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Fall 2000
Vol. 63, No. 1

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After Words

2000: Focusing on a 'Legacy of Learning'

David Kearns admits he was only a passable student at the University, but the former chairman and CEO of Xerox is not about to let the country off with average grades when it comes to education.

The business administration major who was once politely asked by his advisor if he might not want to take time off until he "became more serious in his studies" is now deadly serious on the subject of reforming the nation's educational system.

"Our position in terms of education is terrible," Kearns says bluntly from his office. "And that's difficult to comprehend. We have universities that are the envy of the world, and in the early grades we do pretty well, although there is some debate about grade schools.

"But there is no question, and almost no debate, that our high schools--and probably the middle schools as well--consistently place no better than the middle to the bottom compared to other countries in the world.

"I am not arguing that reforming and improving education is a moral issue," Kearns says. "I'm arguing that the country has to do better in order to survive."

The average student has become a well-respected educational activist. In his new book, A Legacy of Learning: Your Stake in Standards and New Kinds of Public Schools (written with James Harvey, Brookings Institution Press), Kearns outlines his case for a reform based on innovation, autonomy, and choice for parents and for schools.

It's the latest in a nearly two-decade "second career" for Kearns, who serves on, and is a former chairman of, the University's Board of Trustees and also is a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education.

During his tenure at Xerox, Kearns realized how important education reform had become for the nation's future. Business trips frequently took him to Japan, where he marveled at that country's high standards for educational achievement. He served on several national committees focusing on education in the late 1980s and was still involved when he retired from Xerox in 1990.

When Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education in the Bush administration, came calling, Kearns was intrigued by the chance to serve in government--even if it meant the former CEO would have to play second fiddle as deputy.

"A number of people thought I was crazy," Kearns says. "They said, 'You could be secretary of this, that, or the other department.' And I'd say, 'Nobody asked me to be secretary of any department, and besides, there are a number of departments that I wouldn't be interested in.'

"But I am interested in education," Kearns says.

Together with Alexander and Diane S. Ravitch of New York University, Kearns was the author of a proposal calling for 1,000 new schools and better curricula for the nation's 85,000 existing public schools.

The proposal evolved into the New American Schools, an initiative that Kearns spearheaded and that he now serves as chairman emeritus. It's a program that has been adopted by nearly 3,000 schools, in all 50 states.

And while Kearns's title at New American Schools underscores that he has retired, he says he's not the kind of person to slow down.

"Frankly, I'm working just as hard as I did before," he says.

But he says a battle with sinus cancer has taken a toll on his health. Diagnosed in 1992, Kearns underwent a series of invasive surgeries and chemotherapy treatment. Eight years later, the cancer has shown no signs of recurring, but Kearns has been left nearly blind and he has lost much of his hearing.

He relies on a full-time personal aide to help him navigate his busy schedule. And he purposely keeps that schedule full of future challenges rather than laments for the past.

"I'm a very lucky guy," Kearns says. "I've got a wonderful family. I've had some health problems, but they are way off to the side.

"I've got plenty that I could complain about, but I'm very fortunate," he says, noting that he celebrated his 70th birthday this summer. "I'm still going strong."

1952: Not 'Overcome' with Education

When David Kearns, future educational activist, was by his own admission "just kind of putzing around" as an undergraduate, his advisor suggested that he try something else until he was more serious about college.

Kearns decided to enlist in the Air Force. But before he could do that, he got into a water pistol fight with fellow Deke Bud Frame '53 and twisted his knee so badly that he spent the summer after his junior year recuperating.

He went to summer school, buckled down, and did well in his last year.

"David always was a very focused individual," Frame says, although, he adds, during his early undergraduate years the focus seemed to be on less-than-scholarly pursuits, like polishing his golf game.

"David was also an outstanding gin rummy player," Frame recalls. "We practiced our skills nightly."

"But then he discovered the worth of a good education, and he focused on that."

Kearns's subsequent "meteoric rise" came as no surprise to fraternity brother Frame. "David always knew where he was going," he says.

Scott Hauser

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