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A Friend In Deed

Sue Ann Weinberg is a trustee's trustee--loyal, informed and as passionate as the student she once was

Sue Ann Weinberg is a trustee’s trustee--loyal, informed and as passionate as the student she once was

By Joe Levine

Sue Ann Weinberg (Ed.D., ’97) never meant to do more than just take a course or two at Teachers College. Her children were away at school, her husband was traveling for work, and she was trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

In many ways, TC turned out to be what Weinberg did next, as she ended up with an Ed.D. and, eventually, a seat on the College’s Board of Trustees—and TC ended up with one of its staunchest supporters and friends.

“I had such a great experience at TC that opened up so many intellectual interests and pursuits for me,” she says. “I think the education of our young people is the most important thing for the future of our country—particularly with so many people coming here from other nations.”

Perhaps the die was cast the day Weinberg signed up for her first course: the History of Education, taught by the great historian and TC president Lawrence Cremin and his graduate assistant, Ellen Lagemann, later Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and also a brilliant historian.

“Larry was a magic teacher,” Weinberg recalls. “He was so widely read, and he had such a broad understanding of education. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize he was teaching historiography as well as history. He was showing us how to read history critically, to understand the historian’s point of view.”

Cremin persuaded her to take more courses. One on literature with Maxine Greene. Another on “Education and Values,” with the philosopher Philip Phenix, that explored the ethical ideas embedded in different disciplines. Another at Union Theological Seminary, “on death—“but it was really about life”—and still another at Columbia Law School, on law and literature, with a reading list that included Billy Budd, The Brothers Karamazov and The Merchant of Venice.

“Larry kept suggesting things,” Weinberg says, smiling. “He’d say, ‘Take the comprehensives, just for fun.’ ‘Sketch out an outline for a dissertation—just for fun.’ ‘Write a chapter, just to see what it would be like.’”

With Cremin as her advisor, Weinberg ultimately chose to write her dissertation about Lewis Mumford, the philosopher and architecture critic who wrote for The New Yorker. Mumford was not an academic—illness had prevented him from ever earning a college degree—but Weinberg cast him in the role of “critic as educator,” reflecting Cremin’s view that education is something that occurs outside the classroom as much as in.

“Mumford lived in a little town not far from Poughkeepsie, and I called to ask if I could come up and see him,” she recalls. “His wife said he wasn’t seeing anyone anymore, so I asked if I could come interview her. I drove up and talked with her, and after a little while, she said, ‘OK, come on now and we’ll go see Lewis.” I did that every two or three weeks. He was beginning to fail, physically and mentally, but he was wonderful, and so was she. There were symposia going on about him and his work, and she’d go with me. She was in her early 90s. We had a great time together—she was very special.”

Mumford’s ideas were ahead of his time and very applicable to today’s world, Weinberg says. “He was concerned about the use of energy and our natural resources, and also with technology—its great promise, but also its dehumanizing potential.”

Midway through her work on the dissertation, Cremin died, and Weinberg was inherited as an advisee by another TC faculty member who, if anything, has had an even greater influence on her thinking: Robbie McClintock, an education historian who subsequently pioneered in bringing computers and the Internet into certain groups of New York City’s public schools.

Weinberg calls McClintock “the most educated, deepest-thinking person I’ve ever known.” She believes that a proposal he made for using computers on a system-wide basis, which the city nearly adopted a decade ago, was “fabulous” and a major missed opportunity to individualize teaching based on the interests of each student.

“Computers are a wonderful tool, but it seems as though nobody has figured out yet how to really use them effectively in education,” she says. “Robbie’s proposal was so smart and so doable. It’s a shame he couldn’t get the financing.”

Weinberg ended up completing her dissertation under Lagemann rather than McClintock—“Robbie and I both have lateral minds, and we were too all over the place together”—but in 2003, she and her husband, John, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs, endowed McClintock as TC’s John L. and Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education. It was characteristic of her philanthropic style, says her friend and long-time colleague, Missie Rennie Taylor.

“Sue has quiet wisdom,” says Taylor, who has served on boards with Weinberg at Vassar and TC. “She knows what she believes an educational institution needs. Over the years at Vassar, she and John have funded important athletic facilities—a new outdoor athletic center and indoor tennis courts. She saw athletics as an essential piece of a well-rounded liberal arts college.”

Weinberg “takes her role as a trustee just as seriously as she did her commitment as a student,” Taylor adds. “Her sense of loyalty to her alma maters is remarkable and unique. She does not miss a meeting no matter how busy she is and she is busy! She is always deeply engaged. The image I have of her is with her yellow legal pad, taking notes on every board discussion. Her caring and passion
are contagious.”

Weinberg worries that there aren’t many educators today with the kind of deep understanding possessed by Cremin or Mumford or McClintock. “You can have all the pedagogy in the world, but if you don’t really know your subject inside and out, your teaching is going to be somewhat flat,” she says.

But she remains convinced that TC is the place to spearhead change in education.

“Susan Fuhrman is a wonderful leader—very, very smart, extremely dynamic and very organized,” she says, adding that she’s encouraged that, as the College gears up for its capital campaign, the thinking reflects a broad view of education that encompasses families and communities as well as schools.

“Things go in and out of style,” she says. “Maybe we’re coming around to that kind of moment again.”

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011