Skip to main content

Dr. Jacob Rugh: Problem Solver

Dr. Jacob Rugh has always had a passion for solving problems of social inequality and being a force for good.

Dr. Jacob Rugh has always had a passion for solving problems of social inequality and being a force for good. While he might say it was a roundabout journey, Dr. Rugh’s path facilitated him delving into meaningful issues and finding connections that can influence public policy and guide the development an equal and just society.

In his undergraduate program at BYU, Dr. Rugh studied Economics and Latin American studies and explored the topic of school segregation in his own Honors thesis. After graduating, Dr. Rugh’s coworkers encouraged him to apply to a program at a top school and gain further training on how to solve these societal problems.

“After my undergraduate, I worked in New York and New Jersey for a few years in policy evaluation. That's where I met other researchers who said ‘You could apply to Princeton,’ and I thought ‘…wow, I never thought that going to Princeton was a possibility for me’.”

Dr. Rugh obtained a joint Master of Public Affairs and Urban & Regional Planning program with the goal of gaining skills to solve the problem of inequality in schools. An experience during those years solidified his desire to continue and become an expert in the field of social inequality in public affairs.

“I worked at a charter school the summer after completing the first year of grad school and all of my colleagues were getting their MBA's. They kept on saying things like ‘the education space’ and ‘dashboard’ and all this business speak. They said if we can measure everything and have competition we can solve the problem of inequality in schools and I thought ‘well, there is more to it than that.’”

“I had attended a magnet type program attached to a public school in Chicago, so that's why I had thought of schools first as a way to approach inequality. But then I went back to Princeton and applied for the Ph.D. program, got in, and my mentor was a famous sociologist named Douglas Massey. We just started researching together and then the sky was the limit… I realized that the bigger problem was segregation in housing and since then it has been the focus of my research.”

“So many of my mentors along the way - parents, teachers, professors, colleagues- had Ph.D.'s. It was something I knew you could do. So I when I started my Master’s I was determined to never get a Ph.D. I saw my mom get a Ph.D., my dad did not finish a Ph.D., so I knew what was involved. I didn’t want to do it, but look where I am!”

By becoming a professor, Dr. Rugh found a career devoted to researching and teaching about issues that have significance to him and to society.

“Once I saw that I could use research, be my own boss, be in charge of my own time, and choose whatever I want to study- I knew it was a good fit for me. It had a lot of promise and it was really exciting. I didn't know that I would necessarily be teaching as a career but I knew I'd be researching. The first time I started teaching, I knew this is what I wanted to do.

”Dr. Rugh has been at BYU since 2012 and during the Winter 2019 semester, he taught the Honors 227 course, “Race and Music” with Dr. Luke Howard.

“I love learning about how race and music work together and the perspectives of the students. Also, we've had some amazing guests come in and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn from them and bounce ideas off one another. It will be exciting for the next time we teach it, and the time after that. The class has a great personality. The students have very diverse backgrounds in terms of majors, racial/ethnic backgrounds, regions, missions where people served, etc. It's been a really good experience in terms of that variety in perspective, and I think that it really underscores why interdisciplinary learning is key to make those connections to live a more ‘examined life’, as Socrates would say.”

“[Honors] students will have big questions that they're really thinking about and want to get to the bottom of it for its own sake- not for points or a grade. It is a unique experience because the questions the students are asking are things everyone questions about life, but we can discuss them together and we can learn from the students. It is also satisfying for me because, despite the fact every semester feels long to students, they've only got four years to be in college and then it will be over. I really want to be a part of making that journey something where they always look back and say ‘that was really valuable for how I learned to think and now I can make sense of the world around me’. There are so many contradictions in life, just like how here in the US we have a deep belief in freedom, but not everyone here is free. There are so many other contradictions that we can observe and discuss through the focus of this class. I want students to have an experience they can reflect back on throughout their lifetimes and use in a bigger picture. I think many of the honors students have done that [through their honors classes], and it is really beneficial.”

Dr. Rugh’s focus on changing the world for the better is mirrored by his wife, Katie, who is a social worker by training and on the board for the Center for Women and Children in Crisis. They have five children ranging from three to fourteen years old and enjoy spending time together as a family doing outdoor activities like biking or snowshoeing. The Honors Program is pleased to have Dr. Rugh as a member of the Honors faculty and appreciates the time he spends enriching honors students’ understanding of race and ethnicity.