Exclusive Interview: Dean Dominic Brewer, NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Coming from the University of Southern California (USC), what is the biggest difference between USC and NYU?
Dominic Brewer (DB): One of the things that attracted me to NYU was the similarity it has with USC. Both are urban universities, both are private in the public service, and both with entrepreneurial DNA. USC and NYU both have a little bit of scrappiness about them. They both have other universities in their cities that have been elite longer and the striving aspect of trying to improve and reach that elite level is something that USC has done and certainly NYU has done. I find that attractive because it gives you a particular energy. It’s why I came to the states when I was 22 from England. I loved that energy and that “anything is possible” spirit that’s embodied in the culture of the universities. There are also differences: NYU is an incredibly complicated place. USC, for whatever historical reason, has generally built schools that are separate from each other. It has lots of little schools. NYU has many more big schools that are multi-faceted so the boundaries are much more blurry. Steinhardt embodies that because we have physical therapy, food and nutrition, music, art and teaching and learning. We have the whole array. We touch the Stern Business School, we touch Tisch, we touch the school of social work… that complexity has been very striking.
PR: Carmen Fariña is the new chancellor of New York City Schools. One of her keystone ideas for the city system is to collaborate. Is it a problem at NYU because there are so many disparate and separate entities?
DB: It’s a challenge at all universities. The major reason I ended up coming to Steinhardt was because I thought the potential here for collaboration is greater than almost anywhere else I’ve seen. I felt this since I met with faculty over the last couple of months. Under the Steinhardt umbrella we have people working on bullying from a music therapy point of view, from a teacher education point of view, from a social science point of view and so on. There’s some collaboration but the potential is there for much more and I think that’s very exciting. The challenge is trying to find the resources, the time and the opportunities for people to organically collaborate. There’s a lot of hunger and latent energy for collaboration. If you were trying to solve a problem like bullying or global warming you wouldn’t just go to the psychology department or the physics department- you’d bring together people with different perspectives.
PR: Do you see creative collaboration coming out of having more conferences together? How do you get people from departments to collaborate?
DB: I think part of it is to create opportunities. Another is to do things around intellectual themes. There was an event last night about disabilities where we had a movie, a panel discussion and music played by our students composed around the theme of disabilities. It was amazing because every part of the school could contribute.
PR: You noted in your welcome speech that the breadth of Steinhardt is a great asset. What is your mission over the next five years?
DB: Higher education is in a very challenging era. The economic model that the whole sector is built on is really breaking down. Colleges and universities have raised tuition beyond inflation for the past 30 years, they have given back millions of dollars in financial aid, and the government doesn’t fund research at the level institutions would like, among many other things. The challenge of being a leader in higher education at this time is figuring how to reinvent ourselves. We have to figure out how to maintain our research mission. That means doing true research and development that has an impact that actually changes peoples lives and not just academic research. We need to help policy makers set up the right environment for change. How can we support that mission in this economically challenging environment? That requires us to think differently. NYU has tried to think globally in terms of research and students. It requires us to embrace technology and figure out if the students of tomorrow will actually come to a leafy square for four years and have someone stand up in front of them and talk to them. I don’t think so. Not indefinitely. So the challenge is trying to figure out how to adapt and how to become a new kind of university. I think NYU is in a unique position due to its location and how its global network has been established. There’s a lot of potential but nobody has truly figured it out. Over the next 20 years higher education will certainly evolve in another way and look very different.
PR: I’m sure you’re right! I’d love to talk to you a year from now.
DB: Well our institutions were not built to work in an environment that is changing as rapidly as the one we are in now. It was built in a different era. All our systems from the way we recruit students, to the way we teach to the backroom… none of it is 21st century so that’s where the challenge is. And some people are scared of it but I actually think it’s a bit fun and that the opportunities are pretty amazing. I think you need to take the first step even if you don’t know where the steps are going.
Lydia Liebman (LL): In your welcome speech you spoke about the global initiative at NYU. Can you expand your take on that and how you see it shaping the future here?
DB: For me it’s very personal. Globalization does not feel like an abstract concept to me. I came from England, I moved here and when I worked at the RAND Corporation we did a significant amount of work overseas, particularly in Qatar. That experience of working overseas was deeply challenging. It was only by actually being in a different setting and trying to design and implement a major reform, working side by side with Qatari citizens that you really got a deep learning of religion, culture, and history. You can learn about these things in a classroom but it’s too abstract until you’ve had the opportunity to go and experience it. So for me it was a life learning experience. I think the vision of the global network with actually having real canvases in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and having students spend a significant amount of time (a semester or a year) in a different place is a very powerful thing. It will lead to people’s perspectives to change and broaden. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, I believe the world will be a better place if we all have a greater understanding of other people and other cultures. We started work in Qatar with RAND in late 2001 and we designed and helped implement a reform of the primary and secondary education system.
PR: There’s a wonderful quote from Mark Twain that I’d like to share with you: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” Couldn’t that be the mantra of your outreach into the international sphere?
DB: A wonderful, wonderful quote. And absolutely. The campus allows that physical travel and if we can also embrace technology we can give access and exposure to the outside world to an even greater extent.
PR: I wanted to ask you about charter schools. We’ve been to a number of panel discussions recently and everybody is talking about them. There are some people that are opposed to charter schools because they feel that they are taking money away from the public schools, though, they really are public schools. What is your opinion?
DB: As an academic I actually led an evaluation of charter schools back in California in the early 2000s. I’ve always been very interested as they’ve grown and developed. I’m not a status quo guy so I’ve come to believe that we need to be willing to try different things and if charter schools help expand opportunities to some kids then in some cases it must be a good thing. The big urban systems are really, really broken. Historical underfunding, flight to the suburbs, etc… unless you get people reengaged with the public system, those big city systems are just going to continue to warehouse kids and fail them. I think it’s morally appalling. To say the solution is to tinker with the current system and just throw in a little more money is wrong. I think there are great charter schools and terrible ones. Anyone who has tried to start or run a school knows it’s incredibly difficult but what charters have done is bring into the system entrepreneurial talent and some experimentation. I don’t think creating high quality opportunities for some kids should be viewed as draining away resources. I do think that the debate is very polarized and we’re in a very simplistic good versus bad debate. I would hope that universities would be part of the dialogue.
PR: The CUNY schools each have a high school that’s affiliated with it. Would NYU ever consider having a high school of its own?
DB: It’s interesting because at USC we started a hybrid charter high school out of the school of Education. I think it’s an interesting idea. I think in New York there are many potential partnerships.
LL: You’ve expressed concern particularly about the education systems in urban communities. What would be your plan to further educate kids in those systems?
DB: I often think that the measure of whether we’ve succeeded as a university is whether we leave the primary and secondary schools better than when we found them. By that measure university schools of education are a miserable failure. I think we need to be engaged in all aspects. We have to make sure we train high quality teachers that are effective in those classrooms with those kids. We tend to give the diploma and shake their hand and we never check to see if they are truly effective teachers. It’s important to train counselors and leaders of those schools. And through our research we need to do work with scholarship that is relevant to those settings. Although at a place like NYU we have scholars working on everything from philosophy to health my bias is to applied work—work that will change the experience of those kids in my lifetime (and by that I really mean tomorrow). That means getting into those schools and getting their hands dirty and understanding the context of the lives of these kids. Across the board we need to be contributing. I don’t think, historically, schools of education have done a good job. We dabble. We send a few grads out to the system and we have some partnerships that come and go. But one of the nice things about Steinhardt is the Research Alliance for New York City Schools that was set up a while ago so we’re basically the data repository for the school district and we do analysis on a long-term basis. We become the long-term institutional memory that has a good understanding of the school setting. Also since we aren’t part of the school system we are able to be objective.
PR: Your background is particularly interesting. You’ve spoken about coming from an immigrant background?
DB: I think often people see an upper middle class white Englishman and the last thing they think of is immigrant experience. I remember that in order to have heat in their public housing my grandfather had a gas fireplace that you needed to put coins into to put it on. They’d keep a jar of quarters and boil water on the stove for a bath once a week. But now here am I!
PR: But do you feel that you have a greater appreciation for your education since you did come from that background?
DB: Absolutely. Education is really transformative.
PR: Can you explain the role of mentoring in your life?
DB: My biggest two mentors were my advisor in undergraduate and my advisor at Cornell. They both came to my wedding and they’ve followed my career. Mentors are transformative. The deepest way in which they mentor you is to model how to live your life. The way in which my mentors conducted themselves, how they treated their colleagues and students, how they managed work-life balance… the things that are much more subtle is what I took away from my experience. So when I work with students I think back to how I was treated.
PR: Bob Kerry, former president of the New School, has started a new college called Minerva in San Francisco. The ultimate goal is to have it be free. What do you think about that model for the years to come?
DB: I think it comes full circle to where we started. In the exciting and challenging environment of higher education the potential to spread access more broadly is kind of typified by that model. Rather than have a closed wall where you’re protecting all knowledge and people have to come to you, technology allows the pushing out and access to anybody virtually free. We still have this system of bundling knowledge into degrees and you still have to pay to come get a piece of paper but that’s going to break down. It will be interesting to watch if it can still meet the basic quality and if it can cover costs. In theory the knowledge is all out there. I think the main question is whether there can be a sustainable model. #