Monday, October 30, 2017

Two Decades of Turbulence: Leadership in the School of Education

Today's Spartan Stories post was written by Arlen Hansen, a PhD student in History. Arlen worked in Special Collections and University Archives during Summer 2017, assisting with research related to the University's 125th anniversary celebration.

Robert O'Kane

Education has always played a significant role at UNCG, having been founded in 1891 as the State Normal and Industrial School to educate women as teachers. However, from 1966 to 1986, the university faced what can only be described as a time of turbulence and uncertainty with education. This stemmed from the challenges faced by the two deans of the School of Education at that time, Robert O’Kane, and his successor, David Reilly.

The School of Education was created in 1949 and include both undergraduate and graduate level courses. In 1966, the Dean of Education Kenneth Howe departed UNCG for Kabul, Afghanistan, to become an education adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development. His replacement, was Robert O’Kane, a Harvard Ph.D. graduate who came to UNCG from Rutgers University. His initial major focus as dean, was the recruitment of outstanding faculty to the school. However, what this turned out to mean in practice was hiring fellow Harvard graduates like himself. It became something of a joke among the “non-Harvard” faculty of the school to call O’Kane and his group of new hires the “Harvard Mafia.”

But O’Kane’s real troubles began with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Programs (NCATE). During his tenure as Dean, the NCATE began to exert profound influence on university’s teacher education programs across the country. The first UNCG review by NCATE was in 1962, under Dean Howe’s tenure. During that visit, the NCATE team focused on how the teacher education program was organized, and were particularly concerned by the fact that control of teacher education seemed to be spread across the campus, rather than being centralized within the School of Education. Although UNCG did receive full accreditation for its teacher education program in 1964, NCATE would continue to ask for modifications. These contentious differences between UNCG and NCATE would persist for years, and in 1972, the University received another poor NCATE review.

The focus of criticism in the 1972 NCATE review remained the same as it had been in 1962. The teacher education program was cited for the absence of central control over its programs. Following the disappointing NCATE review, Chancellor Ferguson decided a leadership change was in order. He removed Dean O’Kane as the chair of the council that managed teacher education campus-wide, and appointed education professor Dwight Clark to serve as the coordinator. This move effectively removed teacher education from the purview of the Dean’s office which was a major blow for O’Kane. He subsequently stepped down as Dean in 1973.

David Reilly
O’Kane was replaced by David Reilly, who had previously been the chair of the psychology program in the School of Education.  During Reilly’s tenure as Dean, some long simmering conflicts with the School of Education escalated, and owing to his management of these issues, and of the School in general, Reilly would ultimately come to be viewed by many as a divisive figure. To his credit, Reilly made repeated attempts to reorganize and centralize the teacher education program. However, Reilly was opposed in his efforts by roughly half of the School’s faculty members.  Ultimate Reilly lost his battle, and the teacher education policies and practices remained as they were when he took the Dean’s chair. Then in 1985, Reilly tried and failed to abolish the Department of Curriculum and Educational Foundations, whose members had consistently opposed his policies. The fallout from this was the resignation or early retirement of several prominent faculty members, including former Dean Robert O’Kane. Reilly resigned as Dean in 1986, and resumed his professorial duties in the School.

To a significant extent, the problems which beset the School of Education under the administrations of O’Kane and Reilly were not of their making, and should not diminish their lifetime of contributions as educators.  The resignation letter of Robert O’Kane as Dean, dated August 1, 1973, captures his sadness in his struggles.  “I am in need of renewal,” O’Kane wrote, “a chance to reconsider my stance as a professional…and make judgments about how I shall spend the rest of my…career.”  In a sense, the same could figuratively have been said about the School of Education during those turbulent years.

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