Bell Bids Washington Farewell; Will Return to Utah, Academe

By Tom Mirga — November 14, 1984 7 min read

Associate Editor Thomas Toch, Assistant Editor Tom Mirga, and Staff Writer James Hertling contributed to this report. It was written by Mr. Mirga.

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell ended months of speculation about his future by announcing last week that he would resign his post effective Dec. 31. President Reagan accepted his letter of resignation “with deep regret” on Nov. 8.

Mr. Bell, who had the awkward job of presiding over a department targeted for elimination by the Reagan Administration, said his reasons for leaving included pressing family business, a lawsuit involving a parcel of land that he sold in 1979, and a desire to bolster his Utah state pension.

Sources close to the Secretary, who was considered one of the moderate voices in the Administration, also suggested that he had grown weary of persistent battles over the Education Department’s budget--a charge that he denied--and of criticism of his tenure from both conservatives and liberals.

At a press conference last Thursday, Mr. Bell announced that he had accepted a full professorship at the University of Utah’s graduate school of education and would begin teaching there early next year.

Jones Assumes Command

Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Jones will act as head of the department until Mr. Bell’s yet-unnamed successor is confirmed by the Senate. He took control of the department last Friday following Mr. Bell’s departure for Utah to prepare for a court hearing on the lawsuit regarding the land.

According to informed observers, Mr. Jones is one of four people whom President Reagan is currently considering for the top post at the Education Department.

The other leading candidates at this time are said to be John R. Silber, president of Boston University; William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

During the press conference, Secretary Bell said he expected President Reagan to announce his replacement before the end of next month.

Four Years ‘A Long Time’

“A four-year hitch is a long time,” said Mr. Bell, who was accompanied at the briefing by his wife, Betty, and their youngest son, Peter.

“We have a family business in Utah that had been in existence for one year when the President asked me to take the position,” he explained. “It takes about five years for a business to get on top, and I’ve been here for about four years. I need to turn myself to that.”

In an interview following the press conference, Mr. Bell elaborated on his family’s business, a sod farm operated by two of his sons, who are also university students. “They have had that responsibility for four long years,” he said, adding that “the decision to leave was my own to make.”

Land Sale Questioned

Of the lawsuit, he said: “I have some land that I bought from one party and sold to another that is in dispute, and the trial is starting on Nov. 19. I’ll be out there for that, and then I’ll come back here to wind up my affairs.”

According to court officials in Provo County, Utah, papers filed in the case indicate that Mr. Bell had bought the parcel of land, then sold it in January 1979 for $224,000. The purchaser tried to sell the parcel to someone else but could not because Mr. Bell had never obtained clear title to it.

The officials said Mr. Bell is being sued for $153,000 in damages plus interest and attorney’s fees. And the Secretary, they said, has sued the man from whom he purchased the land.

Potential for Embarrassment

Mr. Bell said he was not stepping down because of the potential embarrassment the lawsuit could pose to him personally and to the Administration. But he did say in the interview that the legal matters influenced the timing of his departure.

“It would have been a horrible position to be in--leaving town for a month to participate in a court case when the Administration is putting together its coming agenda and when people are talking about changes in Cabinet positions,” one Education Department official said. “It would have caused the rumor mill to work overtime.”

“It would have seemed odd for a Cabinet secretary to leave for a month during the transition,” added another.

Pension Benefits

During the press conference, Mr. Bell, who turns 63 this month, also explained that he was resigning in part out of concern over his Utah state pension.

He explained that if he worked in education in his home state for two more years, “that will give me time to build up more retirement credits.”

“I haven’t really built those vested rights in retirement,” he said. “I’ve started looking at my personal finances.”

“I’ve enjoyed very much being Secretary of Education,” Mr. Bell told the members of the press. “I feel that I’m leaving at a time when we’re involved in a real renaissance of American education.

“We all know that we’re not there yet,” he continued. “We’ve probably finished the first year of a multiyear endeavor. We have an unheralded opportunity to bring our nation’s schools and colleges up to a higher level.”

Conservative Critics

In response to a reporter’s question, Mr. Bell said he would be overstating matters to say that persistent criticism from conservative supporters of the President over the past four years helped to drive him from office. Nevertheless, he elabo-rated on criticism from that quarter in an uncommonly strong manner.

“I always felt that I’d be able to persuade my critics that the position I’ve taken is the correct one, that moving in the radical direction of abolishing all the programs and dramatically withdrawing all federal concern and support of education would be a mistake,” he said. ''I’ve not been successful in doing that, and the criticism from the conservative press has gone on unabated.

“If you were to ask me for areas where I haven’t been successful,” Mr. Bell stated, “I’d have to list that one high on the agenda.”

Mr. Bell went on to say that he believes the federal government has ''a significant role in education.”

“I feel that it would be a very, very serious mistake to do what some had in mind when they talked about abolishing the department, and that’s wiping out all the [student loans], wiping out our aid to the handicapped and the disadvantaged, and all the rest of what we do,” he said.

Mr. Bell said he was “not certain” whether the issue of dismantling the department would become a major issue again. However, even if the issue is raised again by conservatives, he said he did not anticipate such action during the next four years.

“This will be one of the issues I won’t miss explaining,” he quipped.

Budget Battles

Mr. Bell also denied during the press conference that his resignation was linked to his ongoing disputes with David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, over the education budget.

“That hasn’t been a deciding factor at all,” he said.

“At the same time, I’ll acknowledge that we’ve had quite different views on the level of funding for some programs,” he said. “Stockman has a tough job. I think education is so special that it ranks in priority alongside or ahead of the Defense Department.”

Several sources close to the Secretary, however, said that internecine quarrels over the Education Department’s budget were a major source of irritation to the Secretary.

One source, commenting on a re-cent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Secretary Bell said he would oppose proposed cuts in student financial aid, said: “To me, that sounded like someone who was burning his bridges.”

In the interview following the press briefing, Mr. Bell said that he was forced to make the remark by the then-upcoming Presidential election. The Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter F. Mondale, could have scored political points with a remark by him in favor of budget reductions, he said.

Education Agenda Predicted

Asked by reporters to predict the course of education policy after his departure, Mr. Bell said: “Those who anticipate that there will be major initiatives that require massive amounts of funding will be disappointed. I also predict that those who anticipate reversals from positions and policies we now have will also be disappointed.

“I know that the President has a strong feeling about education,” he continued. “And I don’t anticipate that he’s going to emasculate the federal role in education. I hope--and I anticipate--that the new Secretary of Education will have a strong commitment to this nation’s schools and colleges.”

Accomplishments, Failures

The Secretary said the major accomplishment during his tenure in office was the release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report in April 1983 “and the fantastic response to it.”

His major failure, he said, was his inability “to persuade the major teachers’ organizations to come forward and support enthusiastically the reforms that I think are going to be necessary if we are to renew and reform the American teaching profession.”

“I was confident, maybe naively so, that I could persuade the major teachers’ organizations to support” such reforms as merit pay, Mr. Bell continued. “They are very, very powerful in the state legislatures. We have had some reforms enacted, but there are only eight or 10 of them, and I had hoped we’d have 25 or 30 by now.”