Dalton Conley's research on how social and economic opportunities are distributed has prompted him to get involved in bringing college-level teaching to students who need an education that costs next to nothing.
"Spreading education to populations that currently don't have access to it might do some good in the world," he says.
That reasoning led Mr. Conley, a prominent sociologist, to accept the post of dean of arts and sciences at the online University of the People, which has access as its motivating rationale.
The international, tuition-free, nonprofit institution, founded in 2009, is a pioneering effort in e-learning and peer-to-peer learning. Using open-source technology and coursework provided gratis by well-regarded institutions, it offers two- and four-year degree programs in business administration and computer science. It has formed partnerships with Yale University, New York University, and Hewlett-Packard, and to date has enrolled 1,400 students from 130 countries.
"Higher education is our best cultural product, as far as I'm concerned," says Mr. Conley. "We also export our less-impressive cultural products, McDonald's and Hollywood and so forth, so I think it's a great idea to help folks who want to help themselves to increase their skill sets and help their own countries."
Like other administrators at University of the People, Mr. Conley will work pro bono. He says he can do that because he is about to end a term as NYU's dean for the social sciences, and now has a year's sabbatical.
But the 42-year-old scholar's plate will remain full. In addition to being a professor of sociology, medicine, and public policy, with the title of university professor, at NYU, he is studying for another doctorate, this one in biology, at NYU. He is also an adjunct professor of community medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In all those roles, he studies the factors that determine economic opportunity within and across generations—among siblings, for example—and how health, biology, class, and race relate to social position.
The titles of a few of his six books reflect his populist bent: Being Black, Living in the Red; The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances; and Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety.
Mr. Conley throws further light on his belief in educational access in his 2000 memoir, Honky. As the child of bohemian artists and one of few white children in a housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he wrote in that book, he learned much about privileges related to race and class.
Was he surprised that NYU would approve his taking on even more work than he is already responsible for, at University of the People? Mr. Conley says: "I asked the president of NYU about it, and he gave the thumbs up. So I assume they're happy about it." NYU's president, John Sexton, is one of five global university leaders to serve on a newly formed Presidents Council that will advise the free university. And NYU administrators already knew of Mr. Conley's interest in the online model. He had just acted as a go-between—a "midwife," he says—for an agreement in which NYU will each year take some transfer students from University of the People, particularly at NYU's small Abu Dhabi campus.
Working on that effort brought Mr. Conley into contact with Shai Reshef, the founder and president of the online university.
As University of the People's dean of arts and sciences, Mr. Conley will work to expand course offerings. "We need to focus on pragmatic degrees that are going to help individuals in their societies, in developing countries," he says. He hopes the next two majors will be in health, to train nurses and community-health workers, and education, to train teachers.
He says he and fellow administrators are not only waiting for accreditation, which they hope to gain soon, but are preparing the institution for what may follow. He says: "It could be that the floodgates open, and we have 100,000 students all of a sudden."