Entrepreneur and philanthropist Sara Miller McCune has devoted much of her career to supporting social science research.
How well do people understand the impressions they make on others? Can certain interventions help motivate students to learn? What kinds of policies would encourage victims to report incidents of sexual abuse?
At Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), scholars and scientists come together to explore questions like these—questions that deal with everything from education and health care to politics and the criminal justice system.
Sara Miller McCune, an entrepreneur and philanthropist living in Santa Barbara, California, has devoted much of her career to supporting this type of research. Recently, she made a $5 million gift to endow the Sara Miller McCune Directorship of CASBS. It is the largest of many gifts she has made to the center, which supports a vibrant community of scholars who are working to identify and resolve some of the world’s most vexing problems.
McCune’s devotion to the social sciences spans more than five decades.
In 1964, she was an ambitious Queens College graduate, just a few years out of school and working at a major publishing house. It wasn’t long before she found herself becoming disenchanted with the publishing industry, particularly with the “merger mania” and the editorial compromises that often followed.
She decided to start a publishing company of her own—one that would stay independent and break new ground on important social issues. With $500 in start-up capital, she joined forces with a former boss (who would later become her husband) and launched a company called SAGE Publications, focused on research in the social and behavioral sciences.
McCune in 1961 at the yearbook office at Queens College, where she served as editor
“It was a bold step that quickly grew into a mission,” McCune says.
She and her late husband, George, became involved with CASBS in the 1970s after discovering that the center supported many of the social scientists whose research they published at SAGE (named for the first two letters of their first names, Sara and George).
“We learned that a number of our most significant authors were getting fellowships from Stanford,” McCune says. “So many of the good and the great were at CASBS at a seminal point in their career.”
CASBS, which was founded in 1954, has hosted generations of scholars and scientists who come to Stanford for a year-long fellowship. Former fellows include 22 Nobel laureates, 14 Pulitzer Prize winners, 44 winners of MacArthur “Genius Awards,” and hundreds of members of the National Academies.
CASBS fellows commit to being in-residence throughout their fellowship and participate in many collaborative activities at the Center, including symposia, speaker events, and daily lunches.
“If you really care about solving an important social problem, you need to create a space that brings together a group of people with all the different perspectives, disciplines, skills, and techniques that are necessary to solve that problem,” says renowned political scientist Margaret Levi, the Sara Miller McCune Director of CASBS. “We focus on major issues of real consequence, and we bring people together to really think about those issues.”
McCune served on the search committee that appointed Levi last year, and she also serves on the Center’s board of directors.
SAGE Publications continues to thrive, now with 1,500 employees in offices on four continents. In 2007 McCune launched another enterprise: the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy, which publishes the award-winning magazine Pacific Standard, frequently lauded for its in-depth coverage of social and environmental issues. She also established the McCune Foundation, which funds community-based organizations working to create social change.
She believes the work at CASBS plays an important role in sustaining progress for future generations.
“I have seven great-grandchildren right now, and the oldest is 11,” says McCune. “I want them to have the best possible education growing up so they know how to make their communities and their world better. They won’t get that without the kind of knowledge that social sciences deliver.”