Dean Ryan’s Letter to the Community

By James Ryan
05/19/2014 12:21 PM

Dean sent the following letter to the HGSE community regarding the selection of Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, Ed.M.’00, as the school’s 2014 speaker.

Dear Friends,

I am excited about the upcoming graduation ceremonies, as I know all of you are.  In particular, I look forward to celebrating the achievements of our graduates, to honoring our outstanding faculty, to recognizing some of our amazing alumni, and to thanking our incredibly dedicated staff.  I am excited to hear from our student speaker, Krista Sergi, Ed.M.’14, and from our faculty speaker, Professor Karen Mapp, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99, who was selected by the graduating students.

I am also looking forward to hearing from our convocation speaker, Mike Johnston, Ed.M.’00, who is an alumnus of our school, a former teacher and principal, and currently a state senator in Colorado.  I know that many of you are equally eager to hear him speak, as students have routinely suggested that we invite him to campus, and he has generously accepted many invitations in the past.  In fact, he was on campus just last fall, both to guest lecture in Professor Kay Merseth’s class and to participate in an open conversation in Askwith Hall, entitled:  “Can We Have Both Excellence and Equity for All Children?”

I also know that a few of you are disappointed by the selection of Senator Johnston as a speaker.   Some have suggested that we rescind his invitation to speak because of some of the positions he has taken as a legislator, though this group notes that they applaud other policies Senator Johnston has championed.  Suggestions have also been made to create a more transparent and inclusive process for “vetting” speakers and to create more opportunities for discussion and debate of various visions of education reform.  I would like to address each point in turn.

First, I respect those who disagree with some of Senator Johnston’s positions, and I appreciate and admire their willingness to voice their opinions.  But I do not believe that disagreement with some positions taken by a speaker is reason to rescind an invitation.  To the contrary, it is precisely because there is debate about his positions that we should welcome the opportunity to hear from him.  I remain honored that Senator Johnston has accepted our invitation to speak.  He is an alumnus of the school who has seen and participated in education from numerous vantage points, including as a teacher, a principal, as part of President Obama’s transition team, and as a state legislator.  A national figure, he has received praise from President Obama and rave reviews from students when he has guest-lectured here.  He has dedicated his career to improving education and has demonstrated a strong commitment to increasing opportunities and improving outcomes for all students.  And he embodies the basic values that I trust we all share at HGSE and that permeate the very large and diverse alumni community of which Senator Johnston is a member:  a dedication to improving education so that all students, no matter their circumstances, have an opportunity to maximize their potential and live fulfilling lives.

This is not to say, of course, that we all agree on how to achieve those goals.  Quite the contrary, and that is as it should be at an academic institution.  To insist on agreement about the means would be to insist on orthodoxy, and that sort of insistence runs counter to the very notion of academic freedom.

By the same token, selecting Senator Johnston as a speaker does not mean that my colleagues and I agree with every position he has espoused, either personally or as a legislator.  Nor does it mean that HGSE, as an institution, is endorsing the positions or opinions taken or espoused by Senator Johnston or any other invited speaker.  Universal assent cannot be the expectation or the standard used to assess potential speakers, as no speaker would pass a test that requires our entire community to agree with every stance that speaker has taken over his or her career.  The test itself, moreover, would run counter to another value that I believe is deeply held at HGSE:  tolerance and respect of difference, including tolerance and respect of those with whom we might disagree.  We are and always will be a place for ideas and debate, not a place that insists on conformity — intellectual, political, ideological, or otherwise.

The standard that ought to guide the selection of speakers is whether the person has something of genuine interest and significance to express to our community, based on past experience or study, and whether the person’s most basic values are consonant with our own.  Senator Johnston easily passes that test.  He is a well-regarded and provocative speaker who has a wealth of varied experiences in education and who shares our deep commitment to improving education.  There are those who disagree with some (though certainly not all) of the means by which he would accomplish that goal.  But that fact does not and cannot disqualify Senator Johnston as a speaker.

The challenge of course, and it is a real one, is in the nature of the event.  Those who disagree with the speaker will not have an opportunity, at the moment, to engage in a debate, nor is convocation an easy setting in which to stage a formal debate.  This is just as true for our student speaker and Professor Mapp, both of whom will speak without opportunity for an immediate response from members of the audience.  This does not mean, however, that those who speak at convocation — or anywhere else, for that matter — will have the last word, especially in today’s world of online comments and social media.  The hope — my hope — is that we will have speakers who challenge us and provoke a discussion and debate that will continue long after the event is over.  This is often the case, even when discussions on campus are structured as debates or forums, since rare is the discussion or forum when all perspectives are voiced and given equal time.  The hope and belief is that speakers start, continue, or add to conversations, not end them, and that those in the audience, whether they have an opportunity to respond immediately or not, will have the opportunity to test their own views and either relax or sharpen their opposition.

Therefore, while I deeply respect the views of those who disagree with some of the positions that Senator Johnston has taken in the past, I most strongly disagree with those who suggest we should rescind the invitation for him to speak.  The idea that rescinding the invitation to Senator Johnston would underscore our values as an institution and community seems to me precisely backwards, as I cannot think of a more damaging blow to an academic institution than to withdraw an invitation to an alumnus to speak because some disagree with the speaker’s views.

As for the suggestion that the process for “vetting” speakers be more transparent and inclusive, I am grateful for it, though I would hope by “vetting” there is no intention to apply any kind of litmus test based on ideology or perspective, as I would strongly oppose that kind of pre-screening.  The process for selecting speakers, including for convocation, has in the past been somewhat informal.  Members of the administrative staff have kept a running list of potential speakers, mostly based on suggestions from faculty and students, and based on additions they have made of individuals who are leading thinkers and actors in the field of education and who would be provocative and interesting speakers.  That list is diverse along numerous dimensions, including ideology and vision.  For convocation, I was presented a small number of names from that list and chose Senator Johnston, for the reasons described above.

I would be delighted to make the process more formal and to include students in that process.  In fact, several weeks ago I had already begun the planning to create a speakers committee for next year, which will consist of faculty, staff, and students, who will identify speakers for a number of fora, including the Askwith Forum and convocation.  This committee will begin convening in late summer or early fall of the upcoming academic year.

As for the suggestion about offering more opportunities for discussion and debate about different visions of education reform, I should first point out that we hosted close to 90 speakers just this year.  A list can be found here.  Those speakers represent enormous diversity in experience and viewpoint and include, as mentioned earlier, Senator Johnston, who participated in an open conversation on campus to which the entire community was invited.  I personally introduced, just to give a few examples, Anant Agarwal, Beverly Daniel Tatum, David Kirp, Christopher Jencks, Marian Wright Edelman, Patrick Sharkey, William Julius Wilson, and Richard Rothstein.  It is my hope that the speakers committee will help identify even more individuals whose perspectives can illuminate, inspire, and challenge all of us.

If I can make one final, general point:  Education debates are often intense, and unfortunately sometimes involve more heat than light.  Part of this is a result of the passion that advocates bring to the discussion and the importance of the issue.  Too often, however, polarization is fueled and real conversation stymied because differences of opinion are assumed to rest on differences in character and motivation.  I believe real progress will be made only when these assumptions are resisted and when those involved in the numerous and passionate debates about education instead start from the assumption that those with whom they disagree are operating in good faith and share their most basic values.  I have encountered many people of good faith, including here at HGSE, who share my basic goals but disagree with my own views when it comes to the question of how best to improve education.  In my view, those differences should be explored, debated, challenged, and questioned.  But they should also be respected and, indeed, celebrated.

Thanks, and I very much look forward to congratulating the Class of 2014 with all of you.

Dean James E. Ryan

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  • 2007 Ed.M

    Dean Ryan’s thoughtful response makes me proud to be an alumnus of HGSE. That pride has been challenged by the immature and close-minded recent behavior of a small group of students, alumni, and faculty. To know that HGSE is under such wise leadership is a relief. May those who coordinated this “protest” reflect on Dean Ryan’s message, and use this as a learning experience. May they also stay clear of America’s public school children, who I can only hope have the opportunity to learn from those who are more open minded and tolerant than those who signed onto this misguided petition.

  • James Noonan

    Thank you to Dean Ryan for writing such a thorough and thoughtful response. I appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the best intentions of both State Senator Johnston and those who crafted the statement protesting his selection as speaker. I am especially appreciative of this response as someone who added his name to the statement protesting Mr. Johnston’s selection.

    As Dean Ryan rightly points out, no speaker at an academic institution is liable to be universally praised. Indeed, speakers who challenge us and generate debate (or even controversy) are ultimately good for the institution and good society at large. That said, to me, the protest of Mr. Johnston’s selection was not an issue of academic freedom vs. censorship. Rather, it was an issue of who we choose to honor and how we decide who is worthy of honoring. In my time at HGSE, we have hosted many speakers for many occasions, but I have been concerned that we often offer too a cozy perch for speakers who advocate controversial policies that undercut the teaching profession (like Chris Christie, Wendy Kopp, or Michelle Rhee) or whose celebrity overshadows their expertise (like the recent Askwith Forum with M. Night Shyamalan). At the same time, we tend not to hear much from thinkers who offer informed and substantive critiques of the contemporary education reform narrative (e.g., Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gary Rubinstein, Gary Orfield).

    I agree that institutions of higher education ought to generate knowledge and promote dialogue, but they also have an ethical responsibility to see that the knowledge they help produce is not misused or abused. Even the most generous interpretations of value-added measurements and student growth percentiles do not support the way that they are going to be used in Colorado. I would like to see more people at this institution say this clearly and unequivocally. It’s not really a point for debate so much as a point that needs to be refuted.

    All that said, even though I was among those asking that the invitation to Mr. Johnston be rescinded, I agree with and respect the dean’s decision not to. I expect that the speech will garner considerable attention and I hope that people will listen with a critical ear. I am especially glad that Mr. Johnston is amenable to an open conversation during his visit.

    Finally, I would like to encourage those who objected to the statement of protest to do so with a little more light and less heat (to use Dean Ryan’s well-chosen words). Specifically, I would take issue with the view that my questioning of Mr. Johnston’s selection and my opposition to his policies somehow makes me a menace to public school children. In the spirit of open dialogue and diverse viewpoints, I would like to think that I am engaging in the kinds of critical inquiry that we should value as a part of teaching and learning for all children.

  • 2007 Ed.M

    James Noonan – I appreciate the thoughtful note and spirit of reconciliation manifest in your words. I am glad to know that you now agree with and respect the dean’s decision to welcome Senator Johnston. I, too, appreciated the dean’s use of the phrase “light vs heat” and in that spirit will try to lower the heat of my critique of those who signed the petition. While I agree that your “opposition to his policies” certainly qualifies as engaging in “critical inquiry that we should value as a part of teaching and learning”, I also believe that your “questioning of Mr. Johnston’s selection” is an inaccurate depiction of what you sought to accomplish. You engaged in a political expression to censor speech with which you do not agree. You did not “question” his selection, you sought to have it rescinded through protest and public pressure. While you argue that this was not intended to be an issue of censorship, but one of who the HGSE community chooses to honor, I do not believe that it is possible to decouple the two. You do not wish to honor Senator Johnson, and you expressed that wish by agitating for his invitation to be rescinded, thus censoring his speech. I believe that you and your colleagues were setting a poor example for children – not in your disagreement with specific policies, but by the method you chose to express that disagreement. Far better, in my mind, would be to state your opposition to his policies, suggest that next year the dean work with students to identify a speaker together (which appears to now be the path forward), and welcome Senator Johnston in a spirit of collegiality and open-mindedness.

    For what it’s worth, I also set a poor example by bringing more heat than light to my critique of you and your colleagues (which I am seeking to remedy here).

    The good news is that I think you set an excellent example now by rethinking your views in light of new and different arguments, and publicly stating an evolved position. There is certainly room for broad disagreement about the methods by which we work together to try to improve policy and practice in education. And I hope that those who – like you – disagree with some of Senator Johnston’s work, will also come around to the notion that open-mindedness, civil discourse, and lively debate are far better values to demonstrate to the next generation then censorship.

  • Chris Buttimer

    It is an obscene perversion of the word “censorship” to claim that someone not being afforded an unchallenged podium at a place like HGSE somehow equates to her/his being “censored”, or “silenced” as I’ve seen other detractors claim. As if we could ever censor or silence someone like Mike Johnston, who benefits from an American system of politics, economics, education, etc. that has historically given and continues to give grotesquely unequal weight and near unfettered access to the voices of people like Sen. Johnston over the voices of those in the schools and communities that he, and we at HGSE, purport to serve. Only an analysis completely devoid of context and history, as well as an understanding of power dynamics, could argue that we are capable of “censoring” Mike Johnston, an analysis made even more absurd by the fact that Sen. Johnston has already been given a podium to speak at HGSE on *three* separate occasions this academic year (once at an Askwith Forum last fall, and in both of Professor Merseth’s classes on school reform).

    Your claim that James and others have “come around” or need to “come around to the notion that open-mindedness, civil discourse are far better values to demonstrate to the next generation then censorship”, are as ignorant as they are insulting and condescending in the face of the fact that we call on •three• separate occasions in the statement for ed reformers like Mike Johnston to come to HGSE to engage in such debates and discourse:

    “(We are calling on you to) create more public venues where Sen. Johnston’s vision of education reform can be discussed, debated, analyzed, and unpacked.” (para 2)

    “A far more suitable invitation for Sen. Johnston would be to engage in a debate with other Coloradoan educators who have experienced the negative effects of his brand of education reform.” (para 9)

    “Finally, we urge that a broad cross-section of students have a voice in choosing future speakers at Convocation and other special events, and we encourage HGSE to design more interactive formats for invitees (e.g., debates) so the ideas of ed reformers like Mike Johnston can be critically questioned rather than uncritically celebrated.” (para 10)

    And since HGSE has not included a link to our statement here or on any other HGSE form of social media (as far as I can tell, though I will stand corrected if proven wrong), and in the interest of “respect[ing] and, indeed, celebrat[ing]” different views, I will post the link here for our voices to be heard as well as those of Mike Johnston and Dean Ryan: http://convocationprotest2014.wordpress.com/statement-and-endorsers/.

    Finally, if you’re going to claim that I and many others (including Professor Eleanor Duckworth and Professor Emerita Courtney Cazden), who have dedicated our lives to educational justice and centering the voices of students, teachers, and community members in the discourse and debate around ed policy, research, and practice, need to “stay clear of America’s public school children”, have the guts to sign your name to that statement.

    Chris Buttimer

    P.S. I’m quite comfortable in the heat, particularly when it’s called for…

  • Chris Buttimer

    In case it’s unclear, I don’t accept your one sentence half-apology, and I am still calling on the dean and HGSE leadership to rescind the offer (but I only speak for myself here)…

  • Leigh Campbell-Hale

    The tone and content of the dean’s statement above does not match his words printed May 28 in this same online publication that first announced Johnston as Harvard’s graduate education convocation speaker. In that article, the dean was quoted as saying, ” ‘I am delighted that Mike Johnston will address our graduates and their families at Convocation this year. As a teacher, principal, and entrepreneur, Mike’s leadership has made a real difference in the lives of countless students,” said Dean James Ryan. “As a legislator in the Colorado State Senate, he is a nationally recognized advocate for school finance reform, fair teacher evaluations, and education equity. I believe that our community will be inspired, as I have been, by his passion and his willingness to find solutions to notoriously difficult challenges in education.’ ”

    Like most Colorado teachers, I can’t stand the educational policies Johnston promotes. In fact, he is the poster boy for such “reforms.” Expressing that outrage was what drew me to this site, which I had never had occasion to visit before.

    Out of curiosity, I opened the sidebar “most popular” stories on the right and read “Harvard University to Offer Groundbreaking Doctoral Program for Educational Leaders,” which caused my blood to boil even more than the Johnston annoucement. The description of that program sounds as if it were written by Johnston himself, since the only “partners” listed that Harvard will be working with are the “reformy” types.

    Therefore, given the dean’s original statement naming Johnson commencement speaker and the description of the new Harvard degree program (perhaps that EdD degree can be earned in two years, since Johnston got his masters from Harvard in one), the dean’s statement above rings hollow. The evidence seems to indicate that Johnston’s brand of “reform” is Harvard’s official educational philosophy. Surely the dean is only backtracking now after the uproar Johnston’s commencement speech created.

  • Anonymous

    You have a Master’s from Harvard, and yet you believe that rescinding Johnston’s invitation is “censorship?”

    Wow. I suppose it’s too late to get your money back, but maybe you could appeal to that “wise leadership” to help with the definitions of commonly-used words that you should have learned in high school or as an undergrad – may you consider it a “learning experience,” after you’ve properly reflected on the dangers of excessive pride.

  • Corey Gaber

    I’d like to respond to a couple of points in Dean Ryan’s letter that really grind my gears.

    -”If I can make one final, general point: Education debates are often intense, and unfortunately sometimes involve more heat than light. Part of this is a result of the passion that advocates bring to the discussion and the importance of the issue. Too often, however, polarization is fueled and real conversation stymied because differences of opinion are assumed to rest on differences in character and motivation.”

    I wonder, if Harvard adopted the current ed reform movements policies, and professors jobs and salaries were on the line based on their students’ standardized test scores, would they approach this debate with more light than heat? Would it bother them that the people pushing these policies have been in education 1/6 of their own tenure? Would the statisticians who know that they’re being judged on junk science, after demonstrating the deep flaws of said science and the way it’s being used, calmly say, “ahem, the creators of your SGP model specifically said that it shouldn’t be used to make causal inferences, like attributing the growth of one classroom to the teacher as the sole source of growth”? Would their tone change after their superior arguments were drowned out by corporate and right wing money and the policy was pushed ahead anyway? Would they politely respond at that point, “it seems you are doing the exact thing the authors of SGP told you not to do. Now I may wrongly lose my job and so might my friends, jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of our families. Nonetheless, I respect your difference of opinion on this matter and look forward to future productive dialogues”? Would they brush off their shoulders the fact that the criteria used has nothing to do with the arts, morality, advocacy, and what’s important to them about a holistic human being? Would they attend a restorative breathing practices class instead of yelling when told that 20% of their school year would now be dedicated to standardized testing instead of what they were hired to teach?

    Are these consequences of Johnston’s and other ed reformers’ policy consistent with Harvard’s most basic values?

    One side is more passionate than the other in this debate because only one side truly has any skin in the game. Only one side is motivated. Truly, deeply motivated in the way that folks can be when their survival needs and the needs of their loved ones are in danger. Being polite doesn’t make a difference in this political environment. Adding heat to the arguments is what got this petition national attention, caused MORE conversation and debate around the issues than what would’ve taken place without the effort, and what forced the institution’s hand to make the entire selection process more transparent and include more stakeholders.

    -”Nor does it mean that HGSE, as an institution, is endorsing the positions or opinions taken or espoused by Senator Johnston or any other invited speaker.”

    Is HGSE Fox News now? Is the institution’s job to put provocative people on stage, and then let the audience decide? (Strangely enough, the majority of people put on stage and especially the biggest stages coincidentally share a common philosophy…).


    When I first arrived as a masters student, HGSE explicitly told us that simply being associated with the Harvard brand opens doors for you, that it is a powerful signifier of success and authority. It is absurd to claim that inviting someone to be your convocation speaker (who has already visited the school 3 times earlier that year) is not being promoted and connoted that powerful brand’s approval. Actions speak louder than words, and it’s obvious based on HGSE’s actions and inactions which side of the ed reform debate they stand.

  • Le Tri Thanh

    Diplomatic words are for politicians and business people who use to manipulate their gain from public loss. Kind and sincere words are for educators who use to awaken the human conscience in order to nurture our civilization and humanity.

    The universal law, that is permanent in the absolute truth, is that we will reap what we sow. In the light of Bill 10 – 191, would Senator Johnston please create one similar context Bill for all politicians, and banking leaders to be measured by all citizens living condition? If the economy in country, the health of its seniors, and the welfare of all public schools are worsen, then should President, Minister of Economy, Ministers of Health, Minister of Education, and all Senators be punished or removed from their offices?

    It is just food for thought. It is just light, not heat. Back2basic.

  • Steve Zapiler

    Great teaching happens when teachers decide they have much more to learn about learning and becoming educated and that attitude is the same one that great teaching seeks to evoke in students about learning, so it seems axiomatic that teachers should be modeling it. In every school where teachers have taken a stand to work together to be better, breakthroughs are happening.

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