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Q&A with New HGSE Dean

James E. Ryan, a leading scholar of education law and policy, will become the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education this fall. His work focuses on educational opportunity, and he has taught and written on such topics as school finance, school desegregation, school choice, school governance, a right to preschool, teacher compensation reform, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He is currently the Matheson and Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law and the Weber Research Professor of Civil Liberties and Human Rights at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he served for five years as academic associate dean and is founding director of the public service program.

Ryan talked with the Harvard Gazette about his passion for education and his new role at HGSE:

GAZETTE: What drew you to education as the focus of your scholarly work?

RYAN: My interest in education stems from personal experience. I grew up in a blue-collar suburb in northern New Jersey, and neither of my parents went to college. My dad barely made it through high school. My mom finished near the top of her class. But her family didn’t have any money, and her parents didn’t think at the time that women needed to go to college. But both my parents during the entirety of my childhood stressed the importance of education. I attended the public schools in my hometown and was lucky enough to go to a great university. That experience literally changed my life and got me thinking as early as college about how lucky I was that the system worked for me, and wondering why it has failed so many others. And that really was the impetus for the questions that I’ve been asking in almost all of my scholarly work since. I’ve been trying to figure out, basically, how law and policy might expand educational opportunities and also strengthen supports outside of school, so that more students have an honest chance to fulfill their potential.

Education is really the driving force behind social mobility and living a fulfilling life. Schools can’t do everything on their own, obviously, but education remains the key mechanism by which the American dream of reaching your full potential can be realized. For many students, the education system isn’t working as well as it ought to, and figuring out ways to improve it is what I’m most passionate about, and why I’m so eager — and honored — to take on the role of dean at HGSE.

For more, visit the Harvard Gazette.


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