Man Who Would Be Chancellor
By DAVID COLBY &
Confident and eloquent before a room of
teachers, students, and parents gathered for an Educational Forum at St. Johns
University, Interim Chancellor Harold Levy told Queens the secret of why a portrait of
Thomas Moore hangs behind his desk.
Interim Chancellor Harold Levy addressed Queens questions and
concerns at a Forum on Issues in Education last week.
Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
"He was a lawyer, and so am I.
He was an educator, and I try to be. Im told I look a bit like Thomas Moore. And
finally, he died for his principles," Levy paused, then added that he hoped that was
not a prediction and the standing-room-only crowd laughed.
As the Tribune went to press, this
same gentleman who spoke with humor, enthusiasm, and striking honesty in Queens last week
about the state of New York Citys public school system told the Board of Education
that he was willing to keep up the challenge. Interim Chancellor Levy is submitting his
name for the permanent slot at the Board, and Terri Thomson, Queens board member,
was excited at the possibilities. She said that in the 90 days since he has been in the
position, the Board has already seen what "someone with strong management abilities
can do at the helm" and seen bureaucracy cut in his wake.
"He reacts when he sees something
wrong, he is more responsive and he fixes things." Thomson added that the Board has
received 80 applications for the chancellor position and will now extend its deadline for
applications one week until next Friday, so that Levy and any other interested
candidates can still apply. Then the interviewing process will begin during May,
During the Carol Gresser
1999-2000 Forum on Issues in Education at the University on April 6, Levy spoke about his
goals during his first days, which focused on "changing the things he could do with a
signature," focusing on staff efficiency and raising the level of training and
motivation of the teachers, principals and superintendents in the system.
He explained his summer school policy
simply. When he was asked how many letters to send out warning of a possible need for a
summer school term, he asked "whats the largest number?" then said
And if some students are warned but squeak
by without being required to study this summer, well, "These kids have nothing to be
proud of. Thats a good thing. They ought to have the feedback." He added that
it is essential for their parents to have the feedback, and thats why he sent the
same notice out four times. "I am a product of the system. I still do my
mothers signature better than she can."
He spoke of the need to cut the red tape
and get down to action within the board. "I wanted to send an e-mail [requesting
input into the system] to 1,100 principals in a week. And [the advisors] said to me
thats great Chancellor (Chancellor is a great title, cause no one knows what
it means) that is a great idea (they always tell me they are great ideas if I think of
them), but . . ."
The "buts" ran from computers not
working to schools not equipped to have them plugged into the walls until Levy just
insisted. Then it just happened. And now, Levy claims, he has a looseleaf full of 700
e-mailed brilliant ideas he just turns to when he needs something new to achieve in the
But the bottom line for the Board, Levy
stressed, is more money for education, certifying uncertified teachers, attracting new
teachers, and inspiring creativity and competent action at every level of the city board
Then he brought all the issues down to one
point: "Student performance. At the end of the day, thats all that
Thirty years ago, an
earnest, civic-minded high school senior found himself caught in the crossfire between his
rebellious classmates and a school administration that was trying to calm the student body
in the wake of the 1960s.
Ultimately, this quiet, studious Bronx High
School of Science senior was elected president of the school government, despite the fact
that others in his class were flashier and more popular.
"Why did we vote for Harold? Well,
Harold had a quiet, straightforward dignity and a direct, honest and reasonable approach
to the issues that concerned us as students," recalled fellow Bronx Science classmate
"While others yelled, he reasoned.
While others demanded, he reached compromises with the school administration. In the end,
Harold got more done, did it faster and did it better than, I believe, anyone else could
The recollections of former classmates and
colleagues paint a picture of a student and leader who kept his cool during difficult
times. "We went to P.S. 52 [junior high] together," said Ilene Guralnick, who
has known Levy since elementary school. "Harold participated in student government
even then. I remember that in sixth grade Harold was the schoolyard monitor. I still have
that image of Harold standing in the middle of the schoolyard blowing that whistle of
Levy grew up in a heterogeneous section of
Washington Heights. The neighborhood was working class, yet there were those who elevated
themselves to an upper middle class social strata. "They were the models of who we
wanted to be, " said Guralnick, "Harold was always committed to reaching that
goal through public schooling and civic activities."
Bill Milberg, another classmate of
Levys, recalled that era: "Bronx Science was at the center of the student
activist movement. Many of the students in the school were involved in political
movements, protesting everything from the Vietnam War to school dress codes. There were
frequent student strikes and walkouts to join the various marches and protests around New
Michael Masucci, a member of Levys
Class of 70, said the collective high school experience came during a time of
cultural changes for young people. "Harold Levy had to juggle these changes with the
traditional needs of education and social stability."
Levys friend and rabble-rousing
classmate, Arthur Schwartz, remembered that "the strikes resulted in bringing about
change through the student government. Harold thrust himself into the fray. What was most
important to Harold was that the government worked, that all points of view were heard and
that free speech and students rights were protected."
For Levy, higher education
meant undergraduate studies, and law school at Cornell University. "Harold is a
Cornellian to the core," said Regents Chancellor Carl Haden. Levy enrolled in the
College of Industrial and Labor Relations and he wrote his college thesis on collective
bargaining in higher education, an area that should help him in the coming months as tense
salary negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers commences.
Professor Milton Konvitz, Levys
mentor at Cornell said, "He would come to my office more than anybody else, at least
once a week. We would discuss philosophy, religion, ethics and literature. He asked
questions that were revealing, genuine, not superficial. They provoked exploration. He
still writes letters to me, not just about what hes doing, but much more about
Levy flourished in the
corporate world once his student days were behind him. He was instrumental in sealing the
mega-merger between Salomon Brothers and Travelers Group. As director of global compliance
at Citigroup, Levy has been responsible for ensuring that the company obeys complex
regulations in 140 countries around the world.
All the while, Levys interests never
strayed far from education. He promoted the "Principal for a Day" concept that
urged leaders in business to take a day off to go to a public schools to familiarize
themselves with todays education system. "Harold never drew boundaries between
personal, corporate, and education matters," said Michael Zisser, executive director
of University Settlement, a non-profit multi-service educational institution. "He
crossed over into other fields, but education was always a part of him, part of the
Levy belonged to the board of University
Settlement for 10 years, six of them as chairman. His "Breakaway" program
enabled thousands of kids to attend summer camps that placed as much emphasis on education
as it did recreation.
In 1994, the departing
School Chancellor Ramon Cortines appointed Harold Levy to head a commission mandated to
examine the infrastructure of New Yorks public school buildings. In June of 1995,
The Commission on School Facilities and Maintenance Reform completed its investigation.
Dubbed "The Levy Report," the result was a scathing indictment of the horrendous
and dangerous conditions of New Yorks public schools.
The commission recommended sweeping
changes. The cost would run in the billions. Yet, The Levy Report so persuasively argued
and illustrated the plight of school facilities, that substantial funding was appropriated
to repair the damage and build anew.
A seat on The New York State Board of
Regents would be added to Harold Levys education portfolio in 1997.
As the State aid chairman, Levy decoded the
formula of the 655 Report, an almost impossibly complex set of data about public
schooling. A proposal for an increase in financial aid for education of $885 million
a figure that was expected to be rejected by the frugal State legislators
passed because of the tightly-crafted proposal designed by Levy. In fact, the final amount
was $29 million higher than originally proposed, with $914 million in much-needed State
aid funneled to city schools.
Now if Levy, a collector of rare and antique pens, will be
allowed to write the sequel to his interim stint as chancellor, he may get a chance to
follow the advice that he has given to public school students: "do not be limited, be
passionate and lavish your talent."