Leslie Rescorla Continues to Build Her Legacy at Bryn Mawr

A noted researcher with an eye for real estate development.

Over a nearly 30-year span, Professor of Psychology Leslie Rescorla has played a role in the construction of the Phebe Anna Thorne School, the movement of the Psychology Department, and the renovation of the Child Study Institute. One more project remains.


When Professor of Psychology Leslie Rescorla retires from Bryn Mawr in two years, she will leave a legacy of scholarship, research, and service. But she’ll also be remembered for her impact on the development of the Psychology Department and many of the physical spaces on campus.

“I didn’t know when I came to Bryn Mawr that one of my roles would be real estate developer,” says Rescorla, who over the years played a role in the construction of the Phebe Anna Thorne Kindergarten on Haverford’s campus, the movement of two departments that had been recently merged into the current Psychology Department into Bettws-y-Coed (BYC), and the renovation of the Child Study Institute (CSI).

Her last project will be to oversee the move of the Phoebe Anna Thorne School preschool programs and administrative offices from their current location in West House to the building next door (Little West House), which housed the recently closed CSI.

“We could have waited another two years to make the change, but I really wanted to be here to see things through before I retired,” she says.

At the time of Rescorla’s arrival on campus in 1985, Bryn Mawr had two separate departments with an emphasis on psychology. The graduate Department of Human Development was housed in West House, which is located on the corner of Wyndon Avenue and North Roberts Road and has long housed the Thorne School. Psychology, which was focused almost entirely on experimental psychology, was housed in Dalton Hall.

Rescorla’s appointment was a somewhat unusual arrangement. Seventy-five percent of her time was to be spent on teaching and research in the Department of Human Development, and 25 percent in administration of the Thorne School and the CSI, with the added opportunity of having a part-time clinical practice.

“I had come from a much larger university but because Bryn Mawr had a doctoral program in clinical psychology, a nursery school, and a clinic, it allowed me to pursue all my interests and also to work with students in a much more personal way than I was ever likely to do at a bigger place.”

“I came to Bryn Mawr to teach in the Clinical Developmental Psychology doctoral program and to do research, but I also wanted to teach abnormal psychology and developmental psychopathology to undergraduates, as I had done at Penn, so I served as sort of a bridge between the two departments,” recalls Rescorla.

As Rescorla started teaching more and more undergraduate courses, her colleagues followed suit and what had at times been a contentious relationship between the two departments became more collegial. In the early 1990s, an external review of all the Bi-Co psychology programs led to a merger of Bryn Mawr’s two programs, and soon after, Rescorla became chair of the newly merged but geographically separated department.

Shortly after becoming chair, Rescorla and her department completed a self-study of their space needs for a new departmental home and shortly after this, she learned that the College had just recently obtained plans to renovate the long-boarded up BYC and add a three-story addition. Importantly, she learned that the square footage closely matched what the department self-study had estimated for its space needs.

By a lucky chance, Rescorla was walking between West House and Dalton the day she learned about this scheme for BYC and noticed that the front door was open, because carpenters working on Goodhart were using it as a shop. She prevailed on the workmen to let her walk through the building: "The glories of which were immediately evident despite the peeling paint and animal droppings," she recalls.

In her enthusiasm, Rescorla went back to West House and suggested that Kim Cassidy, at that point still an adjunct faculty member, come see it. They both agreed that the classic old building with its modern addition would be the perfect home for the Psychology Department. Rescorla then began conferring with her other department colleagues, as well as with colleagues in other departments whose space needs were being discussed.

After a complex set of negotiations, it was decided that the Psychology Department would move to BYC, along with colleagues in the Education program. Rescorla then worked closely with the architects and facilities staff to make the new building a reality.

BYC was not Rescorla’s first foray into the real estate business, however. Her first project was to convert a wooden annex with a three-hole privy attached to Little West House (which housed the CSI) into a classroom and observation booth (in the former privy) for a new early intervention program for preschoolers with language delays and autism spectrum features. Then, about 20 years ago, Rescorla used a generous bequest from a former CSI tutor to help fund an addition to Little West House that enabled doubling its size to include a waiting room and business staff offices downstairs and a suite of offices for tutors upstairs.

Rescorla’s fourth real estate adventure was to renovate a building on Haverford’s campus to house the Thorne School Kindergarten. This project also benefited from serendipity.

One day Rescorla had driven to Haverford to meet with a Psychology Department colleague and she noticed a small boarded up building nearby. When she returned to West House, she told then Thorne Director Marilyn Henkelman '77 that she had found the perfect spot for the kindergarten (given that all their previous schemes for locating it on the BMC campus had failed to be practical).

By chance, the provost at Haverford at that time was Elaine Hanson, whose children had attended the Thorne School. Sitting in Henkelman’s office, they called Provost Hanson and proposed the idea of using 6 College Circle for a kindergarten. Once again, a long negotiation process ensued. However, in the end an agreement was made to renovate the historic house, add a modern addition, and use it for a kindergarten program, which was largely made possible by a very generous gift from Dr. and Mrs. Rocco Motto, Henkelman’s parents.

The upcoming renovation of Little West House to house the Thorne School, which needs to relocate from West House but remain near its wonderful playground, will be Rescorla’s final real estate adventure at the College. This last project is bittersweet for Rescorla, as she told the staff at CSI during a gathering to celebrate the work they’d done together a few weeks before the clinic ceased operations.

“I am grateful for having had the opportunity to be involved here for more than 30 years. It has given me a place to continue my clinical work—both assessment and therapy—which I have found so meaningful and fun and which has been so important in informing my teaching. Being the director of CSI also allowed me to hire so many of you to work here, which has allowed us to provide such outstanding services to the community for decades.”

However, the closure of CSI and renovation of the building for the Thorne School (which will occur in the 2018-19 academic year) will allow that program to continue at the College—and thereby to continue serving children and parents in the community, but also to continue serving Bi-Co students. In the 2017-18 academic year alone, more than 50 Bi-Co students worked at Thorne as paid classroom assistants or participated there as part of a Praxis class, doing observations for class assignments, or in some other way.

As Rescorla says, “Many students who have worked at Thorne over the years have gone on to careers in early childhood education, child psychology, speech-language pathology, pediatrics and so many other fields. We continue to get more and more involved in Praxis and other LILAC programs. In fact, we were offering Praxis—that is, experiential learning experiences in the community—for decades before Bryn Mawr even had a name for it.”

Until her retirement, in addition to overseeing the Thorne move, Rescorla will continue to teach courses and supervise thesis students, engage in research, and maintain her clinical practice. She also plans to continue her travel abroad to work with international colleagues with whom she collaborates on studies of language screening for toddlers, autism spectrum disorders, and informant ratings of emotional and behavioral problems.