“A Challenger, a Rebel, and a Popular Teacher”
Freda Rebelsky was a role model for women in the field of psychology| From Commonwealth | By Samantha Dubois (COM’12)
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
A trailblazer for women in her field, Freda Rebelsky had an extensive career as a researcher, a teacher, and an advocate of community service.
Rebelsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor emerita of psychology, died on July 20, 2009. She was seventy-eight.
Rebelsky, a BU professor for thirty-four years, was the first woman to join and the first woman to earn tenure in the psychology department, according to the college.
Born in New York City, Rebelsky grew up in a neighborhood rife with poverty, an upbringing that would later influence her career choice and spark her passion for helping others. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and then enrolled in the university’s law school. While there, she took a course with renowned psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who offered her a job as a counselor to mentally disturbed children at the Orthogenic School, a residential treatment program run by the university. She abandoned law and pursued a master’s in psychology instead.
Rebelsky later earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University and worked as a research associate at MIT. She joined BU’s psychology department in 1962 and, over three decades, helped transform it. Rebelsky developed more than fifteen new courses, created a developmental psychology program, and shepherded numerous female faculty into the department.
Rebelsky’s classes filled immediately with students eager to learn psychology from the professor who invited students into her home and even started a no-interest student loan system with her own money.
“She was a challenger, a rebel, and a terrifically popular teacher,” Howard Zinn, her former colleague and a CAS professor emeritus of political science, told the Boston Globe. “Her students spoke of her with absolute awe.”
Rebelsky’s gift for teaching did not go unnoticed. She won a Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, in 1978, and the psychology department’s Professor Award. She was also the first female psychologist to win the E. Harris Harbison Award for Gifted Teachers from the Danforth Foundation and the Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association.
Rebelsky devoted much of her time to community service as cofounder of the Massachusetts Children’s Lobby and chair of the boards of Boston Lyric Opera and the Dance Collective.
After retiring in 1996, she became a motivational speaker and advocated for social justice.
At seventy-five Rebelsky “was protesting the war in Iraq and participating in e-mail campaigns calling for the impeachment of President Bush,” according to the Globe.
“She was a very powerful and positive influence on so many people she encountered,” Zinn told the Globe, “a great model of somebody who will not remain silent in the face of authority or the presence of injustice.”