Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I’ve never known Jerry Bracey, a good friend and colleague, to be “acerbic” as Mathews describes, but rather as a person of intellectual depth, principled and with a strong commitment to social justice. GMU needs him more than Bracey needs GMU and I hope that they come to their senses on their termination of his contract.

Don't Fire This Professor

By Jay Mathews

Early in 2003, shortly after he was hired as an associate professor of education at George Mason University, Gerald W. Bracey sat down for lunch at Chiengmai, a Thai restaurant in Fairfax City, with Jeffrey Gorrell, dean of the university's College of Education and Human Development.

It could have been a fruitful discussion about how to make America's schools better, since Gorrell oversaw an important training program for teachers and Bracey was one of the best-informed and articulate critics of education policy in the country. Instead, their conversation began a steady deterioration in relations between the two men that seems about to end with Bracey being fired. (A GMU spokesman said the university is not firing Bracey, just not renewing his contract, and that its action has nothing to do with the issues discussed at that lunch at Chiengmai.)

Deans and professors become irritated with each other all the time, and Bracey, 65, has only an untenured one-quarter-time contract, paying him about $20,000 a year. He is a popular writer and speaker, with a regular column on research in the monthly education magazine, the Phi Delta Kappan. Losing his GMU job will not cause him much financial stress or dim his reputation.

Yet, the events preceding Bracey's leaving are interesting, all the same, as an indication of the personal animosities generated by the ongoing argument over how to help ill-served schoolchildren and the difficulties the most outspoken advocates sometimes have. Bracey and Gorrell don't agree on why his contract was not renewed, so I want to tell their conflicting stories, which only increase my desire that Bracey stay at GMU.

Bracey said Gorrell told him at that lunch that there was a problem they needed to discuss. The dean had invited Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, to speak at the education school. In a letter to GMU President Alan G. Merten and Provost Peter Stearns, Bracey said Gorrell told him, "Finn said he would appear on one condition: That I not be in the room."

"Gorrell said that if I didn't agree, he would cancel the invitation," Bracey said. "I was stunned that the decision had been brought to me in the first place." Bracey said he felt the university's proper response was to use the expletive employed by Vice President Cheney in his famous 2004 exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "But, as a 25 percent employee on the scene for only a few months, I didn't think it was my place to deprive the rest of [the] faculty of their chance to hear Finn speak," Bracey said.

People reading this who know Bracey are guessing that he would not, despite that mild response, ever take such an insult without a vigorous response. One of the reasons Bracey is not running an education school or state education department himself, given his depth of knowledge and communication skills, is that he is one of the most acerbic people in his field, quick to take offense and not shy about telling people with whom he disagrees how much he thinks they have failed in thought and action.

Take for instance his annual Rotten Apple Awards, which identify journalists, pundits and educators who Bracey thinks have behaved like craven idiots in the previous 12 months. I haven't made the list yet, but I expect my time will come since Bracey and I disagree on many issues. Still, I cite him often in stories and columns because he is too smart and quotable to resist.

In the debate over fixing schools, Bracey opposes the federal No Child Left Behind law, thinks we have put too much faith in testing and calls for more support and money for teachers. He argues frequently that opinion leaders such as Finn, who supports No Child Left Behind, have distorted data and made American public schools look much worse than they are. I think Finn, whom I also quote frequently, is right to support No Child Left Behind, and I think Bracey is right that American schools are better than they are often made out to be, although unlike Bracey I do not think anyone in this debate is acting in bad faith. I admire both men, which neither of them can understand.

Finn's account of the prelude to his speech at GMU is only slightly different from Bracey's, and like Bracey he does not deny the contempt they have for each other. "I distinctly recall saying to Jeff Gorrell, after I learned that he had been inexplicably moved to hire Bracey, that if Bracey was going to be in the audience I'd rather not come to lecture at his institution," Finn said. "That's all I know except that Bracey didn't turn up. I've no idea what transpired between Gorrell and Bracey."

Finn said he thought Bracey was "nothing but a self-aggrandizing spoiler-kvetcher-troublemaker-naysayer."

Although Bracey stayed away from Finn's speech, he made known his feelings about it. "I considered going in disguise," he said, "but settled for preparing and distributing to the faculty 13 questions I thought the faculty should address to Finn. As appalled as I was at the situation, I was then equally appalled that only two faculty members saw Finn's stipulation as a major academic freedom issue and talked to Gorrell about it. The most common reaction was a shrug."

"Dean Gorrell called me on the carpet for using the faculty mailing list to disseminate the questions, saying that in them I had put forth some ad hominem arguments about Finn," Bracey said. "It apparently didn't occur to Gorrell that Finn's ultimatum was predicated on a nothing but ad hominem argument."

Bracey said Gorrell recently told him his contract, which expires at the end of this academic year, will not be renewed. In a March 22 letter to Bracey, Gorrell said, "As I have explained to you several times over the past year or so, the College's contracts with you were associated with a desire to find a good fit between your skills and the needs of the College. I regret that at this time I do not have an assignment for you that would lead to another contract. However, if a project surfaces in the future where we can use your evident abilities, I will be happy to contract for your services again."

He told Bracey the decision had "no relationship to issues of academic freedom" and "while I do not agree with much of your characterization of the events of two years ago, I do recognize your right to hold to your interpretations."

GMU spokesman Dan Walsch noted that Bracey's contract was renewed for two years after the Finn speech, although Bracey contends that the university was looking for ways to remove him each of those years. Academic freedom, Walsch said, "is the bedrock of our institution. Over the years, George Mason has proudly brought many different voices to campus, including Cornell West, J. Gordon Liddy, Margaret Thatcher, Thomas Ridge, Madelyn Albright and John Kerry."

Walsch said that "only several weeks ago, the university's Faculty Senate passed a resolution that reinforced its unshakable belief in free speech. The Faculty Senate's action spoke for all of us. Academic freedom remains alive and well at George Mason University."

That is commendable. But without Bracey the vibrancy of the debate over educational issues at the university is likely to suffer. During his three years at GMU, Bracey gave more than 45 speeches in 23 states, wrote 30 Phi Delta Kappan columns, 17 articles and six books, not counting his upcoming work, "How to Read Research and Avoid Being Duped by Data." He was given the John Dewey Award by the Vermont Association for the Study of Education and the Interpretive Scholarship Award by the American Educational Research Association. The Horace Mann Society named him Educator of the Year. His GMU connection was mentioned in nearly all these publications and occasions.

Bracey, without question, can be a pain, but he plays the same energizing role in the American educational debate that is played by Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Al Sharpton and other passionate and entertaining advocates in our political debates.

Figuring out how to make schools work is hard enough without having a sharp, well-argued discussion of the most difficult points. Bracey has often offended experts by exposing us to alternate interpretations of statistics and trends, but what's wrong with that?

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