Susan Fuhrman has defined her role as convener in chief, spurring innovation by uniting people across disciplines to tackle the world’s most daunting problems. In the following interview, she reflects on a decade-plus of change and growth at TC.
Adapted from an interview by The Narrative Trust
Illustration by James Steinberg
What have you liked best about being TC’s President?
Giving people opportunities. To our students, by creating an environment, academic and physical, that they can learn in. To our faculty, by supporting their research, by connecting them to donors, foundations and one another. I didn’t realize that would be the heart of the job, but it’s immensely gratifying and it’s what I’ll miss most. My board has also been exceptional, every single one of them, but I particularly want to mention the co-chairs. Jack Hyland, who passed away last summer and whom I miss every day, was an exceptional, warm Renaissance man of a human being. And Bill Rueckert, who is now sole chair and has this enormous responsibility. His great-great aunt, Grace Dodge, founded Teachers College and his great uncle served for 60 years on our board. He has promised not to serve that long, but I wish he would, because he is the heart and soul of TC and the best guide I could have. I love events with students. I love hearing about their programs and how they are doing. I love meeting alumni and donors. I am in awe of people who want to give money to education. What’s not to enjoy about that? I particularly enjoy our Academic Festival — especially when people bring their children. They always construct something in Everett Lounge with our Hollingworth preschool staff and bring it to me, and that’s been the basis of my holiday cards the past few years. We sing a song together.
“Education alone can’t correct our society’s inequalities. We must support communities’ physical and psychological well-being. But it seems each era must relearn that idea.”
From the first, you’ve talked about living up to TC’s legacy. How have we done that?
TC is known for its legacy of firsts — people paving new ways. John Dewey, Maxine Greene, Edmund Gordon and so many more. To make sure this continued, we’ve hired about 70 new faculty, and I’m delighted with their quality and impact. And we’ve been very supportive of research. We have now reached about $60 million a year in research, and we support people with lab space or students to work with them. Like our forebears, we also wanted to make a difference, so we committed ourselves to the community. We established the Office of School and Community Partnerships, founded the Teachers College Community School and work with local schools through our REACH Partnership. And we’ve dedicated ourselves to creating a more diverse faculty and student body. We have achieved quite a mix: 39 of our 168 tenure-track faculty members and 47 percent of our American born students identify as people of color. Twenty percent of students are international. We’re creating a climate where everybody feels respected and heard – but the numbers come first, because you need to be around people of other backgrounds to respect and understand them.
Where have we “paved new ways?”
There are so many examples, but I’ll give you three. Kim Noble, who had the lead article in Nature showing a relationship between poverty and cortex size in young children’s brains. It could have major implications for social policy. She’s now engaged in a major study, where families get different amounts of cash support, given through debit cards to track how it’s used, and brain function is measured at age three. The Teachers College Resilience Center for Veterans & Families builds on the work of George Bonanno, an expert in recovery from grief and trauma. He wrote a widely read book on how people have recovered from events like 9/11. He’s applied that work to veterans, originally thinking about post-traumatic stress disorder, but since realizing that the whole transition from military to civilian life is traumatic and that, whether or not you have PTSD, developing your resilience helps. And then our Reimagining Education initiative is helping K-12 teachers connect intellectually and emotionally with students from all backgrounds. The focus is on strategies such as culturally responsive pedagogy, which helps kids find relevance in what they’re learning, and on how to teach about race and racial history.
You’ve encouraged people to work together across disciplines. How have we done that?
TC is a large place, and you can’t go to every event. So we have held themed, cross-disciplinary “Domain Dinners,” open to all interested faculty. That idea came from external reviewers who told us how powerful TC would be if we could only connect the dots. And it turns out that having the discussions in the evening and facilitating them with wine is also a good idea. Take the creation of EPSA [the Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis, launched in 2011]. We had extraordinary strength in policy, but with sociologists in one department, political scientists and other sociologists in another, and economists in yet a third. Could they develop a policy degree in addition to their existing disciplinary degrees? Could they project student enrollment? It’s worked out, both because they are an extraordinary group of scholars and because it was a very bottom-up event that happened because they wanted it. And it is truly a stellar department. Lynn Kagan has helped almost every state and probably 50 countries develop plans and standards for early childhood education. Tom Bailey, who will succeed me as President, and his center have reformed community college education, making it much easier for students to escape remediation and go right into productive coursework. Henry Levin’s cost-benefit analyses have changed how we assess the value of different policy approaches. And there are many others. But breaking down silos is hard, so we’ve also spurred cross-disciplinary innovation through incentives. We’ve started the Provost’s Investment Fund and the Rapid Prototyping Fund, asking for collaborative ideas. Many have led to larger grants, whole new endeavors.
Social Justice Supporter“Susan and TC have been incredibly supportive of our work. Susan’s publicity and fundraising prior to the launch of our first trial of poverty reduction in early childhood in the U.S. has been tremendously helpful. The fact that social justice is such a key part of TC’s mission has made it a wonderful environment in which to conduct this work.” — Kimberly Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Education
TC makes an impact through research and preparing professionals. Do we need to be a service organization as well?
Education alone can’t correct our society’s inequalities. We need to support poorer communities’ physical and nutritional health, their psychological well-being. TC was founded on that proposition — it’s why we prepare psychologists, nutritionists, health educators, speech pathologists as well as teachers and school leaders. But it seems each era must relearn that idea. When I was in graduate school, there was new awareness of it because of the Coleman Report, which showed that social background overwhelmed in-school factors in accounting for student achievement. But also, as an urban institution, you are a central neighbor. You were there before any other community-based organization and you’ll be there long after. And if you know something about education, you have a moral obligation to put it to use. Education schools are particularly well suited to be part of their communities. When I was at Penn, we created the Penn Alexander School, a public school that helped reconnect the university to the surrounding area. And when I got here, Columbia had just entered into a community benefits agreement as part of its Manhattanville expansion. So together we created the Teachers College Community School, which I believe is the most popular school in this part of the world in terms of lottery applicants. TCCS provides support to the surrounding community. We’re not the only people taking this approach — the Harlem Children’s Zone is a very well-known model, but it’s very expensive. We’re paying for services with credits to our students. We have 50 or 60 students at TCCS, doing student teaching, supplemental work in the after-school programs or mental health work. And other Columbia schools — Social Work, the Dental School, the Mailman School of Public Health — are helping us.
Are we making an impact at the policy level?
We have several centers that link our research to policy and practice. The Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy takes our historic interest in nutrition beyond the classroom. Students learn about food policy, the transportation system, the whole industry, and how that affects energy consumption and good nutrition. The Center has done enormous evaluative work for the Department of Agriculture and local and state agencies. Our Community College Research Center is the leader in analyzing policies to improve completion rates at community colleges. OurNational Center for Children & Families is helping to shape a national system of early childhood education and an understanding of how best to counter poverty’s impact on families. Our Center for Educational Equity is championing access to education — and particularly preparation of young people for citizenship. And our Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education created CostOut, which estimates the costs and cost-effectiveness of educational or other social programs. All this great work shows that reforms don’t spread just because you publish in a journal and hope somebody reads it. You need to make research accessible and jargon-free. You have to give the weight of evidence, not just what one study says, and place it in context. You have to do the same study in different places, because policymakers will ask, “Will it work here?” But universities and colleges T don’t reward synthesis and replication, which are what help research get used. And I worry that doctoral students and younger researchers up for tenure or promotion are being pressured to do increasingly specialized, arcane work.
Student Advocate“Whether she was pointing us toward her own desk or to her advisory group or the larger faculty group, I always found President Fuhrman to be committed to pointing us in the direction that would get the outcomes that we were looking for. She seemed genuinely committed to achieving our goals.” — Matt Gonzalez (M.A. ’16), Director, School Diversity Project, New York Appleseed
You’ve led past efforts to inform education policy. What lessons do you take from it?
The Consortium for Policy Research in Education [CPRE], which I founded, was an early shaper of standards-based reform. The idea, conceived primarily by Mike Smith, a colleague at Stanford, was to align policies to standards, so that children didn’t learn one thing and get tested on another, and so you didn’t have conflicting policies. Those things were happening. Testing companies were making up tests irrespective of what was going on in schools. We found that Florida’s reforms added requirements for math and science without specifying what they should be. The tests were still low-level, so you got courses like informal geometry — which meant geometry without proofs, which is not geometry. We said standards would prevent those kinds of very incoherent and chaotic policies. We called it “systemic reform.” Mike Smith and Jennifer O’Day wrote an article in a book that I edited. And I remember sitting in a theater in ’91 or ’92 with my husband, and people two seats over were saying, “Oh, we are just going into standards-based reform in New York.” And I thought, “Okay, this is having an impact.” But over time, test-based accountability began to swamp other aspects of the vision we had. Curriculum was left out. Because of the U.S. tradition of local control, the federal government and the states left curriculum to the locals. But when tests came out, that is what people taught to instead of the curriculum. The tests narrowed what was learned and became the all-powerful driver, and people began to attach consequences, from publicizing scores to evaluating teachers. It distorted the whole system. But having standards and a curriculum tied to them is still a good idea. Brazil is engaged in a common core effort that I look forward to watching.
Some critics say education schools are stuck in the past. What’s your response — and how can TC stay relevant?
Teachers colleges have been attacked as part of an establishment that is anti-reform. I think that’s misguided. Many teachers in alternative programs come from TC. People assume we’re too theoretical in preparing teachers, but we believe knowledge and practice are integrated, and all our programs involve a great deal of practice. There’s a great advantage for professionals in attending a research-based school because emerging research prepares you for tomorrow, not just today. It’s profoundly conservative to mire professions in just observing current good practice when knowledge keeps increasing. We can stay relevant by incorporating even more of what we know about learning into preservice education. This is a time of enormous growth in the learning sciences, including social and emotional learning. Analytics researchers are giving us a window into learning by looking at how students navigate through software. Research-based education preparation programs can make such findings part of teacher education and preparation. Contrast that with a recent SUNY proposal to prepare teachers just by having them watch other excellent teachers teach. To me that is a surgeon watching other surgeons, without anatomy, physiology or other essential grounding. We also need to keep creating greater diversity by having difficult conversations, ensuring that we read a diverse set of scholars with different perspectives, and welcoming student input into the curriculum and the faculty positions we create. One area where we are not very diverse is political opinion. That is an issue for colleges and universities more generally. When I was at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers, increasing diversity was always a question of recruiting more Republicans, because it was a place of politics and we needed both parties. I think that issue persists.
“An Intellectual’s Intellectual”“I appreciate the way Susan embraced the arts and humanities. There was never a feeling of being threatened or under attack or being made to feel we were secondary to economics or policy or something ‘more important.’ She was respectful to all of the programs here. She’s an intellectual’s intellectual. We were always in good scholarly hands with her team.” — Randall Allsup, Associate Professor of Music Education
You’ve prioritized technology, digital education and civics education this year. Why, and what progress have we made?
We’re interested in ensuring that education technology is effective – not just what we might design, but helping the world out there design things that actually improve teaching and learning. Our TCEdTech initiative tries to place interns in startups and faculty on startups’ advisory boards; to generate research by companies, from small formative studies to big evaluative ones. We held an innovation contest for students across Columbia’s graduate schools. The emphasis was on products that had a research base. And we’ve talked with our board about an incubator – not to make a fortune, though that would be lovely, but for research-based products. We’ve also launched programs in design and media technology and a digital gaming degree. We’re emphasizing inventing educational tools. And in our learning analytics program, people embed analytics in smart tools to measure progress and personalize learning. We’ve hired a vice provost for digital learning, and last fall we had 20,000 online students. We’ve developed several certificates and courses; bilingual speech pathology, TESOL. Medical education is going online. We are developing a degree for students with intellectual disabilities. With 90,000 alumni, we expected a big audience that wanted to learn more without necessarily getting a degree, but these certificates are also developing into degrees because the demand is there. People are hearing about the opportunity to get a TC master’s degree online. And when they do that, it connects them to us. In San Francisco not long ago, an alumna from an online course came to two events.
Why civics education, and what have we accomplished there?
Back when I taught government to high school seniors, they’d had civics all through elementary and high school. But civics has since been pushed aside as too political, and because the emphasis since the late eighties has been on testing and reading and math. Students still take civics in most high schools, but one course is not sufficient. Also, we want the new civics to represent today’s much more diverse, multicultural, multi-ethnic, and digital society. Above all, we must address low voting participation by millennials and dismissal of government as an important tool in affecting people’s lives. Ultimately, you need to grow up with a sense of the roles and responsibilities of citizens, and you need practice in it. Young people are encouraged to participate in civic engagement, but instead of saying, “Let’s go do a recycling drive,” I want them to say, “Let’s get the town council to do a recycling drive.” Government powerfully influences our lives, and to live our values, we must influence it. I’ve been extremely encouraged by Generation Z’s rallies for gun control and their emphasis on voting as a means to achieve their goals. At TC we’re talking to foundations about supporting professional development across the curriculum. Our Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, which is so important and influential, will introduce books in civics. We have the possibility of developing a digital game in fake news. I called the president of the Common Application for College, who is an alumna of a program I started at Penn, and suggested that civic content on the Common Application would lead to much more pervasive attention. It could be as simple as listing your civic activities separately to call attention to them, or it could be in the essay prompts. And education is a big part of other issues this country faces. If people were truly well-educated, we would not have Fergusons. Police wouldn’t disrespect people just because they don’t understand their communities. It would be a world with much greater understanding.
What are you going to do after TC?
I am not going to run anything. If I need a reprieve, it’s from that responsibility, but not from meeting wonderful people and asking for money or thinking of ideas people could work on together. Those are things I love to do.
What advice do you have for TC’s next President?
Talk to as many people as you can and hear their concerns. Then figure out how it fits into any agenda you brought with you. External reviews are enormously helpful. We reviewed all the administrative departments and the academic departments. That provided support for some of the changes that we might have wanted to make anyway. You have to keep your eye on the ball. What is the long term? What do you want to achieve? Can you overcome difficulties by building the institution, not destroying it in the process? For example, in the plagiarism case we dealt with after I arrived, we used existing institutional mechanisms. Most important, hire the right people. I have been very fortunate with a wonderful team: Harvey Spector, our VP for Finance and Administration; Tom James, our Provost; Suzanne Murphy, our VP for Development and External Affairs; Katie Conway, my Chief of Staff, and her predecessor, Scott Fahey; Nancy Streim, who is Associate VP for School and Community Partnerships; Janice Robinson, our VP for Diversity and Community Affairs; Michael Feierman, our General Counsel. You have to hire great people and delegate, but you also need enough knowledge to oversee a very complex operation.
You’ve put a lot of energy into reconnecting with alumni. Why is that so important?
Our last campaign was funded primarily by the board and friends of the school; alumni participation was only 9 percent. In this Campaign, alumni participation is 26 percent, and we are so grateful. We have dramatically increased support for students, who primarily go into public service, which does not necessarily pay well. Too many of our graduates are in debt. We had to address that, so fundraising for scholarships was paramount. Our alumni bring back knowledge from the front lines that keeps our courses and research on the cutting edge. So we visit them and communicate with them through social media and e-newsletters. And we ask them what they would like to do. Alumni groups that are far away want to connect more closely. We have asked alumni to mentor students and help them network and launch their careers. We have also totally re-engaged the intellectual experience of alumni here, in particular by establishing Academic Festival, which is a weekend of coming back to TC. Ultimately, our alumni are the best representation of TC. They are our ambassadors, our primary product. We are enormously proud of them and the influence they have.
Welcoming Diversity“TC’s hallways were alive with different languages, cultures and perspectives. TC was a safe haven for innovative ideas that I could live and practice in class. President Fuhrman made that possible by upholding those values and defending and developing that space.” — Leticia Lyle (M.A. ’11), Former TC Lemann Foundation Felow and Current Director, K-12 Curriculum & Professional Development, Somos Educacao, Brazil
Your colleagues and friends have created a TC scholarship in your name and launched a campaign to support it called Thanks a Million. How does that make you feel?
Apparently I say “Thanks a million” all the time, though I didn’t realize it. Of course, when they came in to talk to me about the scholarship, I was very touched. There could not be a better gift for me than to enhance the scholarships at TC and have one with my name on it. Then they left and I said, “Thanks a million.” So I do say “Thanks a million” all the time. And I mean it, very deeply.