In a recent Fordham-sponsored lecture, one of New York’s most powerful education leaders stressed the need for new perspectives and bold action to “recast what is possible for all students.”

“This is a time to think and act differently, and to dismantle the many unfounded and deep-seated preconceptions about the potential and value of large segments of our state’s population,” said Lester W. Young Jr., Ed.D., GSE ’78, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the 17-member group that sets educational policy for the state and oversees its education department. “There exists a moral and economic imperative to remove the inequities that stand in the way of success for whole segments of New York’s student population.”

Young spoke those words during the 2021 Barbara L. Jackson, Ed.D., Lecture, a webinar hosted by Fordham’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) on October 25. GSE Dean José Luis Alvarado, Ph.D., introduced Young and moderated a Q&A session after the lecture, which drew more than 150 attendees.

Throughout the presentation, titled “Leadership for Change During Our Moral Moment,” Young pointed to specific ways the Board of Regents is pushing to build systems and structures for all students to be successful.

In May, he said, the board passed a policy statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that is broken down into six focus elements: governance, teaching and learning, family and community engagement, workforce diversity, diverse schools and learning opportunities, and providing student supports.

Among the specific initiatives the board has introduced are a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework for all stakeholders—teachers, school and district leaders, students, and families—and a performance-based assessment consortium pilot program, in which participating schools will work together to implement changes to better prepare students for college and the workplace.

Behind these and other initiatives, Young said, are two core pillars supporting the board’s strategies: a commitment to fostering DEI and to shifting the Education Department’s primary concern from monitoring and compliance to service, a goal that he says can be aided by the fact that New York state’s education budget is larger than it ever has been.

Navigating the Politics of DEI In Education

Acknowledging the pushback in some New York districts to DEI-focused education, Young said, “If you believe that every member of humanity has a contribution to make to the whole, and our uniqueness, our cultures, our languages, and lived experiences are actually strengths … then you believe in diversity. And if you also believe that everyone should have access to the process and opportunities and resources they need to be successful … then you believe in equity. And if you believe that schools should foster a culture of open-mindedness, compassion, and inclusiveness among individuals and groups, then you believe in inclusion.”

For districts that have seen diversity efforts met with particularly fierce opposition from families or school board members, he also acknowledged that there is a political component that cannot be ignored.

“Not every problem that schools face is an educational problem,” Young said. “Some are political problems. If a problem is a political one, that requires a political solution. … There’s no substitute for involvement. We all need to be more involved.”

‘A Vision-Building Opportunity’

At the same time, Young said, there is much that can be done within higher education to prepare teachers to help a diverse population of students excel, and he emphasized the importance of initiatives to bring people of color into school leadership positions and to encourage aspiring teachers of color.

When he was elected chancellor in January, Young became the first Black person to lead the Board of Regents. A former New York City educator and administrator, he said that the board wants to put communities, not institutions, at the core of its decision-making.

“How do we ensure that all neighborhood schools are schools we would want our children to attend?” he asked. “We’ve been presented with a vision-building opportunity. … We can make a new norm better than the old.”

Barbara L. Jackson, Ed.D., was a professor in the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy at the Graduate School of Education from 1987 to 2008 and served as chair of the division from 1997 to 2003. GSE established a lecture series in her name to honor her distinguished scholarship and contributions to the field of educational leadership. Among the attendees of this year’s lecture was Jackson’s daughter, Carolyn Jackson Smith.

Young, who earned a doctorate at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education in 1978, told the audience that he knew Jackson personally and considered her a “visionary scholar, role model, mentor, and friend.”