Messages from the Dean

Dominic Brewer Addresses the NYU Community at a Dinner Held in His Honor, October 6, 2014

I am delighted to join the faculty of NYU and to have the honor of serving as dean of the Steinhardt School.

Let me begin by thanking President Sexton, the members of the Board of Trustees, and the leadership of NYU for providing me with this remarkable opportunity.  I want to acknowledge the members of the search committee, chaired by Professor Larry Aber.  

And I also want to thank the outgoing dean, Mary Brabeck, for her remarkable years of service to the school as well as Mary’s predecessor, Ann Marcus.  My job is possible because Mary and Ann built such a solid foundation for Steinhardt.

Thank you to Michael and Judy Steinhardt, who have given me such a warm welcome.  Thanks also to Gale and Ira Drukier, who generously supported the deanship.  And thanks to all of the members of the Steinhardt Dean’s Council who are here tonight for your past and ongoing support.

Most importantly, I thank our faculty, staff, and students, who make Steinhardt such a diverse and inspirational community.  I also want to welcome a personal friend and colleague – my doctoral advisor from Cornell, Ronald Ehrenberg. 

From Los Angeles to Washington Square

In my brief remarks I would like to give you a glimpse of who I am and what I hope to achieve at NYU Steinhardt, but mainly I want to emphasize why I took this assignment.

The first reason is the interconnectability of Steinhardt.  The second is NYU's Global Network.  And the third reason is the opportunity to embrace technology to make learning more effective and accessible.

I am an LA guy and I hate cold weather. My first interview was during the polar vortex;  the second one during a slush storm.  But as I became engaged with the interview process, I really became energized by what I saw at Steinhardt and almost forgot about the weather.

I first interviewed before a room of thirty people. On my right was Ron Sadoff, a celebrated composer for film and television. On my left was Jan Plass, who does amazing work in gaming and digital media. Across the table was Larry Aber, who studies the effects of poverty and violence on families. And there were several other faculty– from physical therapy, teacher education, and more – all around the table. And all were Steinhardt faculty.

This breadth struck me from the outset as not a weakness, but rather as a unique and potentially powerful asset. As I have gotten to know Steinhardt that breadth continues to excite me.

A School of Connections and Creativity

I would like to borrow an analogy from Pamela Morris, a member of our Applied Psychology faculty and director of Steinhardt’s Institute for Human Development and Social Change.  At the Institute’s welcome reception, she told a story about the Lego Company and used it as a metaphor to describe their work. I think it applies to Steinhardt as a whole, too.

Lego began as a company in a small town in Denmark in 1932, with a name that is based on two Danish words meaning “play well."   Faced with potential bankruptcy, Lego decided to refocus around a central component of their business—the lego brick. In doing this, Lego had the profound insight to evolve from a company creating one toy fad after another (as most toy companies do) to creating a “system of play.” In this new model, the brick was the unifying element, forming the basis of every creation.

The brick as the unifying element meant that each toy set could click with every other set, making each Lego set endlessly expandable.

Each lego brick was small and simple, and yet each, because of its potential for interconnectability, allowed Lego to offer a fully integrated play system, not just a series of products, and thus, each child the potential for endless creativity—to create not just a house or a bus or the corner store, but to develop an entire city or, indeed, an entire universe.  

You can build amazing things from individual parts and that is the potential of Steinhardt.  There are dozens of examples, but I let me give you just one that came from a faculty meeting a couple of weeks ago. 

Bullying is a critical issue facing kids today.  Across Steinhardt, faculty in the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions have had their students think about the topic of bullying through music composition and theatre.  But we also have social scientists looking into the causes of bullying, and developing and piloting intervention programs. And we have teacher education faculty engaged in training teachers to deal with bullying in real classrooms.

Faculty may be looking at issues from their own point of view, but there is tremendous possibility of interconnectivity at Steinhardt that does not exist anywhere else in the world.  If we can further breakdown the silos between our departments and disciplines, the more successful we will be.

Building Upon the NYU Global Network

The second reason I am here is the Global Network University and the possibility of building upon that network.  John Sexton has led NYU far beyond where other universities have gone.

As you may have noticed, I have a slight accent. I am originally from England and came to the United States when I was 22.

When I was at RAND, I did a lot of work in the Middle East and more recently in China. I have seen, by working day to day in other cultural contexts, how profound that experience is and how much it changes you and your perspective of the world.

There is a great deal to learn about how to motivate kids, how to train teachers, and how to fund schools.  To be in a university where we can provide meaningful opportunities for students and faculty to be global citizens is extremely exciting.

Technology as a Bridge Connecting Everything We Do

The third reason I am here is because I believe that Steinhardt has a huge opportunity to harness the power of technology – together with the interconnectability and global network I have mentioned – to enrich learning.

This means nothing short of being a key part of international R&D around learning at all levels – developing, testing and refining the right combination of content and technology to help personalize and accelerate learning both in our own programs and also in early childhood/primary/secondary education.

For all sorts of historical reasons, Schools of Education are not typically held in high regard at major research universities.

Steinhardt began as the first graduate school of pedagogy 124 years ago in response to the need for teacher preparation for urban schools.

Over the years it has evolved a diversity of programs in direct response to changing societal needs: health programs to improve the well-being of children and families; programs to examine the role arts and culture play in nurturing individuals and communities; and, more recently, programs that are delving into areas like computing, technology, and gaming.  Innovation in research-based pedagogy is a key component of our future.

A Passion for Education

Now although Steinhardt is multifaceted, my own passion is education. I have long believed that the state of primary and secondary schools in the U.S., particularly in urban areas, is a cause of grave concern – both in terms of outcomes and in the distribution of those outcomes.

A research university like NYU – "a private institution in the public service"-- with entrepreneurial DNA -- can and should be part of driving evidence-based change in the sector.

We should be at the forefront of expanding meaningful options for kids, exploring how to best use scarce resources, and thinking about how to integrate technology into learning.

A 21st Century School of Education should be unapologetic about being part of the solution to improving K-12, not part of the problem. This means being hard-headed and empirically-driven, being creative and unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Let me just end on a personal note. When people hear my accent they often assume things about my background. However, I did not grow up in Downton Abbey. My father recently traced our heritage back to the 14th Century, and we are family of farm laborers and servants. My grandfather was a milkman. He left school at thirteen because he had nine brothers and sisters whom he had to help support. He got up every day at three a.m., worked six days a week, and at the end of that week collected his pay in cash in a brown envelope. He lived in public housing all of his life.

My father was the first in our family to go to college. Education has been the transformational factor that has improved the standard of living for my family and so many others.

If my grandparents were alive today they would be proud, but also shocked, at the intergenerational mobility that education has made possible. For me it happened because of the scholarship I won to study at Oxford, and when I came to the United States the taxpayers of New York paid for me to go to Cornell – money I will now be paying back.  The personal meaning of education is not something that I take for granted.

Our task is to be a school of education that helps – through our research, our programs, and our service – to expand opportunity.  I took the Steinhardt deanship because I am quite convinced that the school can help accomplish this goal.