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After 4 decades helping to build Sanford, Philip Cook receives prestigious criminology prize

Sanford professor Philip Cook, who helped build the Sanford School of Public Policy from the ground up, received the Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his research this month.

The prestigious prize is awarded to outstanding researchers in the field of criminology worldwide. Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford professor emeritus of public policy, will share the prize money of $1.5 million Swedish kroner, about $150,000, with his co-winner Franklin Zimring, William G. Simon professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. 

In his time serving as chair and director of Sanford twice, he has seen the institute transform and grow into an actual school, and he has taught generations of students in criminology, economics and sociology. 

Both awardees have been on the forefront of gun violence research from the scholarship’s beginnings. In 1975, Cook published his first article on gun control, which made him “the second scholar on earth to actually do research in this area,” he recalled. The first scholar to publish in the subject was Zimring. 

Cook remembered his first meeting with Zimring at the University of Chicago as quite intense. He called it “the Zimring experience,” adding “he has a lot on his mind.” 

Much of his research has been on gun violence, and Cook has published hundreds of articles and several books on criminology and the economics of crime. 

“What kept me going is the sense that gun violence remains very important for the U.S.,” he said. 

He identifies the widespread availability of guns and their consequences as a pressing issue. Many violent fights would end differently if guns weren’t available, he said. Not only are many people killed with guns, but holding a gun has ruined people’s lives and put them behind “any hope of redemption,” he argued. 

Gun violence is a great burden and not just for the “obvious reasons,” he said. 

In schools all around the country, kids must routinely go through active shooter drills. The immediate possibility of someone showing up and opening fire is forming a collective trauma for a whole generation of children growing up right now, he said. 

The issue of gun violence exceeds medical measures. It has long become a matter of social and economic inequalities, he said, and the most affected neighborhoods are impoverished and disproportionately African American.

Due to the salient and controversial nature of his research, some individuals in favor of gun rights have attacked his scholarship. However, the caliber and scholarly integrity of his work has overwhelmingly impressed most people.

“He’s widely trusted and respected by all political sides,” Kristin Goss, Cook’s former master’s student and Kevin D. Gorter professor of public policy and political science, said.

Cook has always aspired to be politically neutral, noting that “in the end, it’s all about finding out the truth of the matter.”

‘A place I’ve learned to love’

When Cook arrived at Duke in 1973, the Sanford offices were located in the Old Chemistry building on campus, which he bluntly called a “slum.” 

“We held contests who could capture the biggest roaches,” he laughed.  

The young professors at Sanford all shared a common sense of excitement and ambition about starting something new together. Today, the formerly “new kids on the block,” as he called his team, are seasoned professors, and Sanford has been an actual school for ten years. The faculty has grown from five to 80 members, he said.

“I grew up with the Sanford School,” Cook said.  

His dedication has not been taken for granted either. Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy, was the director of Sanford from 1971 to 1983 and expressed respect for Cook’s lifelong engagement with the school.  

“He is probably more than anybody responsible for maintaining the quality of the faculty,” Fleishman said. “He was absolutely amazing over the years in maintaining the quality of the place.” 

Goss joked that “Sanford is like his third child.” She admires that her former professor has chosen Duke and stood by it the whole time. 

“And he did it cheerfully,” she said.

It was not always clear where Cook would end up working as an academic. He could have stayed at his alma mater University of California at Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in 1973. 

“They offered me a position, and there were other positions around the country,” he said.   

However, his wife, Judy Cook, played a significant role in his decision to come to Duke. She wanted to go to graduate school and become a clinical psychologist.  

“It was her turn,” Cook said. “Everywhere I interviewed for a job, the question was what possible degree program there would be for Judy.”  

Duke happened to have one of the best possible degree programs in clinical psychology nationwide. Judy was accepted, and this arrangement turned out to be a good one. Durham and Chapel Hill, where the couple raised their two children, quickly became a home. 

“It is a place I’ve learned to love,” he said. “We have no interest of leaving.”

Every now and then, though, the couple goes on little adventures together. The last two springs, they lived in Turin, Italy, where Cook had a visiting position at a college. 

“We studied Italian and we tried to live like natives,” Cook said. 

Starting a new language in their 70s turned out to be quite a challenge for the two. 

“We were successful enough so we could have a little conversation at the market and get the kind of gelato we wanted,” he said with a smirk. 

But besides those excursions, Cook remains a faithful contributor to the Sanford School at Duke.  

Currently, Cook and Goss are working on a second edition of their book “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.” Published in 2014, the first edition contains answers to 107 questions related to gun policies in the United States, Cook said. He described it as similar to “a big box of chocolates,” and Goss agreed with his metaphor. 

As policy debates around gun violence and gun laws tend to be complicated, the overall goal is to educate the public on such a highly complicated matter.

“We want to translate the matter into a short and easy-to-read book,” she said. 

Goss remembered that Cook was talented at explaining complex issues when she took a statistics course from him as a Duke master’s student. And today, the two make a good team. Cook notes that, now as colleagues, they can constructively criticize each other.

In June 2020, Cook will travel to Stockholm, Sweden, where he will receive the Stockholm Prize in a special ceremony. In the past, Queen Silvia of Sweden herself has awarded the prize. Cook said that, while this hasn’t been the case in five years, he hopes that she will do it again next year. His dream would be to bring his five-year-old granddaughter to the ceremony.  

“She herself is a princess, so she would love to meet a real-life queen,” he said. 


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