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Summer 2009

Reflections of a Retiring Former Misfit



Forty years ago, shortly after Richard Nixon had been elected president, I was fired from a fabulous job. With gleeful enthusiasm, one of Nixon's apparatchiks dismissed me as associate director of the White House Fellows Program, with my position filled by a Republican loyalist. Jobless and broke, and certain that the ivory tower was not my calling, I applied late -- and as a last resort -- for a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctorate. I've been here ever since and am retiring this June.

I was uncertain about graduate school because of my history as a misfit with formal schooling, which began when I was five years old. I dropped out of the first grade for six months because I loved to learn, but hated school. "It's the law," I explained to my parents. "Compulsory schooling begins at age six." My parents were not exactly amused by my legal précis.

In high school, I was passionate about fishing but bored by the curriculum, and slid by academically. I was bright and curious but certainly not aware and ambitious. Indeed, I planned to join the Marine Corps, until my father insisted that I apply to Columbia University. Surprisingly, I was admitted but wasn't ready for serious academic work and continued to slide by until a dean threatened to expel me from the marching band. I improved my grades but never got in gear at this challenging college far removed from my high school friends.

Because of this mismatch with formal schooling, I was eager to join the work force -- and it turned out I loved working. I spent two wonderful years as a public school math teacher and then unexpectedly got the job of a lifetime -- working for the federal government as part of the War on Poverty. During these heady days in Washington, my eyes were opened wide as I played a bit role in developing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and as I observed up close the remarkable work of several courageous leaders, among them, Frank Keppel and Harold Howe, iconic figures in the Ed School's pantheon.

After a promotion, I was riding as high as a kite, naively unaware that my job was at risk with a new political party in power. I was devastated when I became roadkill -- and clueless about what to do next. Returning to a university was not an option, but my job search was floundering. So I listened carefully when a Harvard professor friend called out of the blue and urged me to come to Cambridge. Filled with trepidation about being a misfit again, I became an Ed School student.

jerry_murphy_reading.jpgTo my surprise, I discovered at Harvard a whole new side of myself -- I was a halfway decent researcher. I also discovered that I knew a lot about practice and really liked writing about the everyday reality of how things actually worked. For the first time in my life, I was fully engaged as a student, and without knowing it, I had found a permanent home at Harvard.

Now, you might ask how these musings relate to my Harvard career. Well, I believe that my experiences helped prepare me to be a professor. I've tried to teach in a way that I wasn't regularly taught -- with a soft spot for smart students who don't quite fit, and a belief that all students need to be heard and cared for. "Nobody cares how much you know," John Wooden, the legendary University of California, Los Angeles basketball coach, reminded us, "until they know how much you care." To this day, I carry his words in my wallet.

My experiences also helped prepare me to be dean. From my government role models, I learned about the nuances of administrative leadership and about its importance. I learned the need to be forthright and honest, and to welcome the heat while not seeking the limelight; to be both bold and humble, and wary of experts who profess a lock on the answers; and to engage wholeheartedly in principled politics in the pursuit of noble ends. As dean, I aspired to put these lessons into action.

I even think that my lifelong passion for fishing -- and affection for those who ply the sea -- have been helpful. They have made me deeply respectful of hard workers regardless of their jobs and more aware of the sophisticated craft knowledge required to make seemingly simple things happen.

Throughout my Harvard career, I have tried to live up to a definition of a professor I once heard -- namely, someone who "thinks otherwise," a perfect motto, it turns out, for a maturing misfit. Indeed, much of my research and administrative work has challenged the prevailing views of what was important, and what was possible. Sometimes, I've been ahead of the curve; often, behind the eight ball!

For example, I started writing about: the implementation of educational policy, when research at the time focused almost exclusively on the development of policy; the importance of qualitative methods, as a complement to quantitative methods that at the time ruled at the Ed School; the unheroic dimensions of leadership, when the focus was on the bigger-than-life hero who, like the Lone Ranger, rode into town with silver bullets.

As dean, I headed an institution that often thought otherwise. We started a new degree program in the arts at the very time that the public schools were slashing their budgets in the arts. We bucked the feasibility experts who said the Ed School could raise at most $30 million in a capital campaign. We set a goal of $60 million and, with the incredible leadership of generous friends, the Ed School raised $111 million, and we even urged our students to be troublemakers. To stir things up. To fight for their beliefs. To be troublemakers for education reform and social justice, like Nelson Mandela, whose given name in his native language is "troublemaker."

jerry_murphy_lyndon_johnson.jpgFor sure, one of the things I've loved most about the Ed School is that it has been a place where you can stretch your wings, challenge conventional wisdom, and think otherwise. But there are many things to love here, and for me the Ed School has been an unexpected gift of a lifetime.

I think of our marvelous students, impressive colleagues, and the school's unsung heroes, our dedicated administrative staff. I think of the opportunity to engage in a treasured activity -- teaching the next generation of educators. I think of the freedom faculty have to pursue their ideas and use Harvard's unparalleled bully pulpit to publicize their findings. I think of the rare privilege to have been dean and work my heart out for an institution that aspires to make a better world. And dare I add, where else could a dean play Santa Claus each December, visiting every office handing out candy canes?

I also think of the many special people who have brightened my life. Among them, my academic advisor as a student, David Cohen; my friend and mentor, [Professor] Pat Graham; my coauthor and sage advisor, [Adjunct Lecturer] Barry Jentz; and my incomparable assistant and confidante, Rose Downer. All of them and many others -- you know who you are -- believed in me and made it possible for me to believe in myself. I am eternally grateful.

I've always thought of the Ed School as one of the best places in the world to get rich -- not the richness that comes from making a banker-level bundle of bonuses, but the true richness of spirit that comes from being an educator in service to others. (As dean, I used to give this get-rich-here speech to students, and I knew I was "getting through" when a student with a wry smile told me, "I've now heard your pitch three times.")

Now, for sure it's easy to identify the flaws of this complex institution driven to make its mark. And it's easy for me to recall my disappointments and mistakes -- and times when, to paraphrase Lincoln, the better angels of my nature were not in full sway. But it's hard to imagine a more exhilarating place to have spent a fulfilling career.

"To whom much is given," says Luke 12:48, "much is expected." And in that spirit, about four years ago, I volunteered to relinquish tenure when I turned 70. I wanted to give back to the Ed School community, which has given so much to me, by making some room at the top for the next generation of younger scholars. In these perilous economic times, I sometimes think I had a screw loose when I decided to surrender a job for life. But I take solace -- and pride -- in doing what still seems to me to be a matter of duty. And who knows what opportunities lay ahead. After 40 years at Harvard, I've come to more fully appreciate E. B. White's familiar words: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. That makes it hard to plan the day."

I arise similarly torn, and I'm not yet sure what I'll do next. (I've been told that I'm a "late bloomer," but this is getting ridiculous!) I'm exploring several possibilities -- teaching, writing, administering, international work, and even going back to school for another degree. My continuing zest for learning certainly precludes fulltime retirement.

Whatever I do, I will be guided, as I've always been guided in my work life, by these words from Ecclesiastes: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Whatever I do, I will also try to remember White's wise words and make time to savor the world. And whatever I do, I leave Harvard as I came: with some trepidation, but most of all, anticipating my next adventure -- fired with enthusiasm!

-- Professor Jerry Murphy served as associate dean of the Ed School from 1982 to 1991 before becoming dean in 1992. He stepped down from that position in 2001 and has since been teaching. This retiring misfit will officially be leaving this year.