Under Levine, Teachers College Gets New Paint, New Programs

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The entrance to Main Hall is boarded up, cordoned off by yellow construction tape and plywood fencing. Inside, signs warn: "Danger. Construction Area. Keep Out."

The cacophony of hammer and drill is the most noticeable sign of a larger construction project that has been under way here at Teachers College, Columbia University, since Arthur E. Levine became its president five years ago.

In a physical as well as a philosophical sense, he has embarked on the formidable task of rebuilding and transforming an institution that many had come to feel was resting on its laurels.

TC, as it is known here, is the grande dame of American schools of education, founded in 1887 to prepare teachers for the poor and immigrant students who were pouring into New York. In 1898, the college became affiliated with Columbia University, while retaining its legal and financial independence.

In the early decades of this century, Teachers College was the training ground for scores of progressive educators. Today, it is the nation's largest graduate school of education and one of the most eminent.

But in recent years, "the place had become sort of moribund and was choking on itself," said Thomas Sobol, the school's Christian A. Johnson professor of outstanding educational practice and a former New York state education commissioner. "Arthur is a breath of fresh air," he added. "He's brought, as everybody will tell you, enormous new energy to the place."

Mr. Levine says his goal is to reconnect the college with its activist roots and link the two worlds of theory and practice in a way that will leave a deep mark on public education.

"A lot of America thinks our schools are burning, and we ought to have answers," he said. Institutions like his, he believes, should provide those solutions. "They need to do research that's focused on the real issues facing the field and answer the question, 'What works?' "

On the Move

The ebullient, 50-year-old scholar and administrator, who formerly served as chairman of both the higher education program and the Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has certainly shaken things up. An academic reorganization has consolidated 17 departments into nine that report directly to the dean.

At a Glance:
Teachers College
  • Founded: 1887
  • Students: 5,170 graduate students; 34 percent full-time. About a third are in teacher-preparation programs; the rest are planning careers in administration, education policy, nursing and community health, psychology, or research.
  • Faculty: About 130 full-time.
  • Endowment: $148.5 million, as of March 31.
  • Operating Budget: $69.6 million unrestricted operating budget, 1998-99.

An annual operating deficit has been replaced with modest surpluses. Top-notch faculty members have been lured away from other institutions at the same time that tenure requirements have increased.

And in November, Teachers College will launch the largest financial undertaking in its history: a five-year, $140 million capital campaign to bolster financial aid, repair aging buildings, and pay for a host of other improvements. Already, the college has secured $60 million in commitments.

At the same time, new institutes and programs are reaching out to journalists, governors, superintendents, and other opinion leaders and exploring such topics as the move toward privatization and vouchers.

"Above all, I think he's injected life into the college and opened it up," Judith M. Burton, a professor of arts education said of Mr. Levine. "And he's been very supportive of anybody who'd like to take on anything new."

This month, in what Mr. Levine describes as the most radical undertaking of his presidency, the faculty and the board of trustees unanimously approved a technology plan that is designed to extend Teachers College far beyond its campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan.

The plan calls for creating a semiautonomous foundation that will identify promising ventures, support the development of new products and services, and work with outside partners. "It's too strong to say we're creating another college," Mr. Levine said. "What's not too strong is to say we're creating a whole other way to do education."

Through its Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation, for example, Teachers College is offering two Web-based certificate courses in multimedia instruction and technology and education. And it is working with the Baltimore-based Caliber Learning Network to create additional programs in school leadership.

Mr. Levine, a self-described technophobe who still does much of his writing on yellow notepads, said he sees the plan as a way to exploit a golden opportunity in education. "Suddenly, there's a brand-new way of communicating," he said, "with a capacity to reach a larger audience than you ever imagined."

But while Teachers College may be anything but complacent, it remains very much a work in progress.

A high-tech conference center wired for computers and videoconferencing sits amid lecture rooms that haven't changed much in 100 years, abandoned elevator shafts, and stairwells with peeling paint.

In an organizational sense, some departments on the cutting edge of education research and teaching coexist with one- and two-person programs that haven't been revisited in years.

'Anything But Knowledge'?

Mr. Levine has devoted much of his energy to reorganizing the college's academic departments and its Byzantine governance structure.

In this, he has sought to involve the faculty by encouraging professors to work together to propose and form new departments.

"There is a much greater awareness of cross-program work," said Ms. Burton, the chairwoman of the department of arts and humanities, the college's largest department. "People have been coming together across departmental and program boundaries."

But some branches of knowledge have not fared well under the reorganization. The psychology faculty, for example, has been scattered across several departments. A decision to abolish departments such as mathematics and sciences education and integrate them with the rest of the college has also led to charges that TC is downplaying the traditional academic disciplines.

Mr. Levine "has orchestrated changes that, in the long run, in my opinion, are going to damage the academic reputation of the college," said Bruce R. Vogeli, a professor of mathematical education who has been at the college for 35 years. "There's too much emphasis on reforming society through education and not on providing teachers with what the fundamental components of teaching should be, and that is knowledge."

A spring 1998 article in City Journal by Heather MacDonald echoed that complaint. Ms. McDonald, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, faulted the college for what she described as an obsession with multiculturalism and group learning and an "anything but knowledge" credo that she claims permeates U.S. schools of education.

"Education schools are under attack for two reasons," Mr. Levine said. One of them, he argued, is valid: "There are a fair number of weak education schools around the country."

But, he added, "the second is not deserved. It's an attack by the right. And it takes educational issues--like student-centered learning, whole language versus phonics, lecture instruction versus group work--and makes them political issues."


This is hardly the first time Teachers College has come under criticism. A 1961 article in Harper's Magazine, "Teachers College: An Extinct Volcano?," similarly lamented a "vague malaise," a liberal admissions policy, an overemphasis on methods courses, and a departmental reorganization that had accomplished little.

It remains to be seen whether the current overhaul will fare better. Though it has injected new life into many departments, a frequent critique is that, so far, it has done little to reduce the college's multitude of programs. Depending on how you count, those range from more than 200 degree programs registered with New York state--such as a master's degree in "educational administration" or "earth sciences"--to some 60 program areas that share a common core of courses. Of those, almost half have fewer than two full-time faculty members, according to a document prepared for the reorganization.

"Politics and education," for example, has only one full-time faculty member, although it draws on professors from a number of other disciplines.

The small size of some of the programs, critics say, discourages depth, increases the administrative burden on faculty members, and can pose problems for students, such as when professors go on sabbatical.

Last fall, a group convened by the Faculty Executive Committee reviewed the five-year plans for each of the nine new departments. Their conclusion: "The program level has been completely unaddressed and, if anything, is worse than it was before," said John B. Black, the chairman of the committee and a professor of computing and education.

A mechanism is now in place for reducing the number of programs: Any time a professor leaves who heads a one-person program, it automatically undergoes a review by the committee.

But some view that as a slow death by attrition.

"I don't sense any kind of a groundswell among the faculty to pursue a significant, or even a minor, program elimination or consolidation strategy," said Thomas R. Bailey, a professor of economics and education and the director of the college's Institute on Education and the Economy.

Taming TC's legendary bureaucracy also has proved to be like trying to rope an octopus.

'Culture of Impossibility'

The college's imposing stone-work facade occupies a long block of 120th Street, stretching from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue. The eight classroom buildings are connected by a maze of underground passageways, narrow staircases, and corridors.

To many, the layout symbolizes TC's frustrating, convoluted administrative structure, which Mr. Black said fosters a "culture of impossibility."

"The basic processes of the college really don't work very well at all," Mr. Black said. "It might have been more effective fixing those things first. Instead, we spent a lot of time and energy and emotion figuring out the reorganization chart."

But most agree that the college is in much better shape than it was five years ago. For example, students can now register for courses online.

A backlog of deferred maintenance--some $100 million worth--is being addressed. And a management and consulting firm has begun a comprehensive audit of administrative services.

Creating Community

To the students, however, many of the improvements remain elusive. "There are a lot of changes going on currently," said graduate student Matthew Suzuki, who is completing a Master of Arts degree in educational administration with a focus on private school leadership, "and we won't reap the benefits."

Students interviewed on campus recently expressed enthusiasm about Mr. Levine, but many said they didn't understand the structure of the reorganization, which was done with minimal student consultation.

They tended to praise the strong professors or programs that brought them here. And their complaints often centered on the range of teaching abilities among the faculty, the facilities shortcomings, and the lack of access to computers.

Many said they'd like to see a more supportive, user-friendly environment for students.

As an example, they pointed to the shabby "commuter lounge," a small, windowless alcove in the basement--outfitted with black leather chairs and a small sign in block lettering--that seems to repel rather than attract students.

Both faculty members and students concede, however, that building a stronger sense of community will be difficult.

Of the college's approximately 5,170 students, only 34 percent are full-time. And the faculty and students commute from a three-state area. The strongest sense of community typically is built through individual departments.

Meanwhile, the capital campaign is designed to address some long-standing needs--notably financial aid for students and deferred maintenance--as well as dreams for the future.

'Rebuilding Assignment'

Like most schools of education, Teachers College has historically been underfunded. Roughly 80 percent of its $69.6 million unrestricted operating budget comes from tuition, and 45 percent of its students receive some form of financial aid.

Among other goals, the five-year capital campaign calls for spending: $28.5 million for student scholarships, $29.45 million for rebuilding the physical plant, $40 million for operating expenses, $12 million for faculty chairs and professional development, $8 million for academic innovations, $6.1 million for technology, and $3.5 million for the hardware and software to develop distance learning.

At the same time he is looking to the needs of Teachers College, Mr. Levine also has his eye on the bigger picture: the future of public education.

"We need higher scores, greater skill levels, and more knowledge than any generation has ever needed before," he said, "and our schools, for the most part, are incapable of providing it."

In many ways, Teachers College faces those same challenges.

"To the extent that we're disconnected in ivory towers, we become irrelevant," Mr. Levine said. "And that's my big fear about education schools. I fear that the best could become irrelevant, and the worst could become so poor in quality that nobody wants to turn to them. And if either or both of those things happen, education schools will become an endangered species."

Vol. 18, Issue 37, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Under Levine, Teachers College Gets New Paint, New Programs
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