Frances Degen Horowitz, who as the president of the City University of New York’s Graduate Center for nearly 15 years raised its academic stature and transplanted it to a prestigious Fifth Avenue campus, died on March 15 at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.
Her son Benjamin H. Levi said the cause was heart failure.
A behaviorist who had distinguished herself in child psychology, Dr. Horowitz steered the City University’s doctoral degree-granting program toward becoming a major research institution, despite competition for resources within the sprawling university system and the demands of some 7,000 full-time university faculty members guarding their own prerogatives.
She was instrumental in persuading city, state and university officials to approve and finance the Graduate Center’s new $160 million headquarters, which opened in 1999 and allowed the school to consolidate 1,600 professors scattered in eight locations in one grand building, the former B. Altman department store, a century-old limestone landmark in the Italian Renaissance Revival style that occupies an entire city block, between Fifth and Madison Avenues and between 34th and 35th Streets.
When the graduate school decamped from its tight quarters in the Aeolian Building, at 33 West 42nd Street opposite Bryant Park, William Kornblum, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center, invoked another major relocation.
“The Exodus from Egypt was surely a far greater leadership exploit than any Francis had achieved,” Professor Kornblum said at the time, “but consider that Moses was not dealing with full professors.”
She even recruited more of them — scholars like André Aciman, who teaches literary theory; the philosophers Michael Devitt and Saul Kripke; the cultural historian Morris Dickstein; the computer scientist Robert Haralick; the feminist author Nancy K. Miller; the biographer David Nasaw; the literary critic and author Edouard Glissant.
“In this great building we won’t be selling apparel and notions,” Dr. Horowitz told The New York Times on taking over that former emporium. “We’ll be selling notions of a different kind — ideas.”
Frances Degen was born on May 5, 1932, in the Bronx to Isaac and Elaine (Moinester) Degen. Her father was a blouse manufacturer, her mother a homemaker.
As a teenager, Frances won flying lessons as the prize in a New York City essay contest and became a qualified pilot. She met Floyd Ross Horowitz, who would one day be an educator in his own right, when she was 11; they married in 1953.
After attending the now-closed private Cherry Lawn School in Darien, Conn., her choice of career evolved from journalism to philosophy to education to psychology.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Antioch College in Ohio and a master’s in elementary education from Goucher College in Baltimore in 1954 before being hired to teach in the public schools in Iowa City.
There she began using untested teaching techniques in the classroom, earning her a reputation as an upstart. And when she applied to a doctoral program in education at the University of Iowa, the public schools superintendent recommended to his friend, the dean of Iowa’s education school, that her application be rejected. It was. But the moment proved pivotal in her career.
Professor Boyd R. McCandless, with whom she had taken a course, soon offered her a place in the university’s Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, a national leader then in the new fields of child development and child psychology. She accepted.
“That is how I came into the field of developmental psychology,” Dr. Horowitz said in 1995 in an interview with the Society for Research in Child Development. She earned her doctorate in developmental psychology from Iowa in 1959.
Her work with infants led to an association with the well-known pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who developed a scale that assesses newborns on the basis of 38 behaviors, although Dr. Horowitz insisted that the measure of present behavior not be used to predict future outcomes.
Dr. Horowitz later joined the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where she headed its department of human development and family life from 1968 to 1978. She was vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and public service for the university from 1978 to 1991, when she returned to New York to take over the Graduate Center. In Lawrence, as a member of a small but thriving Jewish community, she lived in a home originally built for the Episcopal archbishop.
Dr. Horowitz was president of the Graduate Center until 2005 and a faculty member there until she retired in 2010.
Her husband, a professor of English, author and editor, died in 2014.
In addition to her son Benjamin, a professor at Penn State College of Medicine, she is survived by another son, Jason Degen Horowitz; three grandchildren; and a sister, Alyce Scimeca.