Anything Was Possible

By Arthur Levine / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

A few months ago, I bought a foot-tall plastic palm tree to send to my friend Frank Newman, who was very ill. It reminded me of something I had once seen in Poland. Right in the middle of one of Warsaw’s busiest downtown thoroughfares, an enormous, realistic plastic palm tree had been erected. As everyone knows, it is impossible to grow a palm tree in Warsaw’s cold climate—and that is exactly why it was there. For a country beleaguered for centuries, the palm stood for hope. It became a symbol for the entire city that anything is possible. Reproductions, key chains, and postcards were created in its likeness. Frank died on May 29, the day that I bought the tree, so now it sits on my bedroom dresser.

It is one of the first things that I see each morning. What has become clearer to me with each passing day is that Frank Newman was that tree for American education. For more than thirty years, he was a voice of hope and an advocate for change. He was the most positive person I have ever met. Embraced by educators, government, foundations, and the news media, Frank told them that tomorrow needs to be better than today; that the future must not mirror the past; that anything is possible, although some changes are imperative; and that they have the power, and the responsibility, to act.

Since 1970, three profound changes have taken place in American education. The first has been the movement of higher education from mass to universal access, from providing education to a majority of high school graduates and a host of graduate students to offering education across the lifespans of all people who can benefit from it.

The second change is the continuing transformation of elementary and secondary education as schools increasingly operate in an information, rather than an industrial, economy. The focus has shifted from the teacher to the learner, and from common processes—180 days of school a year for twelve years—to common outcomes for all children.

The third is the emergence of global higher education, offering education anytime to anyone at any place—in a world with withering borders, burgeoning new technologies, and proliferating numbers and kinds of educational providers.

Frank Newman was at the center of each of those changes in ways that no one else I know was. I am convinced that, in the past three decades, he had a greater impact on American education than any other person.

In the early 1970s, when the role of the federal government in supporting the nation’s colleges and universities was growing, Frank served as chairman of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s task force on the future of higher education. The 1971 Newman Commission report laid out a radical agenda, an abrupt departure from traditional practices. It called for substantially greater access to college for minority students and women; profound changes in institutions to accommodate a tidal wave of as yet unseen nontraditional students; an end to lockstep enrollment patterns demanding four years of full-time study; and more differentiation among institutions to support two-year colleges, new educational enterprises, noncollegiate postsecondary options, and off-campus study.

Reading the report then, it seemed like science fiction, an act of imagination entirely out of touch with reality. Reading it now, the report seems bland because the emerging social conditions that it identified have come to pass. Most of its recommendations have been, or are being, put in place, or have moved to the center of the higher-education policy agenda.

A little more than a decade after the Newman report, in the aftermath of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, when the country’s attention shifted from its colleges to its schools and the focus of action moved from Washington to the state capitals, Frank became president of the Education Commission of the States (ECS). Established to work with governors in studying, formulating, and carrying out educational policy, the commission was, at that time, a very tired organization. Frank turned it into one of the most powerful forces for shaping what would become a twenty-year national school-reform movement.

Once again he identified a sweeping agenda, ranging across teaching, teacher education, school leadership, student learning, financial support, standards, equity, the K–16 continuum, and even school choice. He created what can best be described as a policy seminar for state leaders, one that produced a coterie of “education” governors. One of them was Bill Clinton, whom Frank persuaded to become head of the ECS board when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

For thirteen years, Frank traveled to state capitals to advise governors and legislators, encouraging them to put in place best practices and to avoid silver bullets and sound-bite solutions. He spent so much time on the road that I once told him I had called him at his office only as a last resort after trying all the frequent-flier clubs at the airline hubs. Today Frank Newman’s fingerprints can be seen on the educational policies of states across the country.

After retiring from the commission, Frank persuaded the Pew Charitable Trusts to tackle the issue of global higher education and create a think tank to study it. He became head of that research-and-policy group, the Futures Project, which was located at Brown and was charged with studying postsecondary education in an era when isolated nation-states were breaking down to form an inextricably intertwined global society. Much of the project’s work is not yet published, but having read drafts, I am sure that Frank would have produced an international version of the 1971 Newman report, replete with an analysis of changing conditions and recommendations about how to deal with them. His findings on the extent and impact of privatization and new technologies are illuminating, and countries around the world were already inviting him to help them plan for the future.

Frank was a visionary and a giant in an era in which the shortsighted have seemed dominant. He was a person of imagination, who had an uncanny ability to envision the future and be at the right place to help shape it. I remember asking him soon after he accepted the ECS presidency why he had taken the job. Without missing a beat, he said school policy was going to be high on the national agenda for years to come, the states were the primary actors in school reform, and the ECS could have an impact on the outcome.

Frank had a firm set of values, too. He championed access to higher education for low-income and minority students and women. He led a lifelong crusade for informed and active citizenship, which caused him to enlist the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, and Stanford to help him create Campus Compact. That group has played a leading role in promoting student-service learning—curricular and co-curricular experiences that link students’ service in their communities with academic content—which is now found at hundreds of colleges from coast to coast.

He was also an extraordinary speaker, with the capacity to speak several very different languages. He could translate academic issues to make them comprehensible to policy makers, and he could effectively communicate the concerns of business, government, the news media, and the public to the academy.

To an unusual degree, Frank combined a career offering big ideas with a life in practice. His nine years as president of the University of Rhode Island added to his credibility, showing that he could not only formulate policy but also administer it. He had to be taken seriously.

Beyond all of that, Frank was a charming gentleman. When he walked into my office, everyone on the staff smiled. He made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world when he spoke with you, whether you were a president or the lowest-paid staff member. He was funny, and he was warm. He was so vibrant, I can’t imagine my world without him.

For me, Frank was a friend whom I cherished, a mentor whom I feel privileged to have known, and an intellect whom I often sought out for counsel. For education, Frank Newman leaves enormous shoes to fill, and I don’t see anyone on the horizon who can wear them. He will be deeply missed.

Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College at Columbia University. Reprinted from The Chronicle Review.

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