What we lost in educational leadership in New Jersey

New Jersey has an education commissioner– entranced by ideologues and foundation executives who have boosted his career–who cannot distinguish public education from a profit-making enterprise and ignores the wishes of community residents, parents, and school employees.

It has a non- system of regulating and coordinating higher education—headed by someone with no background in higher education– that stands mute in the face of frequent assaults on the integrity of public colleges and universities, including relentless attacks on the independence of Rutgers University and its governing boards.

This wasn’t always true. It might surprise some to know that , not long ago, the state had an independent state school board that acted beyond the wishes of governors in the interest of the citizens of the state.  The education commissioner served, not at the pleasure of the governor, but for an independent  five-year term. It had a higher education chancellor who similarly served a five-year term and was appointed by the state Board of Higher Education.

It also had a fearless state Supreme Court and judiciary that stood for principle, individual, and the rule of law.

Now, New Jersey has none of those things. It has a governor who often embarrasses mature adults with his behavior, a dilettante  who has replaced serious policy-making with his own personal ambition, snarky comments, and the manners of a mugger. Instead of repudiating such buffoonery, top leaders of both parties kiss up to someone who should never have been allowed near  the US Attorney ‘s office and would not have been without his brother’s money.

No one less than the president of the United States is behaving as if the outcome of the next gubernatorial election is inevitable and Barbara Buono has lost. The Democratic candidate for governor is treated with shameful disrespect by the Chris Christie old-boys’ club of sycophants who laughingly call themselves Democrats. The last Democratic primary for the senate was a farce, a result of corruption and blind ambition, and gave us a winner who said he was made ill by the principled stand of his own President on the issue of Bain Capital and Mitt Romney.

I don’t know whether things will get better.  I doubt it. I see a press writhing on the floor of its own death throes, often acting as if a good front-page color photograph of nothing very important is more essential than robust, fearless commentary about the poor state of the state and its leadership.

I do know New Jersey has been capable in the past of producing solid, courageous, modest, and devoted leaders. One of them was honored today at Essex County College and I had the privilege of speaking at the occasion.  A. Zachary Yamba is living proof New Jersey doesn’t have to settle for the poor excuse for leadership we see now in places like Trenton and Newark.

What follows is the text of my convocation speech:

Remarks prepared for the 45th Convocation, Essex County College, August 25, 2013.

Dr. Gibson,  Dr. Knox, members of the board of trustees, faculty, staff , students—old and dear friends.

Thank you for the great privilege of addressing your 45th annual convocation.

Thank you for the even greater privilege of participating in the honor you will grant Dr. A. Zachary Yamba later today.  Forgive my impertinence, but I would have gone further.  I would have renamed the entire college Yamba College, not just a building.  But that is my bias, a bias based on more than three decades of observation and affection.

Your decision to bestow this honor on a day that also marks the 45th anniversary of the school’s opening to students, I think, puts this question before you, before all of us:

To what extent can one person  influence the history of an institution? To what extent can the principles and values embraced by one person counter the negative influences that could sour and even corrupt an institution?  Does anyone make a difference? Or are we simply captives of forces beyond our control?

I know many in the audience will not, cannot,  personally remember the events of 1968. By that year, I already had been working as a journalist for four years. I had a sense of the times, and have one now. They were times of both promise and peril, danger and dreams, triumph and tragedy.

The decade of civil rights was ending with the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King,  and Robert Kennedy—and with smoke roiling  over scores of American cities, including Newark where 26 people were killed in the uprising of 1967. It was a time when many of us knew we could no longer ignore the toxic heritage of economic institutions, indeed of a nation, born of the enslavement of one race by another.

Somehow, we knew education was both the problem and the solution. But just what did that mean?

Just little more than a decade before the founding of Essex, the US Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education that promised to put an end to de jure segregation of public schools. But the effort to desegregate—an effort stalled today in New Jersey and elsewhere—was not, could not be, the only answer to improving education.

I know that among many there was a demand for measurement, for testing. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the development of the first statewide assessment programs in New Jersey. I think this was a positive development because it starkly showed just how great the achievement gap was between city and suburb.  But it also would have negative consequences as well, narrowing the curriculum, subjecting students and school employees alike to high stakes testing, helping now, finally,  to create a corporate class based on private management of schools.

We witnessed too a demand for equitable school funding with the filing at the end of the 60s . That remains an incomplete journey as the struggle goes on to overcome the effects of poverty and race in our schools.

These efforts were pursued in the 1960s and  you will note all of them required us to seek solutions from government, changes in government policy, yet the  60s and 70s  also was a period of corruption, of envelopes literally stuffed with cash left by contractors in the desk of mayors and council members. A time, as a prosecutor in the case against Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio put it, when “the city was literally handed over to organized crime.’’ It certainly was no accident that a state commission on the 1967 civil disorders blamed both the failure of education in he Newark schools and what it called a “pervasive feeling of corruption” for a systemic lack of confidence in public officials.

Even proposed solutions seemed to get it wrong.  The location of a new state medical university in Newark was, yes, a good idea, but the implementation of that idea ignored the fundamental rights of Central Ward residents to a secure home.  After displacing thousands of city residents, the state awarded Newark with an urban prairie, the remnants of which can still be seen today from the roof of this building.

And, while all this was happening, New Jersey and states across the nation were moving toward a vast expansion of higher education to meet the demands of the baby boom generation. In the 1960s, 19 community colleges—including Essex—were founded in New Jersey, as were three new state colleges.  The campuses of Rutgers University in Newark, Camden and Piscataway were dramatically enhanced.

The impulse behind much of this was a desire to end the out-migration of New Jersey high school graduates to other states. If we build, said a number of commissions and other studies in the 1960s, they will stay. So we built and built and built—but they didn’t stay. Students from affluent families continued to leave New Jersey—because they had the means to do just that, because New Jersey is a small state and going away to college was and remains a rite of passage .

What the expansion of thousands of new college seats did bring was a broadening of educational opportunity for young men and women who would not otherwise have gone to college at all but for those new seats  provided by a series of higher education construction bond issues. New Jersey was approaching the moment when there could be a place in college for every qualified student—but just what constituted a qualified student?

Looking back, we can get some sense of how dizzying were the changes that pervaded education at the end of the 1960s and the years that followed. Opportunities—oh, yes.  But not just opportunities for improved lives for young men and women. But opportunities, too,  for corruption. For patronage. For incompetence. For growing too fast, too soon.  For telling students they could go to college when they could not master high school level work.

In 1968, the year we remember today, promise collided with reality and the results were not always pretty.

I will not dwell on the first decade of Essex County College’s  existence, except to tell a few anecdotes that tell us something both about my profession and yours. I remember uncovering a story in which scores of Essex graduates were told to return their diplomas because they had been mistakenly awarded. When I told my editor, he said there was no story there.

“Now, if it had happened at Princeton, it would be a story,” he said. “But, at Essex, things like that happen all the time.’’

In other words, Essex County College was expected to fail. Contemplate that or a moment.  Consider its implications for the students the college was charged with serving.

Similarly, I wrote about the influence of one particular political family in Newark—an influence that continues today. They seemed to be inordinately represented on the payroll of the college. One of them issued a statement contending I was exaggerating—only six members of the family were employed by the school, I was told. Only six members.

By the end of the 70s, however, these anecdotes were no longer funny—if they ever were.  Essex County College faced the loss of its accreditation by the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges. The failure of the institution’s leadership to confront the issues of competence and corruption and quality had caught up with them.  It was time for a change. Maybe past  time.

And change came. His name was A. Zachary Yamba. A man and his time had come together.  The forces of history and the force of personality met.

Zack had been a faculty member at the college since it opened. He became its faculty dean and, by 1980, its interim president.  The college had five presidents in its first decade. It would not have another for three more decades and, in those nearly 30 years, Essex County College came to live up to its promise.  And it overcame the problems attendant to its birth.

Let’s talk about some of them:

He insisted on higher academic standards in the classroom and even dismissed students who were not progressing academically. He also gained a national reputation for challenging the holy of holies in community college education—the open door admissions policy enshrined in state law.

For these policies, he was subjected to terrible abuse and criticism. He was not black enough, he was told by political leaders in this city. He didn’t care about black and brown men and women.  Zack could show that the college had become a cruel “revolving door” where students stayed for years without ever reaching the level of achievement they needed to actually get a college degree. Institutional resources that should have gone to building excellence were wasted.

Zack, with the good grace that has blessed his personality, withstood the criticism. This gentle man did not return anger with anger but with sweet reason. What he did was persuade the state to face the problem. To provide new resources and new efforts to prepare students for college-level work, not just at Essex but at other urban institutions with similar needs.

Zack established new fiscal controls. Insisted on new academic standards. Gently but clearly and forcefully, he ended external political interference and enhanced the role of the trustees in operating the college.

He encouraged the faculty to rewrite the curriculum. He oversaw the expansion of the physical plant and the creation of a West Essex campus—without stripping Newark of resources. The gym was added and a new child development center. A technology center and the Clara Dasher Student Center. An all-important parking deck. He took over satellite operations and the police academy.

Essex County College matters now. Matters in ways that could not possibly be imagined at a time when my editor said I should cut the institution some slack because it was expected to fail.  Essex County College is no longer expected to fail—it is expected to succeed and it has succeeded.

Not long ago, I met with Zack to talk with him about this day, about the things I would say about him and the college.  Those of you who know him personally will not be surprised to learn what he said. He told me to remember the contributions of the presidents who came before him. He told me to praise the political leaders who respected the independence and integrity of the institution. He said I should talk about the cooperation provided by his staff and the faculty.

In other words, he wanted me to talk about everyone except A. Zachary Yamba.

I’m sorry, Zack. I can’t do that. I’ve written about educational institutions and the people who run them for 50 years.  Never, in my experience, has one educational institution owed so much to one man who wants so little to be recognized for so great an achievment achievement. This son of Ghana, this devout and activist Catholic, this man who has opened his home to students and who has helped so many individuals without any expectation of thanks or notoriety—he deserves whatever praise and credit we can bestow.

Let me go back to the question I raised at the beginning:  “To what extent can one man, can one personality,  influence the history of an institution? To what extent can the principles and values embraced by one person counter the negative influences that could sour and even corrupt an institution?”

I believe the answer is clear. No one person, of course, can end racism. No one person can ensure educational opportunity for all. No one person can eliminate corruption and incompetence at all levels of government.

Others in our lifetimes have been given similar challenges and they have failed. I sometimes wonder what Newark schools would be like if Zack or someone—or someones–like him had been given the responsibility of  reforming them. Whether racial isolation would still be so pervasive in New Jersey if we had Governors and mayors with the hearts and soul of Zachary Yamba.

Imagine what life would be like, what our institutions would be like,  if every leader—every college president—every politician—every educator—brought to her and his job the values and principles, the energy and the devotion, that this one man brought to his work here at Essex.

Individuals do make a difference when, like A. Zachary Yamba, they remember for whom they work, whom they serve.

“Everybody can be great,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King. “Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. ”

A heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

Thank you.

1 comment
  1. When you write, I think it can’t get any better, and then it does. This column, this tribute, to a man who changed an institution for the better and for the long term, has proved me wrong again.

    To what extent can one person influence the history of an institution? To what extent can the principles and values embraced by one person counter the negative influences that could sour and even corrupt an institution? Does anyone make a difference? Or are we simply captives of forces beyond our control?

    When it seems that the answer to those questions is an abysmal acknowledgement that no one can make that kind of difference, we have Zack Yamba, to say, ‘yes, one can.’ And you have understood this and given that understanding the full substance of meaning.

    Thank you!

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