The Center for UFO Studies that Northwestern wanted nothing to do with

    Plastic extraterrestrial paraphernalia rest on a shelf in the CUFOS office. Photo by Jason Plautz / NBN

    During his career, Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain earned the nickname “I, Robot” for the mechanical and emotionless manner in which he carried out his instructions.

    Many co-workers suspected that Thain merely resembled a human in appearance only, and that behind the button-down shirt, hard-wired circuitry allowed him to perform his duties without giving rise to feelings.

    Recent events now suggest that Thain is not a robot but in fact an alien at the center of an intergalactic conspiracy to rob Earth of vital minerals and financial institutions.
    The Weekly World News, Sept. 15, 2008

    The stereotype of the ufologist is something like The Lone Gunmen — just a bunch of crazies, sitting in their moms’ basements, staring at computer screens through thick-rimmed glasses and spouting conspiracy theories about how the CIA or NSA or some other initialed agency covered up the Roswell crash because the government is trying to harness the alien technology to build a race of superhumans, starting with their prototype, Barack Obama. It’s a stereotype that’s all over the media and, quite frankly, isn’t far from the truth in a lot of cases.

    But the scientists (yes, scientists) at the Center for UFO Studies are different. The Center, located at 2457 W. Peterson Avenue in Chicago, is dedicated to a serious academic study of UFOs. Northwestern astronomy professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek founded CUFOS in 1973 to “end a quarter century of misrepresentation and buffoonery.” And now, 35 years later and 22 years after Hynek’s death, the Center is still committed to that same standard.

    CUFOS focuses on investigating reported sightings, going in-depth by interviewing witnesses, surveying the environment and looking for any kind of evidence that UFOs are out there. In 2006, the group was able to investigate a sighting of a round object hovering in midair at O’Hare International Airport. Three times a year, they publish the International UFO Reporter, a scholarly journal that gets to the heart of what the Center is all about.

    “We have a track record of publishing reliable and high-level information and analysis,” says Mark Rodeghier, the CUFOS Scientific Director. “You can get commentary in a lot of places, but the academic style of analysis and research is something we specialize in.”


    But research is often unseen in a field dragged down by conspiracy theorists, people publishing wild statements on the Internet and, well, crazies. Even ufology’s only newsstand magazine, UFO, has ditched the serious reporting for a new-age approach. Frank John Reid, one of the Center’s volunteers, may look like the public’s stereotype of a goofball with his wild hair and unkempt mustache, yet he is quick to note that the Center is a step above.

    “A guy can tell you the Queen of England has reptile blood and say he’s a ufologist, but he’s not,” Reid says. “There’s a real tendency to put stuff online with no peer review. Outside of us, there’s not much peer review.”

    Even though the volunteers can’t always admit to being in the mainstream, Rodeghier says the Center fights being associated with the oddballs simply by doing good work.

    “We try to present ourselves well in other venues. We try not to associate with the crazies,” he says. “Are there quack psychologists and people with weird theories? Absolutely. Should they reflect on the profession of psychology? No.”

    Perhaps the goofballs capture the attention because it’s easy to dismiss them. The idea of ufology is off-putting or taboo to many, and they don’t want their name associated with it.

    “If you’re on your way up, you don’t want to let people know you’re into UFOs,” says David Boras, Assistant to the Scientific Director.

    That sentiment caused tension between Hynek and the Northwestern administration throughout his career. Even though Hynek was one of Northwestern’s most popular and famous professors, the university refused to be associated with CUFOS. Memos from the university archives show that Hynek was careful to avoid mentioning UFOs and Northwestern in the same breath. In one memo to John Fields, the vice president of development, Hynek wrote, “I am sorry about the occasional attribution of the Center to Northwestern.” A memo from Provost Raymond W. Mack laid out the distinction Hynek was supposed to make in public:

    “There is no reason for Northwestern not to receive credit on the coast-to-coast television speeches you mention for the fact that you are a member of our faculty, but there is every reason for us not to claim that the Center of UFO Studies is an organizational part of Northwestern University.”

    CUFOS Scientific Director Mark Rodeghier digs through files before leaving to check out a case. Photo by Jason Plautz / NBN

    But perhaps the most damning evidence of the strain between academia and ufology came in a memo from Dean Rudolph Wengartner to the University Relations Department years after Hynek had retired.

    “We are not, have not been and will not be proud of Hynek’s UFO affairs. There are many who think that what he’s up to has nothing to do with research.”


    The office of CUFOS doesn’t give off the environment of a dedicated think tank. For one, it’s three rooms in an office complex owned by Liberty Tax, marked only by a large sign with the Statue of Liberty. The walls of the main room are covered in pictures, newspaper clippings, X-Files posters, Far Side comics, drawings of aliens and grainy photographs of indistinct objects in the sky. The other two rooms in the dark, cool office are dominated by books, filing cabinets and shelves, which hold the Center’s famous files.

    The Center’s office is staffed entirely by volunteers, but the building itself might as well be abandoned if not for the files. The scientific board has members across the country and the 500 or so associates work from afar. But somebody has to man the office, so volunteers will drift in and out. Reid, a retiree, acts as a librarian for other researchers. He has a halting style of speech and describes himself as an “average, garden-variety goof.” Since he treats this as his job, he finds himself spending a lot of his time at the Center, searching through the files for other researchers.

    Those files are a big reason the Center is so relevant. They hold press clippings, eyewitness interviews, field reports and any other evidence CUFOS can amass. According to Rodeghier, their library, which includes files from the defunct National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, is the best there is.

    Beyond just being a library, though, the Center has engaged in grand-scale investigations. In the early ‘90s, they embarked on the largest investigation into the Roswell crash, the go-to topic of anyone’s basic UFO knowledge. Not content with the reigning, allegedly government-created “weather balloon” theory of the mysterious New Mexico crash, a team headed by Regional Director Don Schmitt set out to unearth new witnesses and evidence.

    What followed was a process akin to assembling a legal case. They had to investigate witness testimony, verify their credibility and corroborate any evidence they found. Assisted by witnesses, they found the exact spot of the crash. The team unearthed evidence of a coverup: Military officials in Roswell confessed to being silenced and even 40 years down the line were nervous to talk about it. Witnesses described unusual scrap metal that wouldn’t dent even when hit with a sledgehammer, and an other-worldly foil that would become instantly smooth after being crumpled. They didn’t come away with definitive answers to the Roswell questions, but unearthed enough evidence to justify reasonable doubt in the current story.

    Even the thought of investigating truly excites the volunteers. Upon hearing about a suspicious car crash outside of Chicago, Reid and Rodeghier eagerly discuss the possibilities. The damage to the car doesn’t match an accident or side-swipe and there’s no evidence of anything the car could have hit. Rodeghier starts referencing older “car-bashing” cases, tying them to incidents where a UFO swiped over cars or mysterious magnetic fields caused damage to vehicles. The sight of these two graying men, Reid with his facial tics and Rodeghier with his thick glasses, exhibiting boyish excitement evokes images of what the volunteers must have been like as children in the Sputnik era, when the headlines were dominated by space and the idea of aliens wasn’t crazy so much as it was enchanting.

    Frank John Reid lounges in the CUFOS main office. Photo by Jason Plautz / NBN


    This tradition of excitement and discovery dates back to the 70s, when Hynek founded the Center. He envisioned a place where scientists could discuss and study the UFO phenomenon. The goal was to bring an air of credibility to the field and to explore the inexplicable, as any good scientist does.

    Hynek gained fame as an astronomer at The Ohio State University and initially thought little of UFOs. In 1948, he was hired by the Air Force to act as a consultant on Project Sign, which studied UFO reports. Hynek’s job was essentially that of a debunker: he studied the reports and would try to find known astronomical objects that would explain the sighting. He became known for explaining away a set of sightings in Michigan as swamp gas.

    But as he looked through more and more cases, he slowly started to change his mind. The quality of witnesses made him think twice about dismissing cases. Eventually, he realized there was something worth studying, and he was troubled that the Air Force seemed to have a hesitant attitude towards UFOs. He stayed with the Air Force through Project Sign, which became Project Grudge and then Project Blue Book, but once the investigations closed he openly questioned their results. He became a staunch supporter of the study of UFOs, eventually publishing the seminal book on UFOs, “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry.” In that book, he laid out his very scientific definition of what a UFO was, showing just how serious he was about making ufology academic:

    “We can define the UFO simply as the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land the appearance, trajectory and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible.”

    Notice that the definition says nothing about aliens. Hynek was careful to avoid the direct association of aliens and UFOs, a theory even he questioned. His book also established perhaps his most famous legacy: a system of ranking “encounters” with a UFO. Those rankings would reach a mass audience with the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which Hynek was a consultant on.

    But studying UFOs can’t pay the bills, so Hynek worked as an astronomy professor, heading up Northwestern’s small department in 1960. Within a year of his chairmanship, the department expanded from offering one course to more than a dozen, attracted 20 new faculty members and acquired expensive new equipment. According to Rodeghier, who worked with Hynek, it was a role that suited him perfectly.

    “He was the ultimate professor,” Rodeghier says. “He looked and talked like a professor, he smoked a pipe and had a twinkle in his eyes.”

    Students flocked to his Introduction to Astronomy class like current students seek out Gary Saul Morson’s Introduction to Russian Literature. He would gather students to watch eclipses and meteors and was known for his dynamic lectures.

    In 1973, he set his focus to UFOs by founding the Center. It moved between many Evanston locations, including, for a time, his basement. But he managed to get a group of dedicated, interested researchers together, and the Center would become his great legacy. He capitalized on the obsession with space that had been started by Sputnik. Rodeghier explains that he, along with most of the nation, became fascinated with the idea of UFOs in that era.

    “I wanted to be an astronomer,” Rodeghier says. “I just found the idea of aliens and space very exciting, so I just connected the two. Everyone did — even the Air Force was investigating UFOs.”

    In 1978, Hynek retired from Northwestern and focused all his attention on the Center. The nation’s UFO obsession may have died down, but his fire remained strong. He served as scientific director until he retired to Arizona, where he continued to have a passion for investigating cases. He continued his UFO work until, in 1986, he died of a brain tumor. Fittingly, he died as he was born — under Halley’s Comet.

    Rodeghier says the CUFOS file collection is the most extensive in the world. Photo by Jason Plautz / NBN


    Since Hynek’s death, the study of UFOs hasn’t gotten any easier. A dip in sightings has meant fewer current cases to work on. The Internet is changing the way scientific research is shared, and is making the Center’s paper files look increasingly antiquated. As Reid says, “I feel like a guy who knows all the tribal chants, but now here comes a guy who’s writing on paper and I have to adapt.”

    But, as most things do, the Center’s challenges come back to money. The unfriendly atmosphere surrounding UFO studies means they don’t get heavy funding and there isn’t much opportunity to turn a profit in scientific research, especially in a phenomenon like UFOs.

    “When science was first growing, scientists had to depend on getting a prince or a duke or the Queen of Sweden to fund them,” Reid says. “We just can’t get a hold of the Queen of Sweden.”

    Even if they could get through to the Queen, it’s not likely she would send royal funds their way. Roedigher said he is frequently going up against skeptics and misinformation about his field. To him, the best approach to take is to just explain what he’s doing.

    “If I meet someone whose mind is open, even just a crack, I can sit and talk to them,” Roedigher says. “I just try to present the best cases. In the end, they always say, ‘Okay, I see at least why you’re studying this. There might really be something there.’”

    Reid says most people reject ufology because they may be uncomfortable with the new ideas that UFOs bring. There is a moral component, with people wondering what would happen if a race of aliens arrived with evil intentions.

    “Do you see what they’re doing to ferrets? They’re genetically making different kinds. Can you imagine someone breeding humans like that?” Reid says. “It’s disheartening to think that aliens out there could be using humans as slaves or for experiments.”

    But even if the public doesn’t approve of their research, the scientists at CUFOS just keep going. The Chicago Tribune reportedly killed a profile of the Center that might portray them sympathetically, but that didn’t deter anyone. Rodeghier just points out that a story about the O’Hare sighting was the most popular on the site that day. After all, did a little skepticism ever deter The X-Files’ Fox Mulder?

    They are currently working on a large project analyzing data from the Abduction Monitoring Project. During the project, they measured various fields (light, magnetic, electric, among others) at reported abduction sites to find a trace of physical evidence left behind by a UFO. They continue to work on the IUR and publishing their own papers. And they’re content waiting for the rest of science to catch up with them.

    “Just think of meteors,” Rodeghier says. “Before 1800, scientists rejected the idea that rocks could fall from the sky. They rejected it even though there was eyewitness testimony, because it might violate their theories. Finally, with some good luck, some scientists in France saw rocks fall. Within a few years, everybody just accepted that rocks could fall from the sky.”


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