By Sarah Trefethen
For one year in the 1960s, Rosemary Scanlon toured the US with her then-husband, an actor who was serving as an understudy to Martin Sheen.
Between looking after baby Charlie Sheen (“he was Carlos then”) and loading and unloading the wardrobe trucks, Scanlon, an economist who till that time had focused her research on emerging economies, found herself pondering the fate of America’s cities.
“Everywhere we went we stayed downtown,” says Scanlon, who was named divisional dean of New York University’s Schack Institute for Real Estate in April. “I was shocked at the condition of urban America. I couldn’t get over, ‘What has happened to these great cities? They had no vibrant downtowns left.’ I was shocked at how desolate some of them seemed to be.”
It was defining moment in the career of a woman from Antigonish, Nova Scotia – a town of just 6,000 people.
In 1969, Scanlon settled with her family in Brooklyn Heights, where she still lives.
“Cities are where the creativity comes from,” she says. “Even in New York’s grim days of the early to mid-70’s, the 20 to 29 aged cohort was still moving to the city.”
Scanlon had graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of New Brunswick, where she was a Ford Foundation Scholar, by the time she was 20 years old.
She then took a teaching position at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Today, she is a United States citizen. “I came to teach for one year, and I’m still here,” she says.
After settling in New York, her husband’s hometown, Scanlon went to work for 25 years for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, eventually becoming the organization’s chief economist.
“We did everything,” she says. “We did air traffic, cargo, port freight. We were in rail transportation since we ran the PATH, and we were in the office market since we built and ran the World Trade Center. We used to say we did everything but housing, but then I lead a study team for the potential of waterfront development, and of course that included housing.”
She spent time at Harvard Business School, graduating from the Program for Management Development. While there, she returned her attention to the question of urban America.
“What I figured out was, a lot of it was policies,” she says, from a GI bill that gave assistance to returing soldiers buying single-family homes but not apartments, to the Kennedy-era investment tax credit that encouraged companies to build new factories in the suburbs rather than upgrading facilities in places like Brooklyn and Queens.
Scanlon left the Port Authority in 1993 to take a position with New York State, as a deputy comptroller for New York City, overseeing the New York City budget.
“I did that for four years until the city was thoroughly in the black,” she says.
The it was off to London, develop a proposal to establish the economic research capacity for the new London municipal government. She stayed on for a additional year to conduct a study comparing London and New York, and on her return to the Big Apple she went to teach at Schack.
She was serving as dean of academic affairs when the previous dean resigned in October 2011, and she became interim divisional dean.
“I told them at the time I didn’t consider myself a candidate for the job,” she says, as here background was in economics rather than real estate. “But after filling in for 5 or 6 months they said ‘no, no we want you to stay on.’”
Scanlon, who has two grown children and four grandchildren, has given up most of her teaching duties for her first year as divisional dean. But she still fills in for economics faculty when they need to miss a lecture. She had volunteered to teach Schack’s first online course, and even though she later gave it to another teacher because of time constraints, she did one lecture in that new format as well.
Next year, Scanlon says, she hopes she will be acclimated to her leadership role enough to make a more regular return to the classroom.
For now, however, she is focused on implementing a number of new programs that were devised under the previous divisional dean, including a new concentration in development that has both international and community-based tracks.
Schack now sends students around the world, from Rio to Shanghai, and Scanlon hopes to recruit more international students as well.
While the business cycle is always a challenge for real estate professionals, she says, “the second big challenge is for the students recognizing that real estate is now a global business, and they have to broaden their own horizons.”