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The "Accidental Career"
A HGSE News Interview with Professor Charles Vert Willie

November 1, 2005

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Charles Vert Willie, Eliot Professor, Emeritus, has been on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 31 years. A career sociologist whose areas of research include desegregation, higher education, and urban community problems, Willie currently teaches the course "Community Power, Decision-Making, and Education" at HGSE. He was recently awarded the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association. In the following, Willie discusses his long and successful career in sociology and education.

Eliot Professor, Emeritus, Charles Vert Willie  
Eliot Professor, Emeritus, Charles Vert Willie

Q: You have taught sociology in several different arenas, including medical schools and seminary. What was it initially that attracted you to the Ed School, and what has kept you here for 31 years?

A: I’m a card-carrying sociologist; there is no question about that. And, I’ve always been interested in applied circumstances, where my concepts, views, and research efforts may contribute to solving pressing and contemporary social problems. This inclination has led me to the professional schools because they are dealing with real problems that need solutions in which a sociologist’s perspective could be of some help.

I taught and conducted research at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse in the Department of Preventive Medicine for five years during the 1950s. There, I conducted studies on the geographic distribution of infant mortality, public health, and family relations. A main focus of my research when I was on the faculty of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University was juvenile delinquency prevention. In 1966–67, when I was a visiting lecturer at Harvard Medical School, I decided that if I ever came back to Harvard, I wanted to be connected to the Ed School. It was doing so many interesting things off-campus in the community, trying to apply the knowledge that faculty members had discovered in their research and policy analyses. There was congruence between my interests and the Ed School’s interests.

In the 1970s, I received a letter from a faculty member at the Ed School requesting my vita because the School was interested in diversifying staff and faculty. I knew the dean of the Ed School, Paul Ylvisaker, because he worked with the Ford Foundation before he came to HGSE, and Syracuse University had a large grant from the Ford Foundation for a center to study Juvenile Delinquency prevention. So, in addition to responding to the letter, I sent a copy of my vita to the dean with a note stating that “Somebody on your staff wrote to me asking for my vita. I thought you ought to know what’s going on in your school, so I’m sending you a copy of it as well.” In due time, I got a letter from [the originator of] the first inquiry that read, “Gee, thanks for sending the vita, but we really were interested in a psychologist, not a sociologist.” Then a week after that, I got a call from Paul Ylvisaker, who said, “We have been looking for a professor of urban education for five years, now we’ve found you!” So that’s the story of how I came to the School of Education.

My life has been a series of lucky circumstances. If I ever write my memoirs, the book will probably be entitled The Accidental Career.

Q: How did you become involved in the Boston Public Schools’ desegregation case?

"I had the privilege of being one of four people appointed to the panel of masters to help the judge and experts develop a comprehensive desegregation plan for Boston Schools."

A: I came [to HGSE] in 1974, which was the year in which the U.S. District Court judge ruled that Boston had to desegregate its schools. Initially, the Court used a partial school desegregation plan developed by the State Education Department. This plan involved only about 40 percent of the schools in Boston. Those who had to attend desegregated schools in 1974 were angry because most of the schools were exempted. The judge realized that the Court needed a comprehensive desegregation plan for the following year. He also realized that his background was inadequate for designing a comprehensive plan which the Boston School Committee refused to develop. So he decided to appoint a panel of masters—finders of fact for the court. I had the privilege of being one of four people appointed to the panel of masters to help the judge and experts develop a comprehensive desegregation plan for Boston Schools. The judge was a wise man; he believed that if he had a panel of masters who had experience working with various racial and ethnic communities, their advice would be helpful and that the community-at-large might be more willing to accept a desegregation plan they helped develop.

I was new to the Boston area and I hadn’t said anything controversial yet. I had just moved from Syracuse where I had conducted school desegregation studies. Thus, I was asked to be a master. This experience as a master helped me understand the legal, political, and social aspects of schools in the Boston area. I became so excited about what I was learning and contributing as a court-appointed master, that after that case was over I continued to study school desegregation in other cities, consulted with school districts, and served as an expert witness in several school desegregation cases. Ultimately, I developed a plan for achieving legal and effective desegregation that enhanced education as well as met the requirements of the Constitution. The plan was called “Controlled Choice.” I developed it with Michael Alves who studied with me at Harvard. It’s been utilized in many cities including Fort Myers, Florida; San Jose, California; Seattle; Rockland, Illinois; Boston; and Cambridge. The Controlled Choice plan was adopted by Boston for 10 years and has been used in Cambridge for more than 20 years.

Q: How has your experience in working on desegregation plans impacted your teaching?

A: The experience and knowledge I gained consulting with communities and designing school desegregation Controlled Choice plans I feed into the classroom, such as when my students are examining how to work with local communities in order to achieve certain goals in education. I continue to teach a course each year on “Community Power, Decision Making, and Education.” Even when I am consulting with communities throughout the nation, I do so as a social scientist who is trying to apply new concepts for the solution of problems. I strongly believe in comparative analyses: Comparing what happened in one city in which I have worked with what happened in other cities to determine which approach works best and why.

Q: Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education. As a country, how far have we come to fulfilling the promise of Brown and how much farther do you think we need to come?

A: How far we have come in fulfilling the requirements of Brown is a research question in which educational attainment before Brown can be compared with educational attainment after Brown. In terms of attainment, the nation has made much progress. However, some plans for school desegregation in some communities were, as one lawyer said, “plans designed to fool the judge.” Other plans were developed not to fulfill the educational needs of black students, but to be least offensive to white students. Whether educational opportunities are available to all kinds of students in an equal way is an equity issue which has not been addressed in a just and fair way. New educational policies are needed that are helpful to all and harmful to none.

"My experience is that most communities have not learned how to develop educational policies that are just and fair for all children....All of the plans I developed were designed to be fair to black, brown, and white students, and to enhance the two goals of equity and excellence."

My experience is that most communities have not learned how to develop educational policies that are just and fair for all children. They have not realized that Brown required that the complaints of students of color had to be redressed so they would experience equal protection of the laws. All of the plans I developed were designed to be fair to black, brown, and white students, and to enhance the two goals of equity and excellence. The real issue is whether we are designing equitable plans that are mutually beneficial for all kinds of students—fast learners and slow learners, English speaking and non-English speaking students. Are we developing plans that accommodate the needs of people of limited income? Are we developing plans that are fair? And, are we developing plans that promote excellence and equity, simultaneously? Honest answers to these questions will indicate how far we have come and how far we still must go to create school systems that are fair and effective.

Some of the collateral benefits of Brown are that people for whom English is not their first language now have a right to go to school. People who require special education because of some sort of disability now have a right to go to school. Women now have a right to participate in [organized] sports. I call these new opportunities “progeny of Brown.” So from these perspectives, Brown has been very beneficial in unanticipated ways.

A major problem was that people did not recognize that the requirements of Brown are the requirements of a constitutional democracy. When problems between people or their groups cannot be resolved by direct interaction, they petition the court to intervene. When the court makes an objective finding and issues an order, citizens do not have the privilege of ignoring that order if they do not like it. Yet, no sanctions were leveled against public officials who took an oath to defend the Constitution but refused to obey a Supreme Court order. If we continue to permit individuals to disobey court orders as they did with Brown, we will eventually disestablish this nation as a constitutional democracy.

Despite the problems experienced in implementing Brown in a just way, desegregation is the best thing that happened to the United States, especially when one considers the increase in the number of people who have graduated from high school and who now hold better jobs. According to the 2000 Census, a majority of blacks in the labor force are in white-collar jobs for the first time ever. This outcome is certainly due to enhanced education, and enhanced education is certainly due to Brown. So, there has been some achievement. On the other hand, there has been a great deal of backsliding. Overall, Brown has been most effective in enhancing the quality of education available to children in the United States but has failed to do this in an equitable way for all children.

Q: Tell us about your new book, The Black College Mystique, which comes out this winter.

A: It grew out of my existential history. I grew up in Dallas, and attended Morehouse College and Atlanta University—two historically black institutions—in Atlanta from 1944 to 1949. Then, I received my doctorate from Syracuse University in 1957. I have three academic degrees, two of which were awarded by black colleges. I believe that what these schools have done for many students should be public knowledge. The Black College Mystique analyzes the methods of monitoring and mentoring students, and illustrates how confidence by teachers in their students and trust by students in their teachers leads to good learning and respect. Other schools may help their students by using some of these teaching and learning techniques developed in historically black colleges and universities.

"I learned years ago at Morehouse the beneficial effects of having a mentor. Now I’m applying those methods here at Harvard."

I learned years ago at Morehouse the beneficial effects of having a mentor. Now I’m applying those methods here at Harvard. I have invited two of our advanced graduate students [Richard Reddick and Ronald Brown] to coauthor The Black College Mystique with me. This is a way of demonstrating the confidence I have in the scholarship of these able students. It has been my pleasure to work closely with young scholars in the production of this book.

Q: Since we’re talking about books, what is on your bookshelf now?

A: My wife and I live in Concord, Massachusetts, where we organized a book club in our neighborhood more than two decades ago. We read novels, biographies—a myriad of subjects. We just finished reading The Poet and the Murderer [by Simon Worrall] about a man who lived in Utah and hated the Mormon Church and his parents, who also were Mormons. He forged some reports and materials that were supposed to be documents about the founding of the Mormon Church. He was very good at it. People began to pay good money for the forgeries [thinking they were authentic]. He wrote an original poem and forged it as one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. He tore out unused pages of old books to use for his forgeries so that the paper would be of a certain age. Eventually, when he was close to being caught, he murdered a couple of people.

This is a good example of morality (meeting one’s own high standard) devoid of ethics. This man had an IQ of about 141—which is pretty high—but he was grossly unethical. The book is a reminder that excellence without a sense of equity is an abomination.

Every now and then the book club will read an old book such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the first time I had read it. Tom is a noble character, and yet, one of the most insulting names you call a black man is “Uncle Tom.” Tom permitted himself to be sold so that his master could raise money to avoid a possible foreclosure on his plantation. This foreclosure would have required that he sell all of his slaves down the river to more brutal slave masters. Tom suffered on behalf of others to help his friends who lived in a comparitively decent plantation environment. Tom would not escape to Canada after discovering that he was marked to be sold down the river. Uncle Tom’s Cabin raises many questions about sociology and knowledge: How did Uncle Tom’s way of life morph into something that was bad in the minds of readers, when he was really extraordinarily good? And who helped bring about that metamorphosis?

Q: This summer the American Sociological Association presented you with the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award. How does it feel to be honored by your colleagues in this way?

A: It feels very good. And I can tell you, particularly when you’re close to 78, it makes one feel good that one’s colleagues have said “well done, good and faithful servant.” My career was never designed to achieve awards. My career was designed to help solve social problems—which I always did, when I found myself able to do that—many of which would not be classified as academic matters. And so, for my colleagues to recognize a person who’s been out there working on everyday problems, but still is trying to build sociological theory and knowledge from such findings, is very exciting to me, because it meant that this approach that I’ve taken has not been in vain. It made me feel good to know that despite my applied interests, my sociology colleagues understand the value of what I am doing. As I said in my acceptance speech, I was pleased to be the one who took the road less traveled but eventually was recognized for a life-time career in applied sociology. And, as I also said in my acceptance speech, the award proved that “if you live long enough, something good will happen.”

For More Information
More information about Charles Willie is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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