What were some of the positions you held at EDC before you became president?
I started working for EDC in 1965, as a research assistant and an evaluator. Jerome Bruner [one of the pioneers of cognitive psychology, and who directed several social studies projects at EDC] felt that we needed to expand the methodologies EDC used to look at classrooms. The only evaluation tools that existed were standard teacher tests and exams. I helped develop more qualitative approaches—such as classroom observation methods and interviewing methods. I liked the work and seemed to have a knack for it. I later directed an evaluation group and then EDC’s social studies program—until 1980, when the presidential search began. My group wanted me to throw my hat in the ring, and so I ended up as president.
You became president the same month that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. During your tenure, EDC’s federally funded work has grown consistently under both Republican and Democratic administrations. What is the secret to that success?
There is a foundational basis for our work that is not tied to political swings in views toward education, but to fundamental principles of the country itself. We have always been a nation that places a high value on experimentation, invention, and the kind of creative imagination that takes us beyond where we are in particular fields. Americans value the products of the mind. EDC has kept its eyes on those fundamental principles of innovation and creative thinking. And, in the process of bringing cutting-edge knowledge to practitioners and learners, we’ve been determined not to violate local norms and beliefs.
That approach seems to connect to your background as an evaluator. You’ve been trained to look for points where our thinking may be out of step with the views of the local community.
Yes. I’m not saying that we are neutral. We have our values, but we engage in constructive dialogue, rather than confrontation, with others who don’t share our values. The Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal wrote about America many years ago, and he said, “Discussion is the bedrock of American democracy.” People with different points of view thrash them out, and emerge with something the majority can live with. My vision for EDC has always been to engage in that kind of open, respectful discourse.
That also describes your management style.
Absolutely, which may have been frustrating for some of my colleagues. If someone asks for an action, I don’t just say, “So be it.” We engage in dialogue. In the long run, that distributes a sense of responsibility and authority among many people.
One of the things you have excelled at is managing highly creative, independent thinkers. Are there particular systems that foster creativity—or at least don’t inhibit it?
Structures are important, but even more important are personalities. When people are working together on very specific kinds of tasks, the work gives the group a structure. And when people within that group bond in a professional way—around a set of ideas and a set of goals—that releases people’s creative juices. They’re allowed, they’re expected, to bring their own expertise to the group. Too many rules, restrictions, and hierarchies can squelch people’s ideas, initiative, and energy.
What lies ahead for you?
Once I decompress a bit and get my energy level up again, I plan to write about leadership in organizations like EDC. I also serve on many boards, including the Handel and Hayden Society, New Bedford Whaling Museum, and Cambridge College. And then, I look forward to more travel, more sailing, and more time to read.
Originally published on September 1, 2005