authors of the tributes in this Special Issue of Victims & Offenders. Except where the verbiage benefitted from being “smoothed out” and elaborated a bit, I mostly retained the text of the original presentation. This original address can be accessed here.
Ed the person
As I trust everyone who has met Ed knows, there are no words that can fully capture what Ed is like as a person. It is something that one just must experience! But I will do my best, and the word that comes to mind is memorable.
Few people have met Ed for any length of time without having some story to tell about the experience. I will share just one tale – of my initial encounter with Ed that goes back to May of 1982 when I arrived at UC for my faculty job interview. At that time, criminal justice was not yet a department – just a program on the backside of the campus in French Hall, a somewhat dilapidated former residence hall no longer fit for student living! The rest of the College of Education was located up the hill in Teachers College. As part of the interview process, I had an interview with the dean in the main college office, so Ed’s task was to transport me from French Hall to Teacher’s College, along a road that then connected lower and upper campus.
Driving with Ed is an event. We were in Ed’s VW Bug, which on this particular hot day had smoke bellowing out its back. It was a time when students were changing classes and crossing the road in front of us. I swear it was like a movie scene with pedestrians jumping out of the way of the car as Ed swerved and avoided striking them. All we needed was a fruit stand for Ed to plow into! Ah, memories!
You must know that the only time Ed looks at you is when he drives. In his office, he will open mail or pick wax out of his ear. But when traveling down the road, even if you are in the back seat, he insists on looking at you as the vehicle speeds forward. Bonnie Fisher and I had a memorable ride with Ed to Louisville. On I-75 heading south, there was a place where the middle lane was closed off by a barrier. As Ed talked away to and stared at Bonnie in the back seat, I could see this bright orange barrel getting closer and closer. Of course, like a stunt driver, Ed was nonplussed and swerved in the nick of time to avoid an accident. Just another day on the road with Ed.
My interview ended in a way still etched in my consciousness. During my campus visit, I stayed at the Vernon Manor, a historic Cincinnati hotel (now closed) that had housed the Beatles during their visit to the Queen City. As I was about to leave, I was standing with Ed at the checkout counter of the hotel. Little did I know that two other candidates had declined a job offer – James Garofalo and Timothy Flanagan, both well-known scholars at SUNY-Albany. In any case, as we were about to depart, Ed said to me: “Well, are you coming?” I was stunned because I had expected to wait a week or two to hear if I would receive the job offer. I stammered: “Well, I have a job interview at Old Dominion.” Then, in a most memorable way, Ed said: “Why the f_ _ _ do you want to go to Old Dominion!” I replied that I did not – and so I was on to the University of Cincinnati and a four-decade journey with Ed. Of course, my career at UC started with “What the f_ _ _!”
Now, when you probe beneath the surface, Ed has four important traits.
First, he takes care of business. He is just very competent. This talent is often overlooked because the absence of problems inspires inattention. It is easy to take a smooth-functioning department for granted.
Second, he always goes out of his way to take care of students and staff. He is protective and supportive of the least among us – though he is a prick to the arrogant and powerful. I will give but one illustrative story – minor in one way but instructive a large way. There was a student I knew and was concerned about who was in the master’s program but had no financial support and no desk (or cubicle with a computer) to call his own. I asked Ed if he could “do something.” In such cases, Ed nearly always agreed to assist; he would say: “Well, have them see Erin (or perhaps Janice or John).” In this case, he promised he would get the student “some hours in the (Corrections) institute and a cubicle.” A small act of kindness, but one that had a huge ramification for the student. He now had not only some financial support but, more important, physical space in the graduate student office suite that allowed him to become integrated with his classmates.
Third, Ed is never jealous of anyone else’s success. He is secure in his own career, but also does not see success as a zero-sum process. He is more like a teammate – happy that a fellow player has hit a homerun that will help the team win.
Fourth, and most important, he has had an abiding commitment to doing good in the world. In fact, with Ed as a role model and with his encouragement, this goal became fundamental to the faculty’s shared mission: improve the lives of others – whether the focus was students, fellow faculty, practitioners, or offenders. So many people are giving tribute to Ed at this challenging moment precisely because he has touched and improved their lives. He has been a person of generosity and consequence – and I personally have witnessed and benefitted from our association.
Ed the builder
When I arrived in 1982, I made the 6th faculty member (3 of whom left not too long after) in UC’s Criminal Justice Program. As noted, the faculty were located in French Hall. I had an institutional gray desk and chair, and three old file cabinets (white, green, and black – one of which I had to open by pulling out a drawer while bracing with my foot), and an IBM Selectric typewriter that was missing a key. Nothing four decades ago was a harbinger of what lay ahead. Indeed, although we pursued every competition offered by the university to secure funds and faculty, our success was intermittent. After losing one competition for resources, Ed, Larry, and I traveled to the administration building to complain to then Vice-Provost Laura Struminger. She informed us that we “were a shitty little program on the back side of campus that nobody cared about.” We were okay with this response because at least she was being honest. And we also knew that we were undeterrable. Laura did note that the administration was aware of our program and that, perhaps, better outcomes lay ahead. They did.
The Criminal Justice “Program” became a “Department,” then a “Division,” and eventually a “School.” The School has more than 20 highly productive faculty members and a large staff, is home to 100 graduate students (and nearly 200 Ph.D. graduates), and houses multiple research centers and institutes that have secured millions of dollars in external funding. The School is a source of cutting-edge science and of evidence-based research that informs policy and practice. Many faculty have labored long and hard to build this program – with special notice going to Larry Travis. I must also give credit to Dean Larry Johnson. Although an education dean, he saw our promise, supported us, and even changed the name of the unit to the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH).
But to be clear, the key reason why our program is now nationally prestigious (#4 in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings) and consequential is that Ed is a consummate builder who stayed on the job a long time. He was the leader of our program from 1981 to 2020 – a remarkable reign of nearly four decades. Early on, he would see a desk in the corridor that some department had left unattended, and he would tell the graduate students to move it into one of our offices! Yes, we were that disadvantaged and pursued opportunity as it arose. The puzzling question is this: How did we go from a shitty little program to national prominence?
There were two key principles that Ed, as well as Larry Travis and I, embraced. First, we made it our goal from the first day to be the #1 program in the nation. This was an absurd aspiration in 1982, but greatness was always the purpose of the program. Second, in addition to our own self-interest or own careers, we placed a premium on leaving an organizational legacy of greatness. Ed could have gone on to be an upper administrator and a college president; hell, he could have been Governor of Ohio. But he eschewed such administrative mobility, because he always loved UC and had an abiding commitment to staying in the School of Criminal Justice his whole career. From his first day as Program Coordinator to his last day as Director of the School of Criminal Justice, Ed never stopped building our organization.
The lesson for faculty and students who are his descendants is to understand that program greatness cannot be taken for granted. It is a gift – an inheritance – to be treasured. It must be reproduced, or it will be lost. Being stewards of this gift involves following Latessa’s principles of striving to be #1 and of loving the program, not just oneself.
Ed the scholar
Virtually every day in the department, Ed the person and the builder – our leader – was something that we would hear loudly and see vividly. Less visible was “Ed the scholar,” a status that he accomplished more in private and without any self-aggrandizement. Ed never bragged about his academic status – despite being president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and winning award after award (e.g., Volmer Award given by the American Society of Criminology; see Latessa, 2004).
I will be brief, but let me note that Ed has more than 12,000 Google Scholar citations. He has published notable books, including the classic text with Harry Allen and Bruce Ponder, Corrections in America (Allen et al., 2019). Most important, he has a number of highly cited, influential articles showing that adherence to the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) principles leads to important reductions in offending (Lowenkamp, Latessa, Holsinger, et al., 2006; Lowenkamp, Latessa, Smith et al., 2006; see also Bonta & Andrews, 2017). He has done much to produce knowledge on what practitioners can do to save offenders from a life in crime. Foremost, he has shown the value of evidence-based corrections rather than, as we have called it, “correctional quackery” (Latessa et al., 2002; see also Cullen et al., 2009; Latessa et al., 2013). This insight leads to my last of Ed’s personas.
Ed the traveler
Throughout his career, Ed was an apostle for rehabilitation, traveling two, three, or four days a week spreading the “what works” gospel of effective offender treatment. If I telephoned him, I would anticipate a message telling callers that he was out of his office “until next Tuesday.” Janice Miller, his trusted and beloved administrative assistant, spent half her life making Ed’s flight plans. Indeed, I thought I would see a new sign on the door: Janice’s Travel Agency!
I had a theory. Ed has four wonderful kids – all grown and successful now. My theory was that with every new child Ed had, he traveled one extra day a week – leaving Sally (his wife) at home to raise the kids. He would come home and coach soccer, being the “good dad” on the weekends!
But I will give one final bit of history to explain Ed the traveler. In the 1980s, Pat Van Voorhis joined Ed and me in the department. It was a fortuitous coming together, for we were all strong advocates of rehabilitation at a time when the nothing works doctrine reigned. Larry Travis would say that the only three people in North America, aside from “the Canadians” (Andrews, Bonta, and Gendreau), who supported rehabilitation were the three of us.
But together, we built a strong corrections area with a focus on showing academia and practitioners the value of offender treatment. Together, we founded the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute (now known by its acronym, UCCI), with Pat as the first director. This institute was a conduit for the production and dissemination of what works knowledge. It provided a base from which Ed and Pat, I might add, went out across the United States to spread the scientific knowledge of how to change offenders. (I preferred to sit in my armchair writing articles and books on correctional policy; I wrote scripture, they delivered it!)
I was at Arizona State University a few years ago giving an invited talk on corrections. After the presentation, five or six members of the audience – all practitioners – approached the podium. To a person, they insisted that I “give Ed their best.” Some seemed like Dead Heads, following Ed like he was a member of the Grateful Dead. They had heard him speak several times, enjoying each performance, and they relished a reprise of his greatest hits. In his talks, Ed was simultaneously erudite, irreverent, and amusing. He always came across as hiding nothing – as a “real man” who “told it like it was.” He chided practitioners and policymakers not to be quacks but to use evidence to help offenders. He was liberal but not “some liberal asshole.” They liked him and opened their minds, and I suspect their hearts, to him.
Ed would journey almost anywhere to deliver the “what works” message. He often traveled, in the dead of winter into snow states, to reach the destination. Yes, he enriched himself in this process – his Catholic upbringing did not lead him to take a vow of poverty – but often he spoke for little or no compensation. He would fly all day just to give an hour’s talk. If some conference needed him as a keynote speaker, he would not decline the invitation because of the inconvenience. Year upon year of being “Ed the traveler” brought him to almost every nook and cranny in the nation. Everyone knew Ed Latessa. More importantly, everyone respected and listened to his message.
I want everyone to know this: No person has done as much to transform American corrections as Ed Latessa. Many people are now working to save lives, or have had their lives saved, because of Ed. His willingness to travel anywhere with multiple flight connections to talk to judges, attend a conference, set up an evaluation, or assess an agency constitutes an invaluable career in applied corrections.
Let me end by saying that I am not sure there will ever be another Ed Latessa in the field of criminal justice. He went to UC as a very young man in his 20s and was our leader for 40 years. He was the key to building a prestigious program that has provided a home for amazing careers for numerous faculty – many still here. He has shown us the value of loving, not leaving, a program, and how that can result in an enduring legacy. He has shaped the field of academic criminology, from students reading his texts to faculty learning from his scholarly articles. And he has sacrificed his time and effort to make effective offender treatment a viable correctional policy – all in a time of mass incarceration and unprecedented punitiveness. Most important, he has touched and improved so many lives – the very reason why so many agreed, amid a pandemic, to contribute to this Special Issue of Victims & Offenders. They cherished the chance not only to celebrate Ed but also to show their affection for and gratitude to him.
And in that vein, Ed has been my “brother in crime.” He has been my close friend. At times, we have fought deeply. Nobody has told me to “f_ _ _ off” more than Ed Latessa!
Ed had a dart board in his office, with faculty photos around the
edges. More than most, my photo was placed at the center of the
dart board! But we have loved each other and loved UC.
That is a lesson and a future that I trust many of those associated with the School of Criminal Justice will embrace in the time ahead. Be brothers and sisters in crime. Care about one another and care about our School. It is the best way to honor and preserve Ed’s amazing legacy.