Lester W. Young, Jr., Ed.D., GSE’ 78 was the featured alumnus at a recent Fordham GSE alumni reunion. At the virtual event, Interim Dean Akane Zusho, Ph.D., presented Young, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, with the Distinguished Contributions to Education Award of the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, recognizing his extraordinary contributions to the field of education and his unwavering commitment to public service and educational equity.
“Chancellor Young is a powerful role model. He is one of our esteemed graduates, and we are very proud to call him one of our own,” said Zusho. “Tackling inequities in education has been a priority for Young throughout his career, and he has made creating opportunities where every student can succeed the guiding principle of his more than 50 years of public service.”
She highlighted Young’s service in many capacities as he moved up the ranks through teacher, guidance counselor, supervisor of special education, and principal roles to now, his service as the first Black Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents.
Young expressed how honored he is to be recognized for this award and to be part of a distinguished gorup of Fordham alumni. He emphasized the major role Fordham played in his life as an educational leader and how he thinks about educational leadership.
“When I think about my role as chancellor and my skills and ideas that brought me to this point, they all started at Fordham when I was a doctoral candidate,” affirmed Young. “When I look back, I always consider my own professional development and think about my years at Fordham and how the professors challenged my thinking and helped me formulate the ideas I have used throughout my career in educational thought leadership.”
At Fordham, Young met with Sheldon “Shelly” Marcus, Ed.D., who was serving as chair of the Department of Urban Education at the time. It was Marcus who asked him what contribution he wanted to make to the field of education. He also met with John B. King Sr., who was the first African American principal in Brooklyn and later, the city’s executive deputy superintendent of schools. King told Young not to be discouraged and to fill out an admissions application for Fordham GSE.
Young shared that he was inspired by those with whom he attended Fordham GSE. His fellow graduate students helped him decide that his dissertation should address the problem that there was a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic male students being labeled as socially maladjusted and emotionally disturbed. These were the legal terms at the time, prior to passage of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which addresses special education on the national level. He wanted to identify the crux of the problem but found much resistance when he attempted to gather data from local schools. Fortunately, one of the faculty members at GSE was able to assist. Young said at Fordham, there was space to have difficult conversations; he also knew he would have to defend whatever he said.
“The challenges we face today are in many ways the same challenges we faced when I started in education,” Young maintains. These include disparity in students’ performance or achievement gaps, segregated classrooms, lack of workforce diversity, student tracking, and inequitable resource allocations. He went on to explain that school funding is tied to student performance, which is affected by other factors outside the school itself. “We need to increase access and opportunities for all students. We were talking about this in 1970 and still are talking about it today.”
Young’s advice to aspiring educational leaders includes being cognizant of the difference between the truth and the whole truth. He said, “Right now across America, people are debating what it means to be an American. The truth as we know it is under assault, and there are people who want to advance their own facts. We see state governments legislating what should and should not be taught in our public schools. It is incumbent upon school leaders to understand the context of the problem. The issues we are facing today are not new. The question becomes do we have the will to use the knowledge, skill, and dispositions necessary to ensure that the next generation of leaders are not fighting the same battles. We need to move the focus from fixing broken people to fixing broken systems.”
“We are in an incredible moral moment, a moment that cries out for moral and courageous leadership,” said Young. “I’m confident our educators and school leaders will answer the call to action just launched by the New York State Board of Regents to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools across the New York State.”
He concluded by saying that the best leaders are those who have been able to address the system’s issues and create new systems of support that speak to who we are as a nation, as a state, as a city. “We need to do what’s necessary to support the success of all young people.”
To listen to the frank panel discussion on where mandated education and educational policies are headed, click here.