An Interview with College Board President Donald M. Stewart
Published in the Winter of 1986-87, this conversation introduced readers to the newest leader of the Board—someone called a man of vision, who, with intelligence and charm, had a strong sense of purpose and the tenacity and tough-mindedness to make it stick
When Dr. Donald M. Stewart died on April 7, 2019, at the age of 80, the Harlem Times wrote, "We have lost a giant!" It's the kind of screaming internet headline that could be dismissed as hyperbole—if it weren't true. "Donald Stewart reshaped each thing that he touched and made each better," said John T. Casteen III, former Chair, the Board of Trustees of the College Board.
Stewart was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from Grinnell College where he majored in political science. He would go on to earn a master’s in political science from Yale and a master’s degree and PhD in public administration from Harvard. After working in various capacities at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as serving in the Ford Foundation's Overseas Development Division, Stewart became president of Spelman College in 1977, where he oversaw innovations and changes that strengthened the historically black women's college. And from 1986–1999, Stewart led the College Board as the first Black president in the Board's history. "We were determined to have a president who would not accept current history as inevitable," Casteen said. "From time to time you choose to be different because you choose not to atrophy and because you choose to make the world a different place."
That spirit comes through in this in-depth conversation with Stewart published in the Winter 1986–87 issue of the College Board Review. In it, Stewart discusses his trajectory in education, his family, and the work that led him to the College Board, as well as the challenges and possibilities he saw in the opportunity. Nearly 35 years later, the interview provides fascinating insights into a leader Review editor Paul Barry describes Stewart as full of "vision, persistence, energy, and intelligence;" who, in 2010, was appointed to the Commission on Presidential Scholars by President Barack Obama. Stewart had a life and career that earned him a lengthy obituary in the New York Times.
"I believe in human dignity and individual potential," Stewart says in the interview. "I don't like heavy-handed government or other forms of centralization. As administrators, I think we are at our best when we help release the best in other people."
Then-president of the College Board, Donald M. Stewart, in conversation with the College Board Review
The arrival of Donald Stewart at the College Board is auspicious on several counts. For him, it represents a major step in a varied and distinguished career. For the College Board, it means the passing of the mantle to a new generation of leadership, one with its eyes as keenly focused on the future as on the present and past. For the world of education at large, it heralds a new and exciting presence on the national scene.
Mr. Stewart comes to the Board after a 10-year stint as president of Spelman College, the 105-year-old, historically black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia. In October I visited Mr. Stewart in Atlanta, and over the course of two and a half days I interviewed him, faculty members, administrators, and trustees. From these conversations, a clear pattern emerged. Even among his critics, he is recognized as a man of vision, integrity, and tenacity, someone with high expectations of himself and those around him. "The words 'more' and 'better' have a permanent place in his vocabulary," says Barbara L. Carter, Spelman's dean and vice president for academic affairs. Robert "Danny" Flanigan, Spelman's vice president for business and financial affairs, recalls an incident shortly after Mr. Stewart came to Spelman: "He actually called me at home at 7 o'clock on a Sunday morning with a question about the budget. I thought, 'How dare you!' But that's the way he is." He also remembers leaving a message for Mr. Stewart on a Friday and getting an answer sooner than he expected. "It was Saturday evening and my wife and I were sitting down to dinner with our guests and the phone rang. I couldn't believe it. It was Don Stewart calling me during intermission at the Atlanta Symphony."
Mr. Stewart brought enormous reserves of energy to bear on the problems at hand. "He added steam to everybody," says Marva Tanner, Spelman's director of financial aid. Admissions Director Aline Rivers agrees: "He sees an institution as a dynamic, ever-changing place." In time, his vision and determination paid off. According to Danny Flanigan and a host of others, including students, Donald Stewart succeeded in "putting Spelman on the map."
His record there represents a decade of impressive achievement. He drew the institution back from a financial precipice to a place of relative security—during his tenure the endowment grew from $9.9 million to $41 million. At the same time, he strengthened the academic vitality of the college by overseeing a comprehensive restructuring of the curriculum. The proportion of faculty members holding a doctorate or equivalent rose from 50 percent to 74 percent. The academic attainments of entering students improved dramatically (average SAT scores increased by more than 100 points), while the number of students grew from 1,200 to 1,600 despite declining numbers in the eligible-age cohort. More than half of Spelman's current graduates go on to graduate or professional studies.
Mr. Stewart's arrival at Spelman 10 years ago, however, was not as auspicious as the legacy he left behind. When the college's trustees elected him president in 1976, they were immediately locked up in the boardroom by angry students who demanded that a black woman be chosen instead. The trustees were held hostage for 26 hours. Marge Yancey, a Spelman trustee then and now, recalls that a message was successfully smuggled out to Mr. Stewart. It read simply: "Don't back down." He didn't.
His colleagues at Spelman credit him with a good deal of sensitivity in leading the institution through difficult times, particularly in the early years. Being a family man helped, as did having a wife who is an educator in her own right and who became deeply involved in the Spelman community. I was reminded frequently by the people I spoke with at the college that Donald and Isabel Stewart were a team, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate his contribution from hers. It is fitting that one of the major new facilities constructed at Spelman for residential study was named the Donald and Isabel Stewart Living and Learning Center.
Mr. Stewart is in the best sense a conservative, in the root meaning of the word. He cares about conserving institutional traditions and revived several that had lapsed at Spelman. His actions were appreciated by alumnae, faculty members, and administrators, and eventually were in concert with the changing profile of students. One older professor, with his hand on his forehead, exclaimed to me in disbelief that on a recent Convocation Day "it was amazing to look out again at a sea of white dresses."
Upon meeting Donald Stewart it is readily apparent why so many people over the years have offered jobs to him. He cuts the figure of a leader, complete with the aura that is derived in part from the leader's traditional reserve. He is forceful and articulate, but he also possesses a large measure of personal charm and a sense of humor that displays itself in unexpected flashes. In September, Mr. Stewart was informally introduced to staff members at the College Board's New York office. After John Porter, who is black and was then Board chairman, made his generous opening remarks, Mr. Stewart rose and said, "Regarding my appointment, Mr. Porter and I would like to immediately dispel the myth of a black male conspiracy."
All of the qualities described—vision, persistence, energy, and intelligence—make a compelling argument for Donald Stewart's appointment. Yet there is an additional quality that makes the others cohere, a characteristic nurtured by his international experience. Board Chairman John Casteen described it best, borrowing a phrase from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: "In Don Stewart we found someone who understood, appreciated, and applauded 'the dappled things' in the world, the differences, someone who understood the essential characteristic of difference that makes a democracy work." Above all, we can expect this quality to inform Mr. Stewart's leadership and give it a special moral force.
Our conversations have been edited and condensed and begin where his strongest values originate, with his family.
What did your parents say when you were offered the presidency of the College Board?
They were pleased, of course. As you probably know, about a year ago, I came very close to accepting a job as assistant secretary of education with my friend Bill Bennett. At the time, my parents were very unhappy. That is not, however, why I did not take the job. When I was offered the position at the College Board, my mother said, "Thank God you didn't go to Washington so that you were able to do this." She also said she thought it fit my career perfectly.
I understand that you asked to have your parents present at the trustees' meeting when they formally announced their decision.
Yes. They were with me in Chicago, which is their home and where I grew up. My parents joined me at the hotel when the trustees were in their final deliberations. As it turned out, the deliberations took longer than I thought they would. The funny part of the story is that I had that very morning turned down another position about an hour before I thought all of this would be settled. After so much time passed, my mother looked at me and said, "You really turned down this other job?"
What are your parents like?
I have really wonderful parents. They've been very supportive and created a home in which learning was appreciated. Neither of them finished college. My mother had two years of college and my father finished high school. But he has always gone to school. He was forever taking night courses. Because neither of them finished college, my parents were very anxious that their children do so.
What did your father do?
He worked in the post office, sold insurance, managed stores, did tax returns. He did a number of things to enable my mother to stay home and raise two children.
My sister and I thought of ourselves as not being affluent by any means, but relatively comfortable and middle class. My father worked hard to give us a comfortable home and summer vacations and travel and to enable my mother to stay home, which is what she preferred to do. The only time my mother worked was when it was time for me to go to college, and there just wasn't enough money. These were the days before Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans. So she sold the World Book Encyclopedia. She did that for me, and she did it for my sister.
My father did very well in government service. When he retired, he was at the top grade, a superintendent of a major postal operation. He's a very smart man who today still reads at least two books a week. I've gotten my "workaholic" tendencies from my father. He works very hard. He's always doing two or three things simultaneously. He would come home bone-tired and he would read and then sleep for a few hours and go back to work. My mother really did a great deal with my sister and me. My sister graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and then got a master’s degree in the school of library science at Columbia. She currently works for Dan Boorstin as an assistant at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
So my parents sacrificed and made it all happen.
A photograph of Donald M. Stewart when he served as president of Spelman College
The Spelman Years
How did you become interested in the Spelman presidency?
Actually their trustees approached me. It was unusual, I must say. Here was the first historically black women's college in the nation, and they had never had a black woman as president. They should have had a woman, but it didn't work out. Spelman is a college rich in tradition. It was a fine institution when I arrived here. But there was urgent work that needed to be done, and I felt that I had the ability to make a difference in the ongoing development of the institution.
What was it like moving to the South?
I wanted very much to come to Atlanta. It was the center of the Civil Rights struggle in the sixties, a time when I was living abroad or in the North. I felt that I had missed out on something important. I'm not a missionary, don't misunderstand me, but I felt that I had something to contribute.
As it turns out, I think it was good that our sons grew up in Atlanta. Blacks and whites have managed to work out a lot of their conflicts here. They seem to live more easily with one another than in some cities in the North. There is a curiosity about each other's lives that is healthy.
You told Spelman at the outset that you would only be taking the job for 10 years, which is an unusual statement for a new college president. What were your reasons for doing that?
Ten years is as long as any president should stay on, certainly at a college the size of Spelman. As was true for me, presidents often want to do other things as well. It is also a question of what one can accomplish in a position like this. If you haven't done it in 10 years, it's just not going to happen. There's a certain rhythm, a dynamic situation you can create where change is possible. If you see yourself—and this is how I see the role of the president—as someone trying to effect change, time eventually runs out. Things become very repetitious. You begin to get resistance. After all, people will change just so long. And you just can't pull rabbits out of a hat forever.
In higher education, 10 years ties in very well with our pattern of accreditation. We are reaccredited every 10 years, and that cycle is about to repeat itself at Spelman. That's exactly where I started.
How would you assess your time at Spelman?
We've accomplished a good deal. Not everything, and not everything we've done has been perfect. But I think the 10 years have been productive. We have seen tremendous growth in this institution, the endowment, student body size and quality, faculty size and quality, the physical size of the institution as well.
But I think the most important accomplishment is that there is a sense of excitement and questioning now which I think is very healthy. Before, there was no ferment other than that which surrounded my appointment. There seemed to be little questioning. But after I arrived, we didn't in any way try to back away from controversial ideas and challenges. The mood of the place is now dynamic and constantly changing, and that's the way a good institution ought to be.
Considering the degree of acrimony that surrounded your coming to Spelman, how close do you feel with the students now?
Probably not as close as I would like. We had a very long period where we were very close to students, but in the last couple of years I have been pulling back. Students change every year, and I have unfortunately spent less time on campus in the last couple of years. I'm not as close, nor is my wife. In the first five years of my administration, my wife was very involved on campus with the students. One indicator of the change is that students don't ring our bell at home at all hours of the night as they used to. But that too is due to the fact that the college is much better managed now. It has systems and organized ways of doing things.
In the old days, the president did everything, which really meant the president really couldn't do much of anything. Everything came to the president. We had kids coming to our door at night saying there was a mouse in their room or the heat wasn't working. Spelman today is a more complex organization and there are people to do things and procedures and systems by which they are accomplished, and I think that's great. But the personal side of this job is frankly the most enjoyable for me. I like being with the students. I really enjoy it. I used to teach.
We know you taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Did you teach at Spelman?
Yes. When we started the honors program, I created the core course for the program and taught it. It was, and is, a course in philosophy, which was a revised "Great Books" approach to ideas.
It sounds a little like what Secretary of Education William Bennett has been calling for.
That's one of the reasons why Bill Bennett and I are good friends. We have similar interests and values. Of course, I had some books on my reading list that Bill probably would not put on his. The reading our students engage in should be built on the best thinking of Western civilization, but also of non-Western civilizations, including the Afro-American experience.
I really enjoyed teaching the philosophy course, except that I was working 20 hours a day and flying in to meet my class. So the chairman of our philosophy department now teaches it.
Do you have any desire to teach again in the future?
I'd like to very much, but it's dishonest to try to teach if you're not really doing any research. I've had too many teachers of my own who were jumping on and off airplanes who really taught in an anecdotal way, that sort of nonsense. But in my next life—I don't think I should stay at the College Board forever, either—teaching would be very satisfying.
A good part of a college president's job is fundraising.
It is, unfortunately.
But you count yourself as a good fundraiser.
I think I am, but it's only because I believe in what I'm doing and because I'm first and foremost an educator. I build on what I care about and what is happening in the institution. Too many presidents today have to scramble too hard for money. They are forced to because the financial pressure is so great. It's relentless. Particularly if you're at a growing institution and want quality, you have to pay for it. Because of this pressure, too many presidents are cut off from the academic side of their colleges. They will spend most of their time at cocktail parties and walking the corridors of foundations and corporations and have lost their sense of what is really important in their institutions.
I've been very lucky. I did get more involved on the academic side than most. I was directly involved in our curricular review and restructuring. But what I have been able to accomplish has been an extension of what this college has been doing all along. I have tried to build on what was already here.
I understand you installed a faculty evaluation program?
Yes. The faculty isn't all that happy with it. We only just got it through. The important part is an “up or out” tenure policy, and a set of evaluative procedures. It calls for rigorous review, and some people have lost their jobs. They just didn't get tenure. The faculty is very skittish about that. They feel that there is such pressure to be an excellent teacher and researcher and to publish that many of the younger faculty may never be tenured.
The college is going to have to look at it again. We're going to need a better mix. Not everyone is going to write a great book or do original research. There should be a common base, however, a consensus about what real scholarship is. Before I leave, I hope to help relieve some of the anxiety the faculty feels. Because of our success, we have been asking a lot more from our faculty, and yet I don't think we have been able to provide all of the necessary conditions given what we are expecting of them. They teach too many classes, the classes are too large, and they just don't have time to do much research. So I think we're going to have to do some reshuffling, relooking at this, hopefully without diminishing our overall expectations of the faculty.
"I come out of a background of social consciousness and service. At one time I was going to be a minister. I was very theologically oriented. Maybe I am still a little. In any event, I felt we had to come back and seve. I just couldn't figure out how to do it."
The Ford Foundation
How did you come to work for the Ford Foundation?
I was at school in Geneva and had won a travel grant to go to Africa. I traveled a great deal in North, West, and central Africa. Then I spent a couple of months in Nigeria through an international student exchange program. It was there that I met a number of Ford Foundation people.
I had returned to the United States via Switzerland and was preparing to teach at a junior college in Chicago, in fact the college my mother had attended. It was then that the foundation contacted me and told me that the Lagos office had asked if I would come back to Nigeria as assistant to the director. I did. In my first two years I was the administrator, the business person in the office. It was my first real job.
What kinds of things did you do?
We had a large field force, a number of consultants. The Ford Foundation was putting money into education, public administration, agriculture, etc. This was right after Nigeria's independence and Ford was helping the country build an infrastructure to fit an independent nation. I was the person who ran the office. We had a staff, a fleet of automobiles, and dozens of apartments and houses. And I did the business side. The accountants and all the business people reported to me. It was very interesting. Having been a political science major and knowing nothing about administration or business, I actually liked it.
Then I became a program officer in New York and took charge of the Maghreb desk. Ford in New York was then organized much like the State Department, with regional desks and programs. We had an office in Tunis and I backstopped it, handling all of their proposals and program requests and support documents. I traveled back and forth to North Africa a good deal. But I was also at that time Ford's chief recruiter for the entire Middle East and Africa. I became the person who recruited and hired most of the experts who went out in the field in that area—economists, agronomists, public administration experts, and so on. So on the personnel side, I supported offices in Beirut, Cairo, Nairobi, Tunis, and Lagos. I was the chief personnel person. I enjoyed that.
I did that for a couple of years and then went to Egypt as deputy director, assistant representative as they called it, and had overall administrative responsibilities for the United Arab Republic.
My major administrative responsibility was the Aswan regional development project. The Ford Foundation put millions of dollars into this region of Egypt. The Russians were building the Aswan Dam. As a result, large numbers of Nubian people had to be moved out of the region and be resettled. Once the dam was finished, the whole pattern of irrigation changed in the country, and so living patterns changed dramatically. We were involved in all that planning, which meant spending about ten days a month at Aswan and then back in Cairo to handle my other responsibilities. We thought—rather naively, I think—that we could design programs to build the human resource side of the region. So we put into Aswan many people in agriculture, in public and local government administration, in planning, etc.
So the Russians were handling the technical side and we were handling the human side.
Yes. We were terribly naive. As I said, we put in millions of dollars and I don't think the Egyptians ever knew we were there. I don't think we ever penetrated the Egyptian system. After the Six-Day War in 1967 we were all evacuated from Egypt. My wife was eight months pregnant. Ford was never able to see the results of its investment in Aswan.
I was then transferred to our office in Tunisia, again as the deputy director for the entire program. I was back in an area I knew well. We had programs in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. For much of my time there, I ran the office because we were between directors. And again, we were putting at least two million dollars a year into agriculture, public administration, university development, etc. We did a lot in education.
I helped negotiate the grants and represented the Ford Foundation to governments and to universities throughout North Africa. It was a lot of fun.
How did your experiences at Ford influence your career choices?
Two things happened while we were abroad. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated, and those two events had a profound effect on me. I began to feel terribly guilty about how we were living. I mean, when we lived in Egypt, we had a marvelous penthouse overlooking the city. We had servants and it was all very grand. In Tunisia, the same. A marvelous house sitting on the Mediterranean and life was just terribly comfortable. Even though I had started out with a dedication to international development, I increasingly felt that the real battle was back home. America appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Two great heroes of mine, King and Kennedy, had been killed, and I said to Isabel, I think we have to go home.
At that point, I felt the need for a doctorate, even though I wasn't sure how I was going to do it, or whether I was going to do it. So I applied for a leave to go to the Kennedy School.
We came back to a very changed America. We came back to Richard Nixon and to a country that was torn by racial strife.
I come out of a background of social consciousness and service. At one time I was going to be a minister. I was very theologically oriented. Maybe I am still a little. In any event, I felt we had to come back and serve.
The Turning Point
It's curious. When you look over your resume...
It's not a traditional resume, is it?
No, but you can see that you could have moved in several directions. Perhaps the State Department, for one.
That was an option and going back overseas for the Ford Foundation was the other. But I didn't want to go back overseas. Not to live.
What was the decisive factor?
Martin Meyerson [distinguished city planner and former president of the University of Pennsylvania]. I met Martin while in Nigeria. He had come out to Lagos to serve as a consultant on a major project. I worked very closely with him. When I came back to the States, Martin offered me a couple of jobs, but the time wasn't right. But when he became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, I had finished all of my courses at Harvard, and he asked me to come as his executive assistant, which I did. It changed my career. From then on, I was in higher education.
What are some of the important things that you learned from Martin Meyerson?
He helped me to articulate what was already there in me, which was and is a deep interest in the habit of learning. Martin understands how knowledge is structured and how it translates into courses and departments. By taking me into the University of Pennsylvania, he enabled me to grasp the complexities of a major research university. I saw everything through his eyes.
Because of him, I became far more conservative. Martin is truly a nineteenth-century liberal in the Adam Smith sense. With Martin's tutoring, I became far more convinced that government couldn't do it all, that there had to be a market mechanism at work to make efficient decisions and also to protect individuality and individual creativity. I believe in human dignity and individual potential. I don't like heavy-handed government or other forms of centralization. As administrators, I think we are at our best when we help release the best in other people. It was Martin Meyerson who taught me that.
That's a description of a great teacher. Who were some of your other mentors?
One was David Heaps, my boss in Lagos and briefly in Tunisia when I worked for the Ford Foundation. There were two of the early leaders in the area of student financial aid, Lois Rice and Jack Morse. In college, there was Howard Bowen, who was president of Grinnell at the time. It's interesting, though. The chairman of our board at Spelman, a black woman, is in many ways a mentor. I met Marian Wright Edelman [the first black woman to pass the Mississippi Bar and currently head of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.] at Yale. I had never met anyone like her. She has extraordinary energy, drive, talent, and social commitment. Marian Edelman really was responsible for three major decisions in my life.
That's a pretty big statement.
It's true. At Yale I was interested in doing something in the international area. Marian strongly recommended that I go to Geneva, Switzerland, to the Graduate Institute of International Studies where she had spent a delightful time while a junior aboard from Spelman College. l had never heard of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, but largely on the recommendation of this young woman, whom I had known for a very brief time, I went to Switzerland and never regretted it.
As for the second decision, Marian had been traveling through West Africa and along the way she met a young woman, a contemporary, by the name of Isabel Johnston. She came back and said, "Donald, I have met the woman whom you should marry." Isabel and I have been married now almost 22 years. In fact, I had already met Isabel, but Marian really sort of pushed the relationship. I must say it has worked out very well.
The third major decision was when Marian called me and said, "I think you ought to consider being president of Spelman College." She was then chairman of the search committee at Spelman. Well, after 10 years, we're about to leave Spelman College. She's quite a woman.
"Even though I had started out with a dedication to international development, I increasingly felt that the real battle was back home. America appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Two great heroes of mine, King and Kennedy, had been killed, and I said to Isabel, I think we have to go home."
Leading the College Board
Looking at your background, what do you think you will find most useful in leading the College Board?
A combination of things. Certainly my 10 years as a college president, my involvement in educational organizations, the research for my dissertation on the American Council on Education and higher education generally.
Interestingly, I think one of the things that will help me most is having gone to public primary and secondary schools before going into private higher education. I have a real appreciation of what my high school did for me.
Being on my father's side a first-generation college graduate, I have a real appreciation for new populations in education and some of the elements that make for academic success, even if you're from a relatively modest background. I hope to help put forth a set of values that help address the problems of underachievement in minority populations. I have a well-defined set of academic goals and a set of standards that would be acceptable in the best schools in the country. At the same time, I have a great concern for the nonparticipants in all of this.
My international experience for the most part has been developmentally oriented. What we were doing with the Ford Foundation in the Middle East and Africa was building institutions and taking essentially a human resources approach to improve the quality of life. Education and training were always the ways in which we tried to solve problems in the less-developed world. So I think that my experience in the international arena, combined with my work as an administrator and teacher in good academic institutions, will be helpful to the Board.
I also think my business training will help. Running Spelman has been like running a business. The training I had at the Harvard Business School opened my eyes to a great deal: the importance of good management practices, the potential for marketing and finance that can be explored for nonprofit organizations. The College Board should be run keeping sound business principles in mind, while at the same time being sensitive to those values of association and constituency needs that must be addressed in an educational organization.
The SAT—its role and usefulness—has been in many ways a lightning rod issue in education. What are some of your thoughts about the test?
I happen to believe in the SAT. We have seen the SAT act as a means by which groups have been able to demonstrate abilities when other forces in society would have kept them out of selective institutions. Particularly now that it's been demystified to a great extent, we need an SAT to remind us that anybody can make it in this country. It does take hard work and good preparation. But all of that is possible, regardless of economic circumstances. It may be more difficult if you're poor, but it can be done. The SAT is very threatening for minorities because of poor preparation. I hope that we can help to change that. Poverty, poor schools, and racial bias are the enemies, not the test. It's a good test.
What are some of your first impressions of the Board?
It's a fascinating organization. How it holds together this high school/postsecondary mix is just amazing to me. The Board has several strong assets: It has ownership, it has talented people, and it has tremendous traditions. If I bring nothing else to the College Board, I bring a very open mind and a willingness to try new things. Yet, I am conservative in many ways and I don't think you can change things overnight. There are traditions, history, people. I've seen too many organizations destroyed by zealots. I hope that we can help clarify to the public what the College Board is. I think we almost have to wage a public relations war to clarify our mission and identity in the public mind.
Wait until people ask you if you live in Princeton.
It's happening all the time. That's why we have to wage a war. Ironically, I think my wife would really like to live in Princeton for family and related reasons. But I had to tell her, "We just can't do that!"
Views on Education
Many would say that there's been a clear-cut shift or scaling back of federal commitment to education—at least financially—on the part of the Reagan administration. What is your reaction to this?
There ought to be a more vigorous federal role. At the same time, I'm sympathetic to efforts to target federal funding on the legitimate poor and the lower middle class. Student aid had gotten a bit out of hand in that we were subsidizing the affluent. With the interest rates as they were, we were enabling people to invest and capture profit at the government's, and therefore the public's, expense.
But the appropriations are being cut too lean. My support in the whole student financial aid struggle has been with Congress. To cut back federal funding and at the same time change the ground rules so that even legitimately poor people are having to rely principally on loans is unfortunate.
Also, with the federal government pushing everything back onto the states where the greatest form of subsidy for higher education is low tuition at public institutions, you are putting private institutions even more at a disadvantage in the competition. With private institutions controlling only 20 percent of the higher education market, I think all too many of our students in this country and their families are being denied an educational experience that would be very beneficial to our society.
How do you feel about the chorus of calls for assessment of outcomes in higher education?
I'm very much involved in that issue, although I think the pendulum will swing back when we come to understand that outputs are closely related to inputs.
The assessment movement is inevitable given resource constraints and the increased emphasis on performance and effectiveness. But I think it is becoming rather punitive at the state level. If a school or a teacher can't demonstrate effective utilization of resources and terribly competent performance, they're washed out. In the wrong hands, this approach can be counterproductive.
I was not the strongest student when I entered Grinnell College, but I had very high GRE scores when I left. For me, college was an exciting and wonderful experience. A great deal of value was added. But I'm not sure my case will work in every instance.
The assessment movement needs to be more fully understood. I think the College Board should probably embrace it and see the extent to which it can offer relevant services and design products. We should help make it an educationally constructive movement rather than a punitive one.
Aside from calling for a return to a core curriculum, Secretary Bennett has been saying that colleges should be paying attention to the moral education and the character development of their students. What is your reaction to this?
I don't think that moral education is something you teach. It's something you live. I have probably harassed some of my faculty colleagues to some extent regarding behavior patterns, standards, and morals. I'm rather straitlaced and I do have a fairly strong religious background. Even though I read from the Bible in part as literature, and what I have drawn from religious readings I can apply in some areas of life, I certainly wouldn't seek to impose my values on young people. I think the way we live and how we demonstrate caring, integrity, fairness, and honesty as teachers and administrators in college can contribute to the moral education of our students.
Bill is still reeling from the 1970s. He was so appalled by what was happening at Harvard and elsewhere that he hasn't allowed for change and movement in our society. I don't think he realizes that so much on our campuses that he feared and was appalled by in the late sixties and early seventies has passed away into what I think is a far greater danger. The danger of pure materialism and crassness, lack of caring and social involvement on the part of young people I find more distressing than what Bill sees as moral decay.
I was very lucky to have finished college in 1959 as a product of the fifties, not having experienced many of the things that I had the opportunity to confront in the late sixties as an old man with a family back in a university setting. I was surprised, shocked to some extent, by the pot smoking and the free sex and the ethos of total abandon that was so different from anything I knew as a kid growing up or as a college student.
At the same time, I found some beauty and feeling in that period in young people that I think we totally lacked during my undergraduate years. With all that was impractical and nonproductive—maybe academic standards dropped and other things socially negative took place, but there was a selflessness with hope and dreams that really were very refreshing. So I don't debunk that period. I saw some good in it.
There was a hope in the sixties and early seventies that people would begin to relate to one another as people, that racial, class and other limiting distinctions would be ignored. Mine is a very strong humanistic set of beliefs. Perhaps it's because I've been lucky enough to travel a good deal and get a sense of other people and their cultures that I respect their differences. I really find that when you boil it all down, as we say in Georgia, "Folk are folk." I think that's what life should be all about.