New Kid on Campus

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New York

More than a century ago, a young education-reform activist became the first president of a school to prepare teachers of poor children in New York City. That young man, Nicholas Murray Butler, was a prodigy of sorts: By the age of 23, he had already earned a doctorate and a college teaching position in philosophy. By his 25th birthday, he had helped launch the education school.

According to historian Diane Ravitch in her book The Great School Wars, Butler was the "field marshal of the educational reform movement," who became known around the country as an "incisive and outspoken advocate of the professionalism of education." And his school, Teachers College, Columbia University, went on to become the grandfather of all education schools and one of the leading intellectual influences on the development of the teaching profession in the United States.

Today, a new education reformer sits in the president's office in a large stone hall on the college's campus in the city's Morningside Heights neighborhood.

Equally accomplished at a young age, equally respected as a national voice in education, 47-year-old Arthur E. Levine shares perhaps one more characteristic with Butler. It's his desire, as he puts it, to "build things."

Levine knows something about building things. As president of Bradford College--a position he attained in 1982 at the age of 34--he turned a small Massachusetts liberal-arts college on the brink of closure into a respected school with a comprehensive curriculum.

But the task of building things at a place like Teachers College is not quite so straightforward. The school, true to its longstanding tradition, already boasts a world-class faculty and top-notch programs. The college and its reputation are perhaps best reflected in its main hall on 120th Street: a solid, dignified, and somewhat imposing structure.

When it comes to building things at Teachers College, then, Levine's job is not so much creating as it is nourishing what already exists. It's also a job of redefining and providing leadership for schools of education around the country, at a time when such schools are under intense scrutiny.

Levine appears eager to take on that project and is prepared to do it with some urgency. "We have one of those rare opportunities in which we can substantially improve the quality of education in the United States. It's the kind of thing that Teachers College did historically," he says. "We have five years, maybe, to change the basic model of what education schools do and to make a real difference in schools in this country. Because my fear is, if we don't take advantage of this opportunity, the country and our leaders will turn their backs on public education."

A conviction, certainly, that would have made Nicholas Murray Butler proud.

Arthur Elliott Levine was born in 1948 in New York City to parents who, although they had not gone to college themselves, remained steadfast in their belief that their son would attain that level of education. "It was not so much an order as a fact of life, somewhat akin to hearing we were going to have breakfast tomorrow," Levine recalls in his most recent book, Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College.

Levine attended public schools and, after graduation from the Bronx High School of Science, attended Brandeis University with the financial help of a distant relative. As a biology major there, Levine describes himself as an "indifferent" student. In his senior year, he took standardized admissions tests for almost every kind of postgraduate study, from medical school to business school, in a frustrated effort to find a profession to his liking.

It was an extracurricular venture, however, that finally captured his intellectual and emotional energy. While serving on the school's education-policy committee, he had a fascinating revelation: Education policy was primarily made and remade on the basis of anecdote without hard data. So after graduation, he and fellow student John Weingart scraped together their savings and money from foundations to write an education-policy book, Reform of Undergraduate Education, which tried to provide concrete information for schools considering policy changes.

It was at that point, Levine says, that he found his true intellectual calling. "I fell in love with higher education," he says. "I fell in love with writing. I fell in love with thinking about curriculum. I fell in love with all of it."

Fortunately for him, he won recognition for a talent that matched his enthusiasm: The book was selected as the American Council on Education's Book of the Year in 1974. And, as Levine was preparing to finish a doctorate in sociology and higher education at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Clark Kerr, the chairman of the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education, offered him a job.

"This was an amazing job--they paid me to write books," says Levine, shaking his head as if still in disbelief. "I'd sit in my office reading books, with my door closed, afraid that someone would come in and catch me. Three months into the job, I realized, 'Oh my goodness, this is what I do for a living. They're paying me to do this.' I would have paid them."

During his time at the council, Levine was influenced by two important role models, Kerr and the late Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching. "Clark Kerr taught me about integrity, quality of research, policy, and ethics," he says. "Ernie Boyer took me into another world--he taught me about how one influences the policy agenda, how one makes ideas current and visible in the nation."

Levine was headed for an academic career as a university professor until Boyer sat him down one day for a conversation that changed his life. If he wanted to influence people in higher education, Boyer told him, he would have to gain experience as president of a college or university himself. "His notion was, if you're going to tell people how to do their jobs better, you need to have held their jobs if they're going to take you seriously," Levine says.

Shortly after that talk, such a leadership opportunity presented itself at Bradford College, which Levine describes as a "troubled laboratory" striving to reinvent itself. The nearly 180-year-old school had fewer than 400 students and was continuing to lose enrollment. At the time, students were forsaking liberal-arts colleges like Bradford, in a small town 30 miles north of Boston, in favor of less expensive public colleges.

"When they brought me on board, what they had said was, 'The trustees have two plans: One plan is to close the college, the other plan is for this place to thrive under your leadership.' I never heard the first part," Levine says.

Working with the board and administration, he created a liberal-arts curriculum that attracted talented new faculty, built alumni support, attracted more student applications, and won national media attention.

"He was ready when he took over Bradford, even though he was only 34," recalls David Haselkorn, Levine's assistant at Bradford, who is now the president of the Belmont, Mass.-based Recruiting New Teachers Inc. "It was a very difficult time for liberal-arts education, and Art was able to eloquently and articulately say why the liberal arts were important in America. He was a model of both a visionary and an effective collegiate leader."

Levine also attracted attention outside of Bradford College for his work there. "We were very impressed with his taking conceptual ideas and applying them in a new way to an individual institution--and bringing all of the various constituencies on board," says Julie J. Kidd, the president of the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, which financed some of Levine's projects at Bradford. "He really was able to turn Bradford around."

After he completed what he had set out to do at Bradford, Levine left in 1989 for Harvard's graduate school of education to chair its higher-education program and to head its Institute for Educational Management, a program that trained college-level administrators.

Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, was the dean of Harvard's education school when Levine arrived. Levine impressed her with the ease of his transformation from college president to faculty member--a role, which she notes, did not come naturally to his "rumpled administrative personality."

"He's a person who will take a formidable challenge and work very hard to meet it," Graham says.

A casual conversation with Levine might reveal more of the rumpled administrative personality than the depth of the convictions that led him to rise to such challenges. With his boyish smile and hair askew, he seems to enjoy listening as much as talking, a quality that makes him appear more approachable than many a college president. He speaks softly, almost self-consciously, when he talks about himself. But when he talks about ideas, his speaks firmly and with intensity.

"He's got kind of a self-effacing style that belies his incredible intelligence and a sense of toughness," says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College.

Kidd agrees with this assessment. "He's a very down-to-earth and modest person, and a very good listener," she says. "There are brilliant people who like to hear themselves talk but won't listen to others, and so their effectiveness is limited. He inspires confidence in what he's doing because you know he's not doing it for the greater glory of Arthur Levine."

His former and present colleagues almost all share the impression that Levine has a rare ability to combine vision with action. "Art Levine has always set his sights on shaping a better world," Haselkorn says. "The closest thing is to say that he is a pragmatic dreamer and a visionary doer."

In some ways, then, Levine's path to Teachers College was fitting with his personality: He never believed he would be chosen, but his emphatic views of the future of schools of education won him the job.

A headhunter approached Levine not once, not twice, but three times before he agreed to be interviewed. He hesitated partly, he says, because he didn't want to embarrass the headhunter by appearing before the interview committee and speaking his mind about education schools--and their shortcomings.

"I thought they wanted to be ivory towers when they should be professional schools," he says. Levine believed that the agenda for education reform was being set by corporations, foundations, and the media, while education schools were being left out of the dialogue because the public felt they were responsible for many of the problems with the nation's schools to begin with.

Levine left the interview feeling somewhat surprised that it had gone so well, given what he had just told the committee. And sure enough, after several more rounds of interviews, the school made him an offer. He decided to accept, he says, because the school came with a first-rate faculty, had a longstanding tradition of combining scholarship with practice, and "seemed like a prime place to think about the future of education."

Much of the debate on the future of schools of education focuses on which model they should follow. Like many reformers, Levine thinks that in order to align themselves more closely with the real world of education, teacher training institutions should more closely resemble agricultural schools--with their added emphasis on practice, as opposed to academic theory--than schools of arts and sciences.

Arthur Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, also supports that idea. "For too long, colleges of education, in an effort to earn academic respectability within a university context, have focused on the wrong models," he says. What happened, says Wise, is that education schools at research universities hired academics from liberal-arts disciplines who conducted scholarly research in their fields as they related to education. "But as that was happening," he says, "the scholars were not really confronting the educational process or the real problems of the schools." A movement toward the agricultural model, he adds, "is a move in line with the idea of creating professional schools in education, schools that have more clearly a mission of preparing school personnel, but also preparing scholars who are willing to focus their energies on helping to solve real school problems."

Teachers College has been tied in to efforts to reform teacher preparation, most recently as a founding member of the Holmes Group in 1986. The Holmes Group, now known as the Holmes Partnership, was created by deans of education schools at research universities who sought to overhaul those schools to make them more relevant to teachers and administrators.

Teachers College, with its historical emphasis on the practice of teaching, falls neatly in step with modern-day reform efforts, says Frank Murray, a professor of education at the University of Delaware and the interim president of the Holmes Partnership. Levine's ideas for the college were timely, Murray says, because "Teachers College was ready for a catalyst to nudge the institution in the direction its history would warrant and which the faculty wished to recapture."

Levine arrived at Teachers College in the summer of 1994 and got to work interviewing each of the 135 faculty members to find out what needed to be done.

"I had some sense of what a college president did, but I had very real things to learn about Teachers College: the culture of the institution, the history of the institution, what the institution did," Levine says. "It would have been a terribly arrogant thing for me to arrive at Teachers College and say, 'OK on Day 1, this is where we're going.'

"The whole first term was an education for me, and people who worked there gave it to me." His request of the faculty, he says, was, "Teach me what you're doing and what the strengths and weaknesses are of what it is you do."

In March 1995, he held a retreat with faculty members, with whom he discussed a potential reorganization of the college. In a June 1995 memo to the faculty, he described a mission statement as a focus for the college during the reorganization discussions: The college should engage in research on the critical issues facing education, instruction of future leaders, education of current leaders, development of discourse and the public agenda for education, and the improvement of educational practice.

Karen Zumwalt, the dean of Teachers College, says Levine discovered that although faculty members were devoted to the history and legacy of the school, many felt that the current structure needed to be re-evaluated and challenged. "When you do things well, there's a general tendency to keep doing them well," she says. "So I think it was a good time with this change in leadership, to take this as a window of opportunity to refocus what we were doing."

After a series of meetings, an executive committee, and then the entire faculty, approved a reorganization. The plan will shave the number of departments from 17 to nine without layoffs for the faculty. The reorganization team also plans to re-evaluate each of the school's more than 400 programs in an effort to consolidate the list.

Levine explains that the restructuring is necessary because the school has become heavily bureaucratic, making communication difficult. But more important, he says, the reorganization is aimed at strengthening the school academically by placing a critical mass of faculty in each department, eliminating administrative burdens placed on faculty members at the program level, and recapturing the competitive advantage that the school's large size--approximately 4,000 full- and part-time students--offers.

Darling-Hammond, who was a member of the faculty committee that worked on the reorganization effort, laughs when she recalls a meeting where Levine carried in about 100 legal pads and told the faculty, "I've been here for six months and talked to every one of you, and here's what I've learned."

On a more serious note, she adds that Levine's leadership style helped make the plan come about smoothly. "He really creates processes that are fruitful and productive," she says. "He will act, but only with great consideration of all the views involved. He's not paralyzed, but he's not a Lone Ranger."

With the reorganization, she continues, "there's a renewal of Teachers College's traditional commitment to the merger of theory and practice, to being strong in research and scholarship but also connecting that explicitly in every department with practice." She calls that connection a "harbinger" for other education schools.

Another professor, Ann Lieberman, says that one of the college's strengths is a faculty with diverse interests--an asset that she says will be further strengthened by having a "cluster" arrangement to encourage interdisciplinary thinking. "There's a lot of excitement," she says of the reorganization.

Levine himself shows a good deal of excitement when he describes how different parts of the plan will fit in with the mission statement. As part of setting the public agenda, for example, he envisions making the school's journal, the Teachers College Record, to education what the New England Journal of Medicine is to medicine. When that medical journal highlights an issue, Levine says, it becomes part of the public discourse and of the national agenda for action. "We have to begin to think about the education not only of educators," he says. "We have to think about using the journal to reach out to lay audiences, to reach out to the press on issues that are important."

In terms of educating current leaders, he envisions an "extension and outreach" branch that would use distance-learning techniques to coordinate efforts at improving practice. "If we really expect to educate leaders," he says, "it's going to be very difficult to get them to pick up and come to Teachers College for three days. We need to find ways to reach out and bring them together. We're going to find that more and more of our instruction can take place electronically, and we ought to develop that kind of capacity."

Along those same lines, Levine predicts that more practitioners will join the faculty in an effort to move instruction closer to the realities of the education world. As a move in this direction, he approached the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Fund and secured a $2 million grant to endow a Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice.

Thomas Sobol, the former New York state commissioner of education, became the first person to hold that chair in July. "My experience is not that of an academic, my work has been out there in the field," Sobol says. "I found it a very interesting challenge, to try to serve up that experience in some way that's useful to other people--and the climate here is right for me to do this. People are looking to make closer connections to the field of practice, to strengthen their work."

Sobol says he's already seen one effect of the reorganization, in that faculty members who hadn't necessarily talked to one another before have begun to engage in constructive dialogue. For example, he says, the educational administration faculty recently met with the organizational psychology faculty for an hour and a half to plan a March retreat on working together more effectively. "That kind of exercise is very healthy and wouldn't have happened without the reorganization," Sobol says.

As with any restructuring, there are undercurrents of discontent. Zumwalt agrees that the conversations among faculty members are healthy. But she adds that a few professors were baffled by an approach that was "top-down" as well as "bottom-up."

"It's a lot easier to do total 'top down,' " Zumwalt observes. "There were faculty who said, 'Well, why doesn't he just tell us what he wants us to do?' And it was hard for them to be convinced that he didn't have a super-plan under his blotter."

Zumwalt also mentions concerns of some faculty members that the agricultural-school model Levine advocates might be taken to mean that Teachers College is simply a school for teacher education, instead of encompassing other disciplines and research. She points out, however, that the lines of communication between the president, the dean, and the faculty have remained open to discuss such concerns.

But further evidence of discontent on campus has materialized in the form of an anonymous site on the World Wide Web. On the Web site, the authors spell out their gripes about the reorganization effort, focusing mainly on their contention that students did not have an adequate opportunity to participate in the process.

The Web site authors have organized a petition for Levine and Zumwalt to issue a public statement on the reorganization by March 1. The statement, the authors say, should include a complete list of preliminary and final proposals for new departments submitted by the faculty. Students can sign the petition by sending electronic mail to the Web site, found on America Online.

Levine says the Web site appeared between one of two campuswide "town meetings" and before a letter describing the reorganization was sent to all students. Not only are many of the authors' accusations inaccurate, Levine says, but they could have easily raised their concerns in the town meeting or during his open office hours. "It made me sad because I would love to meet with them and talk these things through," he says.

Interestingly, the last item on the authors' petition raised the fear that the effort could lower the school's prestige or "water down" the degrees it conferred. Levine responded to this concern in an interview with the campus newspaper by describing "a real sense of excitement" from outside groups who are watching the changes.

But Levine clearly has spent time independently thinking about that issue in terms of a larger picture: the historical role of Teachers College and its relation to other schools of education.

"We're being critical of where the field has gone, and in some ways, we have the ability to do that because we've been strong," he says. "We can look at the field and say it's time for the field to change, and our history gives us--I don't know whether it's the responsibility or the license--to do that."

Levine is aware that there are plenty of other top-notch education schools that create competition for the best students. But he says he is not preoccupied so much about staying on the top of a ratings list as he is with maintaining meaningful programs.

"I'm not worried about keeping up with the Joneses. What I'm worried about is building up programs that we think are really strong, and we need to be competitive in that sense. Maybe more important than being competitive with any other university is being competitive with our own legacy."

Vol. 15, Issue 23

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