Oxford Calling


Robby Hill ’19 is selected as a Marshall Scholar

One Friday evening this past fall, Robby Hill ’19 was cleaning up his Yale dorm room in anticipation of hosting former Williston classmates Aidan Burke ’19 and Sally Alrutz ’19 for the next day’s big Harvard-Yale football game. Suddenly, his phone buzzed with news that would change the next few years of his life: He’d been named a Marshall Scholar. “I was shocked,” he says. “I called my dad [Head of School Robert W. Hill III] back at Williston, and we both started screaming.” The prestigious and highly selective scholarship program—created in 1953 as a memorial to former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall in honor of his Marshall Plan work—funds one to two years of graduate study in the United Kingdom for some 50 accomplished U.S. undergraduates. Before Hill heads off to Oxford next fall, we caught up with him to learn more.

Can you tell us about your academic work since Williston?

At Yale, I’ve majored in ethics, politics, and economics with a focus on quantitative methods in the social sciences. A lot of my independent research and my senior thesis involves using statistical methods to evaluate urban policy.

What is the focus of your senior thesis?

The short answer is I need to do a lot of work before graduating! The longer answer is that I’m looking at how the creation of the Interstate Highway System and other urban renewal projects contributed to patterns of racial segregation in the New Haven area. I’m doing economic modeling to try and explain how white and Black households make decisions about where to live in response to existing demographic trends, commuting time, and neighborhood amenities. “Urban renewal” sounds like an investment in a city—and it is, in a way—but in the end, it often has the greatest benefit for suburban dwellers. New highways decrease commute time and increase job access to people living in the suburbs. Under those terms, you can see it as almost a racial wealth transfer because you’re taking property that was owned by a mix of working-class white and Black families—but disproportionately Black families—and basically giving that investment to mostly white suburbanites.

What led you to pursue urban policy work?

My real introduction came during COVID, when I took a gap year from Yale to work for Desegregate Connecticut. Founded in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Desegregate Connecticut is a land-reform organization that takes its name from the position that low-density, suburban-style zoning is the main driver of increased housing costs—and also has historically been a tool to entrench segregation based on race and income. Prior to that, I knew almost nothing about zoning and land use, but it piqued my interest and ultimately led me to do eviction-defense work with Brooklyn Legal Services this past summer.

What did you do in that role?

I was an intern on a housing staff with about 30 attorneys. Our work was to process dozens of new eviction cases every week and see which ones we could defend. It gave me a new window into housing work. Up until then, I’d been abstractly thinking about how municipalities are planning for new housing growth. This was much more one-on-one human work, basically sitting with someone and saying, “OK, this is how you can proceed with this application for social services, and this is how we can maintain your housing.” Zoning and housing policy can seem boring on the surface, but I get very fired up about this work.

What do you plan to study at Oxford?

I’ll be working on a Master of Philosophy in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation. That’s a mouthful, so I usually just say it’s urban policy evaluation, focusing on spatial inequality across neighborhoods, towns, and regions. I’m not sure yet if I’ll try and parlay that into a full-on Ph.D., but right now, I’m excited for the ability to produce a more robust piece of research.

If you had a general goal of what you hope to do one day, what would it be?

It would probably be the same mission that Desegregate Connecticut had, which is to increase understanding about how housing policy affects wealth inequality. If you ask most people, they don’t see the relationship between new housing supply and housing prices—and in fact, they usually think that new housing supply increases housing prices. The main reason we have these persistently high housing costs is because we’re not building enough housing, so we need to do whatever we can to ramp up that production. Unfortunately, some of the biggest impediments are car-related: concerns about parking and traffic. If we care about equity issues, we should use policy levers to discourage driving—either by taxing parking or by using congestion.pricing like New York is doing—then reinvesting it into public transit that has a mass benefit.

Is there anything in your current studies that was sparked at Williston?

Definitely! My history classes at Williston taught me to think more critically and analyze the reasons behind different social outcomes. My final AP U.S. History paper, for example, was about racial gerrymandering, and writing it introduced me to some of the ways policy affects racial outcomes in this country. And my Williston Scholars project focused on felony disenfranchisement—basically, laws that prevent or impede anyone convicted of a felony from voting, and which have deeply racist origins. So I came into college wanting to do something about racial inequality. Williston also gave me an appreciation for learning and for not treating school just as a stepping stone to what’s next. Coming out of Williston, I think I felt much more comfortable charting my own academic trajectory, which has ultimately led me to more rewarding work, and certainly to the Marshall.