It took a powerful lure — a big challenge and a return to his professional roots — for the new executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute to leave his life and work in Chicago.
There, Samuel Meisels, one of the nation's leading authorities in the field, served as president of the Erikson Institute, the country's premier graduate school for training early childhood educators.
The Buffett institute, which Meisels has headed since June 1, is intended to transform the care and education of at-risk children from birth to age 8 and to help their families.
“My vision is that we will make Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby, or a toddler, or a preschooler, or an early elementary student, and their families,” Meisels said.
Created in 2011 with a gift from Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett, the institute will draw on research and expertise from the four University of Nebraska campuses.
The amount of Buffett's gift was not disclosed, but NU officials have said it will be “more than matched” by other funds from the university and private and federal sources to create an endowment exceeding $100 million.
Early childhood development and education is one of six academic priorities for Campaign for Nebraska, an effort by the University of Nebraska Foundation to raise $1.2 billion.
The issue also has won the support of the Nebraska Early Childhood Business Roundtable and caught the eye of the Nebraska Legislature, which recently expanded a separate public-private endowment that provides grants for early childhood programs.
The Legislature also gave the Learning Community authority to fund early childhood education programs for poor children. President Barack Obama earlier this year called for expanding preschool.
Meisels said NU is the first major public university system to make such a commitment to children and families at risk. NU President J.B. Milliken understands the issue, Meisels said.
Milliken said his decision to hire Meisels has been applauded by a wide range of people, including Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, to the Chinese education leaders he met with recently in Shanghai.
“That's the kind of reaction I've had everywhere,” Milliken said. “People have said that's the perfect fit. He's got the perfect background and preparation for launching this institute.”
The institute will focus on teacher training, cutting-edge research and sharing knowledge not only to help professionals in the field but also to shape public policy at the local and national level, Milliken said.
“This is a truly exciting opportunity for the university and for Nebraska to be in the center of an area of work, of new research and in application in the field, that has a potential to make a tremendous difference in individuals' lives and the lives of communities,” he said.
Meisels is working out of a temporary office in the College of Public Administration and Community Service building at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The Buffett institute eventually will be housed in the Community Engagement Center under construction next door.
Meisels also will have office space at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has courtesy academic appointments at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“This is not the ivory tower,” Meisels said. “This is applying what's learned in the ivory tower. To me, it's all about taking research knowledge and putting it to use on behalf of children and families.”
Meisels has begun meeting with education officials and others. He has held three meetings with the institute's strategic planning committee, a group of about three dozen from around the state. That broad participation demonstrates the interest in early childhood education in Nebraska, he said.
Meisels plans to have a draft strategic plan completed by October, when the institute's national advisory board will convene for the first time in Omaha.
The 10-member board, made up of nationally known experts from across the country, is structured to provide various perspectives, said board member Hiram Fitzgerald, associate provost for university outreach and engagement at Michigan State University.
One of his specialties is “engaged scholarship,” which involves connecting university teaching and research to the needs of its community.
“It's going to be a good mix of people,” Fitzgerald said.
Meisels said the opportunity to head the institute came at a point in his career where he wanted another challenge. It also follows an arc in his 40-year career of focusing more closely on children and families.
During graduate school, he worked as a preschool teacher because he wanted to see whether the theory he was learning worked in practice.
He also taught kindergarten and first grade before moving on to a distinguished research career at Tufts University and then the University of Michigan. He has written books and devised systems for assessing young children through observation, not test scores.
A father of two, he has five grandchildren under age 8.
Meisels said it's exciting to start from scratch and to have the necessary resources, support and talent.
“Its success really will largely be measured by the impact it has on children and families in the state of Nebraska,” he said.