William Gorham: He Was the Founding President of One of Washington’s Leading Think Tanks, the Urban Institute

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “William Gorham, founder of Urban Institute think tank, dies at 91”:

William Gorham, the founding president of one of Washington’s leading think tanks, the Urban Institute, which has helped steer debate and policy decisions on a wide range of domestic social issues, died Dec. 28 in Washington….

A onetime “whiz kid” and protege of Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Mr. Gorham held high-level positions at the Defense Department and the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In the late 1960s, Johnson and his top domestic adviser, Joseph A. Califano Jr., were seeking ways to measure the administration’s new Great Society programs. The Urban Institute was launched at a Cabinet meeting, but from the beginning was an independent, nonpartisan organization, with Mr. Gorham at the helm.

“We founded the Urban Institute because we wanted an organization that could give an objective evaluation of how the urban programs were doing,” Califano said. “It was very important for us to have someone outside the government take a hard look at the tremendous number of programs that we were putting in place. I knew Bill Gorham from our work together in the Pentagon. He turned out to be exactly the right guy for the job.”

The Urban Institute received its early funding from foundations and from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was not the first public policy think tank in Washington — the Brookings Institution has been around since 1916 — but the analysis of social programs, poverty and the problems of urban America was still an emerging field in 1968.

Mr. Gorham, who had previously worked at the Rand Corp. think tank in California, brought together scholars, analysts and policy specialists to examine public issues and prepare reports laden with forecasts and recommendations. During the 32 years he led the Urban Institute, it grew into one of Washington’s largest and most respected think tanks.

Over the years, the institute has helped shape debate on countless issues, from poverty and housing to health care, racial inequity, taxation, the environment, employment, aging and infrastructure. Because much of its work is focused on domestic policy related to people living in cities, the Urban Institute is often considered a center-left think tank. It is, however, officially nonpartisan, with people from divergent viewpoints holding seats on its board of trustees.

During the 1980s, the Urban Institute faced resistance from the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which cut much of its federal funding. Mr. Gorham rebuilt the organization, relying increasingly on other revenue sources, such as foundations, corporations and competitive grants, and the Urban Institute came back stronger than ever.

As the organization observed its 20th anniversary in 1988, it had about 150 staff members and an annual budget of $12 million….By the time Mr. Gorham stepped down in 2000, the staff numbered 370, with an operating budget of $61 million.

Mr. Gorham, who rarely gave interviews, was credited with helping develop “micro-simulation models,” one of the institute’s signature methods of social analysis. Scholars and investigators collect information on an issue, such as insurance or child tax credits, then conduct detailed modeling studies, measuring possible outcomes from alternative policies.

Early in the presidency of Barack Obama, the institute’s analysis of a Massachusetts health-care law championed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, helped provide the basis for projections of how Obama’s Affordable Care Act would take shape.

More recently, the Urban Institute — which produces hundreds of research papers each year — has studied social ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, racial disparities in corporate America, the changing workforce and other topics. Social problems are sometimes highlighted years before they enter the public dialogue.

The institute currently has about 600 employees and a $100 million annual budget. Several of its fellows have taken high-ranking positions in President Biden’s administration.

“Our mission is very constant,” institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell said. “We look at the problems related to community, place and people. We develop insights from evidence in pursuing the opportunity to solve the problems of those left behind by society.”

William Gorham was born Dec. 14, 1930, in New York City….He was an economics major at Stanford University, from which he graduated in 1952. He was in graduate school when he joined the Rand Corp., developing a specialty in the personnel needs of the military. He came to Washington in 1962 to join McNamara’s Defense Department, focusing on troop effectiveness and compensation and the military draft. From 1965 to 1968, he was a top assistant to HEW Secretary John Gardner…..

For years after his retirement, Mr. Gorham continued to come to the office, said Wartell, who has been president of the Urban Institute since 2012. “He was enormously generous, gracious and supportive and was a good mentor to young people.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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