Professorship and Mentorship: A Conversation with the Woodrow Wilson School’s Professor Udi Ofer

This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Andrea shares her interview.


Udi Ofer is a Visiting Lecturer in Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Udi Ofer is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Outside of class, he is the Deputy National Political Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which is dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States. His background as a civil rights lawyer brings a valuable perspective to the task force seminar “Rethinking Criminal Justice: Policy Responses to Mass Incarceration,” which he leads in the Woodrow Wilson School. I’m taking his seminar this semester, and because of my interest in his research (see posts here and here about my JP last semester, which was also about incarceration), I decided to interview him as part of PCUR’s winter seasonal series.



What are the most common issues that you and your students face during the research process? How do you address them?

I think a common question is how much of the research should be quantitative versus qualitative….One of the things I try to tell my students is to free themselves up to also think about the qualitative component of the work…getting out of just looking at data, but also speaking to people in the field who are working on this issue. I think data-driven reforms are incredibly important and should always be at the core of what we do, but it is incredible to go beyond the data to think about what’s possible and allow creativity to take hold to then drive potential policy reforms. That’s been a theme that I’ve seen a lot with the students, and these are great conversations to have. I think students appreciate also being given the freedom to think beyond data only.

How do you deal with procrastination and limited deadlines?

For example, you’ve seen this semester I created some preliminary deadlines as a way to ensure that students don’t wait until the last minute to do some of their research. So, the first draft of the papers are due in April, but I created a deadline of early March, for example, to submit a research plan and a bibliography. It’s not a graded draft, so no one will be penalized for not submitting it, but it is a way to make sure that students remember not to wait until the last minute and to create the type of environment that encourages students to do some work before the last minute.

Why did you decide to go into academia?

As someone who is a practitioner who is working out in the field, it’s incredibly rewarding. But at the same time, I think that being in an academic environment with smart and motivated students helps me, to be honest. In some ways, it’s selfish. I love the creative energy. I love the passion. I love the ingenuity. I genuinely enjoy our conversations every week. I think it helps me to think outside the box. It’s also incredibly powerful to see the next generation of leaders learn about these issues. And then I’d also like to think that the fact that I am a practitioner, the fact that I’ve been working on some of the most pressing civil liberties and civil rights issues in our country for the past sixteen years brings into the academic environment a bit of a real-world perspective of, you know, ‘here’s how all the issues that you’re studying actually manifest themselves out in the real world.’ So I think it’s a healthy balance. I love it.

What does research look like in your field?

I work at a civil rights organization, the ACLU, which historically has been more of a law firm. I’m a lawyer; I’ve litigated. Historically, the ACLU has operated more like a law firm, so research related to litigation doesn’t necessarily look like other types of research. The research would involve all the elements that are needed to file a complaint in a court to initiate a case. But more and more, the ACLU is becoming an advocacy organization. And now we have a whole research unit at the ACLU of people doing original quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis. So at this point at the ACLU, research looks like a lot of different [things]. [For example,] let’s say we want to legalize marijuana in the United States because we believe drug consumption should be treated like a public health issue and not like a criminal law matter. [The] analysis will look like compiling data on every single arrest on marijuana that has happened in the United States. Then we do an analysis according to race, gender, geography, and so forth, to then drive a policy debate, to qualitative analysis where we want to document the experience of incarcerated people or formerly incarcerated people and the struggles that they face once leaving prison and facing nearly 50,000 legal hurdles. So, [research] really looks a lot of different ways.

What advice do you give to people just entering the field/the research process?

Just follow your passion. I think one of the things I find with Princeton students is that I think everyone is incredibly motivated and ambitious, and that is a very good thing. But I think what worries me sometimes is for people to think there’s only one particular path that they can take to achieve their dreams. One of the things I try to tell students is: pave your own path. Don’t spend too much time thinking about what are you supposed to do, but rather think about what it is that you want to do. So treat every day like a day where you’re following your passion. I guarantee if that’s the route that you’re going to take, you will have a happy, meaningful career. That is how I’ve led my life, and it’s worked out pretty well, and that’s how I hope my students will lead their lives.

Professor Ofer’s life and research experiences have proven to be extremely valuable in the classroom, and I greatly enjoyed learning more about his responsibilities at the ACLU and how he likes to tackle certain research-related issues. Through this conversation, I learned how similar my JP research process is to his professional one, which makes me feel more prepared for my future career in law. Hopefully, you can find some helpful takeaways from this interview, too!

–Andrea Reino, Social Sciences Correspondent