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Friend of the College: Thinking It Through

Jack Hyland is the adviser we’d all like to have

By  Joe Levine

If you do an internet search for John W. Hyland, Jr.,  Co-chair of the Teachers College Board of Trustees, so many different incarnations surface that you start to wonder if they can all be the same person.

There’s the Jack Hyland who has served in top roles at some of the nation’s leading investment banking firms, including Morgan Stanley, SG Warburg, and PaineWebber/Young & Rubicam Ventures.

There’s the Jack Hyland who wrote Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger, a widely admired biography of his grandfather. 

There’s Hyland the photographer, whose pictures from Bhutan and other far-flung locations show up in newspapers and magazines.

There’s the art enthusiast who has chaired the board of the American Academy in Rome and served on the boards of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the College Art Association, and the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

And then there’s the real shocker, quietly buried midway down in his bio on the website for Media Advisory Partners, which he cofounded two years ago to help companies navigate the volatile new media landscape: As an undergraduate at Williams College, Hyland majored in theoretical physics.

“We had to declare our majors at the end of freshman year,” Hyland recalled almost sheepishly during a recent interview at his office in midtown Manhattan. “The  Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik. When I went in to ask my adviser what I should choose, he said, ‘Physics, because you’ll always have a career.’ I said, ‘But this is a liberal arts college; there are all these great courses in music and philosophy and literature.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, you can still take all the liberal arts courses you want.’” Hyland laughs. “Which was a total lie. You have to take a ton of math for physics.”

Hyland ended up working harder than most of his classmates while auditing humanities courses “to keep up with my interests.” He switched gears as soon as he graduated, earning an MBA at Harvard. But he doesn’t regret his original choice.

“Physics is a fascinating, philosophic sort of discipline,” he says. “It gives you a really interesting view of how things work, both in science and in life.” 

The story reveals a lot about Hyland, from his wide-ranging curiosity about the deeper workings of systems and institutions to why he is so excited about the possibilities technology holds for improving teaching and learning. Most of all, Hyland’s sense of debt to that long­ago Williams counselor may shed light on his own affinity for playing an advisory role. “If I do anything in my board work, it’s to help people identify what needs to be done, without a lot of fuss, and then stay fixed on that course rather than other things that come up that may be very nice, but that are distracting.” Hyland grins. “Which doesn’t mean I’m always right. And it’s the same in my financial work. I deal with people who run companies, who have problems, and I help them to think through what’s most important, so they can get to where they want to go.”

In the case of TC, that destination includes nothing less than the reshaping of American teaching and the closing of the U.S. achievement gap.

“We have a dropout rate in this country of 50 percent or more in our urban high schools, and the lives of so many of those kids are reduced if not wasted,” he says. “We can’t afford that, not least because we could end up spending thousands of dollars per year per kid on jail. Education comprises a tough set of problems, but beyond being a major force in making great teachers be what they should be,  TC must inform policy to make education as a whole better.”

Hyland believes that early childhood offers a critical window for intervention (“I’ve read that a five-year-old child raised in a medium-to-affluent family typically hears at least twice as many words as a child raised in poverty. How does that poor child compete?”), and he describes two recent encounters to illustrate the critical role that technology can play in education.

“I got on the elevator here at work, and the TV screen was showing a short video of a scene at Westminster Abbey, where they were celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. These four courtiers in Renaissance-like costumes were carrying red velvet pillows with Bibles on them. I thought that might symbolize the burying of books. Well, just an hour earlier, I had been in the elevator in my apartment building, and a woman got on with her daughter in a stroller. This girl, who was two years old, was deftly playing a game on an iPad. I said, ‘That’s remarkable,’ and her mother said, ‘That’s nothing, you should see how many other games she can play, and how she can start them and pause them, with no help from me.’”

Hyland shakes his head, still amazed. “You see the juxtaposition there: on the one hand, a way of life that’s existed for 400 years, and on the other, a young child who’s completely at home and adept with technology. And the problem is that some children like that go into a school environment, and we’re not always accommodating the elements of technology that they bring in with them. We  need to take advantage of technology’s ability to provide immediate feedback and serve up questions to promote further learning. And that’s really the key—turning the equation around from teaching to learning and maximizing people’s ability to learn.”

Hyland says he has seen TC make important strides toward that goal during the 24 years he has served as a Trustee. He cites the recasting of the College’s Gottesman Libraries, under the direction of Gary Natriello, as a major accomplishment, and is particularly excited by the work of the library’s EdLab creative services unit.

“The library, which was once this quiet place where you went to take out books, has been transformed into a major thoroughfare, where there’s always this tremendous buzz going on,” he says.

Hyland is also enthusiastic about the College’s partnerships with public schools in Harlem and, more recently, the launch of the Teachers College Community School.

“Our partnership work puts us right in the thick of the nation’s largest school system, and having a school of our own is really the ultimate test of our own ideas,” he says.

Perhaps most characteristically, Hyland, the perennial adviser, is excited about TC’s launch this past fall of a new Education Policy and Social Analysis department, which for the first time unites the College’s diverse cast of policy experts.

“The policy work is so important because it allows us to become even more of an intermediary, a place of trust, for research—and not just our own, but that of other institutions as well,” he says. “We’ll never have all the answers, but we want to be the place that forgoes the polemics, and acts as a source that can help people evaluate the controversial questions.”

There are other areas where Hyland would like to see TC exert its influence, both for education in general and to secure its own future. He laments the near-disappearance of arts programs from public schools, which he sees as the result of an overemphasis on testing in math and English Language Arts dictated by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. He also applauds the College’s willingness to take a page from for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, which has aggressively promoted online learning.

“They have something like 500,000 students and 200 campuses worldwide, and they’ve approached the issue of teaching from the moment someone clicks a website through an individual’s graduation and successive employment. I’m pleased that we’re making an effort to understand how to use technology to extend our own reach, without overextending ourselves and without diluting the quality of our course offerings.”

He considers for a moment. “These are really tricky issues,” he says at last. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t be thought through.”

Published Wednesday, May. 2, 2012