Vivian Shapiro looks forward to the next chapter

Ruth Stevens

As a researcher in the field of social work, Vivian Shapiro has studied family separations and attachments. When her husband left the University of Michigan after 23 years as a faculty member and president for Princeton in 1988, she experienced firsthand the pains and joys of such transitions.

"It was difficult for me to leave Michigan," she said. "But the attachment to Princeton was easy because of the great warmth I have experienced here and the sensitivity among the people with whom Harold works. I have come to really love this university."

And now, after 13 years at Princeton, it is time for another transition. In a recent interview, Shapiro discussed her role, her work and her feelings about her husband's decision to complete his presidency at the end of the academic year.


"It has been very exciting to be with people who have so many ideas, so much new knowledge and enthusiasm. It is a great privilege to be in a community like this where there are so many vigorous and exciting things going on."


"There is always a small sense of loss because, obviously, it has been a special time in our lives," she said. "However, I feel very positive that this was the right time and the right thing to do. We are at a good age to figure out how we want to live the rest of our lives and what new things we would like to do."

One of those new things is already in the works for Shapiro. In March, her first book will be published by Guilford Publications of New York City. She has been writing the text over the past two and a half years with her daughter Janet Shapiro, a faculty member in the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, and Isabel Paret, a clinical associate in the Department of Psychiatry in the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

The book is about recent social and scientific changes in the formation of families, focusing specifically on complex adoptions (post-foster care, international, kinship-care and open) and assisted reproductive technology.

"The process of creating a family raises many important issues," she said. "Children involved in complex adoptions often have very early traumatic histories. We look at what that means in terms of forming bonds and attachments between children and parents. Assisted reproductive technology is another way of forming a family through such means as in vitro fertilization. It often involves what we call collaborative parentage, where there is a mix of biological and psychological parenthood.

"This book is unique," she continued. "People have written a lot about traditional adoption and about the biological aspects of assisted reproductive technology. But we are looking at family identity and family process where there are very unusual combinations of biology and psychology."

The book is an outgrowth of Shapiro's long interest in infant mental health. She earned her master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan in 1969. Shortly thereafter, she joined the faculty and became involved in a U-M child development project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The long-term study looked at the origin of mental health development in children.

After moving to Princeton, Shapiro joined the Mount Sinai Medical Center staff in New York City as a researcher. Working with new Hispanic immigrants, she became interested in cross-cultural understanding in the therapeutic process. She then pursued a doctoral degree at Smith College, writing her dissertation on the narratives of recent Russian immigrants. She analyzed whether or not telling a story is helpful in resolving issues of loss of identity.

Her work with immigrants led to her interest in adoption, since many adoptions today cross countries and cultures. She began looking at new pathways to parenthood, and was asked by Guilford to write the book for students in psychology and social work.

In addition to working on the book, Shapiro maintains a small clinical practice in Princeton and participates in a study group with other professionals.

Despite the competing demands on her time from the University and her career, Shapiro believes it is important for her to have a professional life of her own.

"I think it is important for everybody to have some meaningful, creative work," she said. "Harold works extremely hard and very long hours and is often away. Having work of my own to do is often helpful."

Shapiro said she has enjoyed her work with the University as well, planning social events, working with donors and alumni, managing Lowrie House and attending a variety of activities on behalf of Princeton.

"It has been very exciting to be with people who have so many ideas, so much new knowledge and enthusiasm," she said. "It is a great privilege to be in a community like this where there are so many vigorous and exciting things going on."

Shapiro said she particularly enjoyed the events surrounding the 250th anniversary celebration and the breakfasts she has attended with students.

"I have often said that living in an academic community is like living in a comic book," she said. "The characters always stay the same age -- only the reader gets older. That is fun because there is always this new generation pushing you to think differently about things."

After the president steps down next year, she said she is looking forward to spending more time with him -- something that has not always been easy during the last 20 years.

"In August, we go to our house in Michigan," she said. "We get together with our family, especially at holiday times. We like to go to New York and do what we call urban hiking -- we go to museums. Our travel is primarily related to University business. It is wonderful and we enjoy it, but it is often very fast-paced."

When the Shapiros came to Princeton, they had one grandchild. Now they have 11, and they are hoping to spend more time with them. Their daughters, who range in age from 35 to 42, live in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Florida. Harold Shapiro's mother lives in Montreal.

The couple has maintained friendships with people from their years growing up in Montreal and from their time in Michigan. "Keeping in contact with friends is very important," Shapiro said. "I am hoping we will have more time for that."

The Shapiros have even discussed working on a small writing project together having to do with collections of rare books -- how they have been created and how they have come to be housed at institutions.

In looking back at her experiences at Princeton and Michigan, Vivian Shapiro provided some advice to the future president's partner: "You have to take time to remember to have some private life," she said. "It is also important to develop a sense of self and to have a buddy system -- someone at the university you can call for help in how to think about your role."

October 9, 2000
Vol. 90, No. 5
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Wave of the future
Vivian Shapiro looks forward to the next chapter
Search moves ahead
New trustees named to board
Alliance with Yale, Stanford, Oxford paves the way for life-long learning
Research heats up in Princeton Materials Institute
Alumnus strings together ideas to explain physics
QRL archives a treasure
Pre-game lectures kick off Oct. 14
Gridders honored as scholar-athletes

Spotlight / People
Calendar of events
Nassau notes

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Staff writer: Yvonne Chiu Hays
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett
Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett