Oscar Kaplan

Oscar Kaplan – Early Years


Oscar Kaplan – Later Years

Oscar Kaplan was a—perhaps THE—major architect of the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University . He had already distinguished himself as a scholar of international reputation through his work in the establishment of gerontology as a new and important discipline prior to his appointment to San Diego State . He came here having already been named Special Consultant in Gerontology to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service. It was Oscar’s lifelong interest in aging that made the establishment of a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Developmental Issues such a fitting memorial to him.

One of the tensions that was a part of faculty life at San Diego State for many decades was the question of whether we should be a teachers college or a research university . Oscar forcefully and unambiguously chose to be an active scholar himself and to move our department in the direction of one consisting of a faculty engaged in research and providing instruction at the graduate as well as undergraduate level. That was a major focus of his efforts throughout his long and productive career at San Diego State . His efforts—perhaps more than those of any other single person of his time—were effective in making Psychology the department that it is and SDSU the university that it is.

The understanding of the crucial role of scholarship in the life of a university professor was behind Oscar’s insistence that those he hired must be enthusiastic and productive researchers as well as excellent teachers. This issue was very salient to him right from the time of his appointment by President Walter Hepner in 1946. Oscar joined Hunter Mead and Harry Steinmetz as the third member of the Department of Psychology and Philosophy in the Division of Social Sciences. Oscar was the first member to hold a PhD in psychology at the time of appointment. At the time, there was no major in psychology and the psychology curriculum consisted of but two lower–division and seven upper–division courses.

Oscar was promoted to Associate Professor in 1949 and served as chair from 1950 to 1952. By the end of Oscar’s first stint as chair, a psychology major had been established and an MA in psychology had been introduced. The curriculum consisted of six lower–division, 24 upper–division, and six graduate courses. The faculty had grown quite dramatically with the hiring of at least ten new members since Oscar’s appointment.

Malcolm Love succeeded Hepner as university president in 1952—the year in which Oscar was promoted to Professor. A major event in the evolution of our department occurred in 1956 when the Department of Psychology was established and placed in the Division of Life Sciences along with bacteriology, botany, nursing, and zoology. An MS in Applied Psychology was established at the same time.

Oscar served as department chair for the second time from 1963 to 1966. He hired sixteen tenure–track faculty members in that three–year span—all of them active scholars. Oscar reflected on this hiring in his interview for the oral history archives in 1994. He observed, “This department could have gone one of two ways. It could have gone, as many other departments did, toward pure teaching. The department that I was trying to build was not going to be a junior college department. In 1963, there was a schism in the department. At that time, there was a critical mass of those who felt the way I did. And there were others—and they were almost as numerous—who thought that San Diego State should emphasize undergraduate education—that we should hire people whose major objective in life is to give the best possible instruction, that that was to be their major, if not their only, obligation. Now, after I hired those 16 people, the battle was over.”

Oscar was right. Our faculty now broadly share his aspirations and expectations for the department’s basic commitments.

  • Psychology is among the largest, strongest, and most productive departments in the College of Sciences that was formed during the university’s last major reorganization in 1969.
  • In Fall 2020, we had 1,832 undergraduate psychology majors at SDSU.
  • In academic year 2019/20, 430 students graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, 23 students with a Master’s degree in psychology, and 12 students with a PhD in clinical psychology.
  • Many members of our faculty have laboratories that are funded at very high levels by various agencies of government and other research sponsors. In 2019, our department ranked 1st in California for total extramural support from NIH among psychology departments and 15th nationwide among the 203 psychology departments at private and public U.S. universities receiving funding from NIH.
  • We have established a doctoral program in clinical psychology in cooperation with the Department of Psychiatry at UCSD. This is an extremely strong program with an exceptional national and even international reputation. Recently, rankings calculated by the National Research Council (NRC) place the JDP among the top three psychology programs in the country, regardless of whether they are clinical or non-clinical in nature.
  • We have many postdoctoral fellows resident in our laboratories on a regular basis working with our faculty, doctoral students, masters students and large numbers of undergraduates whose own experiences are dramatically enhanced by the presence of strong research and graduate programs.

None of this occurred by accident. It is the result of Oscar’s efforts and those who have shared his values and aspirations over the years. The Oscar Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellowship in Developmental Issues will continually remind us of his goals and accomplishments. We shall use the endowed fellowship as a tool for advancing our discipline, profession and the stature of our department and university.  Our laboratories are sufficiently visible to attract highly qualified applicants. It is our goal and expectation to have those who have held the Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellowship become coveted new faculty hires who will be avidly sought for their commitment to research and competence as scientists and teachers. The fellowship program will be a vehicle for the perpetuation of Oscar’s values and ideals. We continue to thank the Kaplan family for creating this opportunity and for allowing us to participate in this extremely gratifying project.