Early in his career as a clinical psychologist, Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., asked two fundamental questions about the work he was doing with emotionally troubled children: Does treatment work? And if so, why?

These questions might seem obvious, but Kazdin, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and professor in the Child Study Center, was surprised by how infrequently they were asked. “There are hundreds of interventions in practice but very few of them are examined in research. The key is making sure there is firm empirical evidence to guide patient care.”
That desire to know what works, and why, has made him an expert on empirically based treatment and one of the most frequently cited authorities on aggressive and violent behavior in children. His reputation as a down-to-earth problem solver and a personable leader with a sense of humor helped him guide the Department of Psychology through a major period of transition from 1997 to 2000.

All of these qualities contributed to his appointment at the end of February as the fifth director of the Yale Child Study Center, one of the medical school’s 22 academic departments and an international leader in child psychiatric treatment, research and professional training. The center was founded in 1911 by child development pioneer Arnold Gesell, M.D., Ph.D.

“Of the 75 or so chair appointments I’ve made, this is one of the three or four best. Alan Kazdin is a distinguished scholar and [was] an extraordinarily successful chair of the Department of Psychology,” Yale President Richard C. Levin said when he announced Kazdin’s selection February 28 in the center’s Harris Auditorium. In a letter to medical school faculty later that day, Dean David A. Kessler, M.D., cited Kazdin’s accomplishments, including 10 years of MERIT funding from the National Institutes of Health, 500 journal publications and 35 books, then added: “What cannot come across in reading about Dr. Kazdin’s background—but what I have come to learn and appreciate during countless hours of discussions with him over the last several weeks—is his deep commitment to child psychiatry and the Child Study Center. He has enormous respect for the center’s faculty and its staff and is very eager to build on the pre-eminence of its programs.”

A Cincinnati native raised in Los Angeles, Kazdin received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Northwestern University in 1970 before teaching at Penn State and, later, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he directed both inpatient and outpatient services for children with psychiatric disorders. In 1989, Kazdin joined the Yale psychology department with a joint appointment in the Child Study Center. As the center’s director, he succeeds Donald J. Cohen, M.D. ’66, who died in October.

Kazdin, who assumed his duties on April 1, leads a faculty of about 90 members who are involved in an extremely wide range of activities and have special expertise in autism, Asperger and Tourette syndromes, obsessive-compulsive disorder, developmental disorders and the problems of children exposed to violence. “The center today is a world-ranked institution,” said Edward F. Zigler, Ph.D., a founder of the federal Head Start Program and a professor in both the Child Study Center and psychology department for the past 40 years. As for Kazdin, Zigler added: “He is without a doubt the finest child clinical psychologist in the United States today.”

In an interview in March, Kazdin said he is awed by the center’s greatness and, in close collaboration with the faculty, hopes to extend it.

“Yale has this tradition of taking a place that’s really great and asking, ‘How can we do this even better?’” he said. “The Child Study Center is Yale at its best. It has a stellar faculty and a tremendous reputation, and we are in the wonderful position of being able to build on that, thanks to commitments made by the president and dean.” These include provisions for additional slots to hire new faculty, a review of the salaries of all existing faculty “to make sure the greatness we have here is secure” and additional resources to support the center’s future growth. “Captain Kirk said space is the final frontier,” Kazdin quipped. “That applies very much to a university, too.”

As chair of the psychology department, Kazdin took charge at a moment when several senior faculty members were nearing retirement and others had moved to other universities. He guided the faculty in recruiting fifteen new members, including five in the senior ranks—more than half the current department, said Peter Salovey, Ph.D., professor of psychology and of public health, who succeeded Kazdin as psychology chair. “Alan is an energetic recruiter and an inspired organizer of research,” Salovey said. “I think he’ll be terrific in this new role.”

Kazdin will continue to direct the Yale Child Conduct Clinic, an outpatient treatment service for children and their families that he brought to Yale from Pittsburgh, but his focus will be on the Child Study Center.

“I’m eager to meet with the faculty and discuss what they perceive as strengths and weaknesses and to move on those issues with their help,” Kazdin said before assuming his new duties. “We have to solve the problems of child psychiatry. That requires discipline and careful planning. It’s something we’ll do together, and my job will be to mobilize that plan.”