Harold O. Levy Takes Chargeby Jonas Salganik
For years the New York City schools have been a political dog-pit where angry parents, desperate teachers, Kafkaesque bureaucrats, and entry level spokespeople from the city’s various ethnic-political alliances engaged in a particularly ugly form of gridlock. So when Mayor Giuliani arranged the ouster of Rudy Crew, a popular and notably African American bureaucrat, from the schools’ chancellor job last year, it seemed to presage an even rockier era of non-cooperation. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, appeared Harold O. Levy, a moneyed, balding, bespectacled, obviously Jewish corporate lawyer, whose main qualifications seemed only to be that he was already wildly successful, that he had been elected and served as president of a student organization at the Bronx High School of Science back in the ‘60s, and that he still felt civically responsible.
Actually, two years before Levy had gained credibility with educators, and some media notice, as a state regent, by authoring and championing a multibillion-dollar renovation plan for New York City Schools. So strong was his reputation, the other leading candidates withdrew. Perhaps they sensed that Levy brought assets to the table that no out-of-towner short of Hillary Clinton could compete with. News accounts indicate that Levy is on schmoozing terms with the notables among the local power elite; evidence of that pull is readily apparent in that his recommendation to the State Board of Regents came from one of New York City’s most powerful, veteran politicians, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Given his race and corporate background, some segments of the broader community were naturally weary of Levy, but when Mayor Giuliani introduced a handpicked candidate for interim chancellor at the last minute, it actually seemed to cement Levy’s support from both the teachers’ union and the city’s minority political leadership. Giuliani’s vehement opposition proved feeble as Levy snagged the interim position by a 4-3 Board of Education vote. Even though it was only an interim position, the decision was considered amazing by political observers, as race did not seem to be a factor, completely inverting a strong trend in the Board’s recent history. Although he held numerous elite degrees—including the rare “master’s degree first class” he received from Oxford after earning both his law degree and bachelor’s in industrial relations from Cornell—Levy did not possess the particular educational credential required by law and thus needed a waiver from the state education commissioner in order to take the job.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable that this archetypal wealthy New York Jewish lawyer, a man who lives in Morningside Heights and sends his own two children to the ultra-posh Dalton School without apology, and the only candidate opposed by the mayor, got the interim position and continues on now as the permanent schools’ chancellor. Yet personally, what I cannot stop marveling at is the way Levy communicates, the way he wields the force of his personality and his mastery of the media like a fluffy comforter to mollify all parties who might oppose him.
Levy’s application of the principles of business communications to the chancellor’s job has been incredibly successful, at least judging by his cozy relationship with the media. He deploys a strategy of direct engagement: contrary to the average executive, he meets with whoever is angry that day and often it seems like that validation is all that was really needed. Levy’s initial target was our surly mayor, who refused to even speak of Levy after he embarrassed the mayor by winning the position in the first place. It took a couple of weeks for Levy to break through Giuliani’s defenses and arrange a meeting with on the mayor’s own, safe turf. Face was saved and a functional, more or less cordial working arrangement resulted.
Similarly, when a group of disgruntled teachers set up outside the Board one night, Levy arrived shortly after the NY1 camera crew and engaged the slightly bewildered malcontents for hours. While always maintaining the benign face of the conciliator in the media, Levy’s first move as interim chancellor was to put the system’s 32 district superintendents on notice that their asses were now officially on the line, their job performance would be reviewed, and staffing changes would accordingly be made. Media watchers’ suspicion that in Levy they were witnessing a rare genius of communications (as well as managerial mind games) was confirmed when he scheduled those same superintendents for a mass violin lesson with Isaac Stern, and didn’t forget the TV cameras that captured the moment for history. Clearly overmatched, the superintendents offered little organized resistance to Levy’s reforms. Somewhere along about that time the other candidates for the permanent chancellor’s job all withdrew their names. Rudy Crew was long forgotten.
As with Bill Clinton, when someone is this good at politics he appears not to be working. When now-permanent Chancellor Levy drew criticism from Giuliani again, this time for trying to recruit better teachers for New York City summer school programs by going outside the normal channels, suggesting cash bonuses or free airline tickets, pillaging private school staffs, everything short of kidnapping, Giuliani automatically opposed all these ideas as if angry that he had not come up with them. When the attendance figures for the first day of summer school came out at around fifty percent, we saw Levy on the news that evening at a phone bank calling individual parents to harangue them about their kids non-attendance, an image that would remain in many people’s minds. The subtext was that it would all work out because Levy was on the case. The following Monday attendance was way up. The guy turned what might have been a major failure into a major marketing coup, again a stroke of genius.
There is, of course, the fundamental question of what Levy’s agenda is and whether it will help to better educate New York’s young. Some object to Levy as a privatizer of public education. While not a champion of vouchers, Levy has publicly entertained the idea of turning some of the city’s worst schools to private companies on a trial basis. This can be seen as a strategic concession in so far as the experiment essentially would be a contained threat to the current system; those schools will probably not improve vastly without a drastic overhaul, anyway. Some may object private charters on the principle that the solemn civic responsibility of public education would be abjured. Criticisms aside, privatization has at least had a narcotic effect on the mayor, seeming to mollify Giuliani’s obsession for vouchers: the issue that cost Crew his job apparently is no longer on the table.
One thing Levy did pretty much right off the bat was re-codify the chancellors laws from an unwieldy 30 chapters down to a leaner, meaner 9. I am sure that this backyard mechanic’s approach to the system must have startled a few of the scribes who haunt the Board of Education. A short rash of falling debris incidents at New York City schools last spring also refocused Levy’s interest in school reconstruction. Levy closed a few of the worst schools and seems to be at work on a big corporate fundraising system as supplement to whatever crumbs are being thrown toward rebuilding by Albany. Levy, moreover, has been actively trying to change the way teachers are hired, both in the short term, faced with legal action to fill drastic shortages, and in the longer term, in order to expedite the infusion of commercial and professional people in the service. Mainly he seems busy simply just getting modern touches added to the bureaucracy, like making sure people answer the phone at the Board of Ed, and bringing all 32 district superintendents in a virtual chat room simultaneously.
Approaching his first anniversary as chancellor, it appears that Levy has got the school system jumping to his beat like Gene Krupa after midnight. And he still is everywhere, meeting with parents and teachers around town, trying to close failed schools, planning to open new schools, streamlining regulation, and fighting in court for more money from Albany. One hopes that Levy is genuinely driven more by his apparent fondness for the public school students of New York City, rather than a desire to engineer the biggest business experiment ever. In the end, only time will tell if Levy is as successful an educational reformer as he is a master of communications.
Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail