James Ryan’s Letter to the Harvard Community

Originally Published on May 19, 2014

James Ryan sent the following letter to the Harvard Graduate School of Education community regarding the selection of Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, Ed.M.’00, as the school’s 2014 convocation speaker.

Dear Friends,

I am excited about the upcoming graduation ceremonies, as I know all of you are. In particular, I look forward to celebrating the achievements of our graduates, to honoring our outstanding faculty, to recognizing some of our amazing alumni, and to thanking our incredibly dedicated staff. I am excited to hear from our student speaker, Krista Sergi, Ed.M.’14, and from our faculty speaker, Professor Karen Mapp, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99, who was selected by the graduating students.

I am also looking forward to hearing from our convocation speaker, Mike Johnston, Ed.M.’00, who is an alumnus of our school, a former teacher and principal, and currently a state senator in Colorado. I know that many of you are equally eager to hear him speak, as students have routinely suggested that we invite him to campus, and he has generously accepted many invitations in the past. In fact, he was on campus just last fall, both to guest lecture in Professor Kay Merseth’s class and to participate in an open conversation in Askwith Hall, entitled: “Can We Have Both Excellence and Equity for All Children?”

I also know that a few of you are disappointed by the selection of Senator Johnston as a speaker. Some have suggested that we rescind his invitation to speak because of some of the positions he has taken as a legislator, though this group notes that they applaud other policies Senator Johnston has championed. Suggestions have also been made to create a more transparent and inclusive process for “vetting” speakers and to create more opportunities for discussion and debate of various visions of education reform. I would like to address each point in turn.

First, I respect those who disagree with some of Senator Johnston’s positions, and I appreciate and admire their willingness to voice their opinions. But I do not believe that disagreement with some positions taken by a speaker is reason to rescind an invitation. To the contrary, it is precisely because there is debate about his positions that we should welcome the opportunity to hear from him. I remain honored that Senator Johnston has accepted our invitation to speak. He is an alumnus of the school who has seen and participated in education from numerous vantage points, including as a teacher, a principal, as part of President Obama’s transition team, and as a state legislator. A national figure, he has received praise from President Obama and rave reviews from students when he has guest-lectured here. He has dedicated his career to improving education and has demonstrated a strong commitment to increasing opportunities and improving outcomes for all students. And he embodies the basic values that I trust we all share at HGSE and that permeate the very large and diverse alumni community of which Senator Johnston is a member: a dedication to improving education so that all students, no matter their circumstances, have an opportunity to maximize their potential and live fulfilling lives.

This is not to say, of course, that we all agree on how to achieve those goals. Quite the contrary, and that is as it should be at an academic institution. To insist on agreement about the means would be to insist on orthodoxy, and that sort of insistence runs counter to the very notion of academic freedom.

By the same token, selecting Senator Johnston as a speaker does not mean that my colleagues and I agree with every position he has espoused, either personally or as a legislator. Nor does it mean that HGSE, as an institution, is endorsing the positions or opinions taken or espoused by Senator Johnston or any other invited speaker. Universal assent cannot be the expectation or the standard used to assess potential speakers, as no speaker would pass a test that requires our entire community to agree with every stance that speaker has taken over his or her career. The test itself, moreover, would run counter to another value that I believe is deeply held at HGSE: tolerance and respect of difference, including tolerance and respect of those with whom we might disagree. We are and always will be a place for ideas and debate, not a place that insists on conformity — intellectual, political, ideological, or otherwise.

The standard that ought to guide the selection of speakers is whether the person has something of genuine interest and significance to express to our community, based on past experience or study, and whether the person’s most basic values are consonant with our own. Senator Johnston easily passes that test. He is a well-regarded and provocative speaker who has a wealth of varied experiences in education and who shares our deep commitment to improving education. There are those who disagree with some (though certainly not all) of the means by which he would accomplish that goal. But that fact does not and cannot disqualify Senator Johnston as a speaker.

The challenge of course, and it is a real one, is in the nature of the event. Those who disagree with the speaker will not have an opportunity, at the moment, to engage in a debate, nor is convocation an easy setting in which to stage a formal debate. This is just as true for our student speaker and Professor Mapp, both of whom will speak without opportunity for an immediate response from members of the audience. This does not mean, however, that those who speak at convocation — or anywhere else, for that matter — will have the last word, especially in today’s world of online comments and social media. The hope — my hope — is that we will have speakers who challenge us and provoke a discussion and debate that will continue long after the event is over. This is often the case, even when discussions on campus are structured as debates or forums, since rare is the discussion or forum when all perspectives are voiced and given equal time. The hope and belief is that speakers start, continue, or add to conversations, not end them, and that those in the audience, whether they have an opportunity to respond immediately or not, will have the opportunity to test their own views and either relax or sharpen their opposition.

Therefore, while I deeply respect the views of those who disagree with some of the positions that Senator Johnston has taken in the past, I most strongly disagree with those who suggest we should rescind the invitation for him to speak. The idea that rescinding the invitation to Senator Johnston would underscore our values as an institution and community seems to me precisely backwards, as I cannot think of a more damaging blow to an academic institution than to withdraw an invitation to an alumnus to speak because some disagree with the speaker’s views.

As for the suggestion that the process for “vetting” speakers be more transparent and inclusive, I am grateful for it, though I would hope by “vetting” there is no intention to apply any kind of litmus test based on ideology or perspective, as I would strongly oppose that kind of pre-screening. The process for selecting speakers, including for convocation, has in the past been somewhat informal. Members of the administrative staff have kept a running list of potential speakers, mostly based on suggestions from faculty and students, and based on additions they have made of individuals who are leading thinkers and actors in the field of education and who would be provocative and interesting speakers. That list is diverse along numerous dimensions, including ideology and vision. For convocation, I was presented a small number of names from that list and chose Senator Johnston, for the reasons described above.

I would be delighted to make the process more formal and to include students in that process. In fact, several weeks ago I had already begun the planning to create a speakers committee for next year, which will consist of faculty, staff, and students, who will identify speakers for a number of fora, including the Askwith Forum and convocation. This committee will begin convening in late summer or early fall of the upcoming academic year.

As for the suggestion about offering more opportunities for discussion and debate about different visions of education reform, I should first point out that we hosted close to 90 speakers just this year. Those speakers represent enormous diversity in experience and viewpoint and include, as mentioned earlier, Senator Johnston, who participated in an open conversation on campus to which the entire community was invited. I personally introduced, just to give a few examples, Anant Agarwal, Beverly Daniel Tatum, David Kirp, Christopher Jencks, Marian Wright Edelman, Patrick Sharkey, William Julius Wilson, and Richard Rothstein. It is my hope that the speakers committee will help identify even more individuals whose perspectives can illuminate, inspire, and challenge all of us.

If I can make one final, general point: Education debates are often intense, and unfortunately sometimes involve more heat than light. Part of this is a result of the passion that advocates bring to the discussion and the importance of the issue. Too often, however, polarization is fueled and real conversation stymied because differences of opinion are assumed to rest on differences in character and motivation. I believe real progress will be made only when these assumptions are resisted and when those involved in the numerous and passionate debates about education instead start from the assumption that those with whom they disagree are operating in good faith and share their most basic values. I have encountered many people of good faith, including here at HGSE, who share my basic goals but disagree with my own views when it comes to the question of how best to improve education. In my view, those differences should be explored, debated, challenged, and questioned. But they should also be respected and, indeed, celebrated.

Thanks, and I very much look forward to congratulating the Class of 2014 with all of you.

Dean James E. Ryan