Getting to the Heart of Education: Dean Lesgold's Legacy of Innovation

by John Conroy

Alan Lesgold was an undergraduate math major at Michigan State University in the early 1960s when he realized that math was not the right major for him. He went to the school’s advising center, where advisors conducted an interest inventory to see where his professional interests lay. The results came in, and mathematician was “pretty close to the bottom, slightly under lumberjack,” Lesgold jokes.

He also had an interest in psychology, which was spurred on by his “quantitatively oriented psychologist advisor” and his curiosity about how the mind works. He saw an advertisement in the student newspaper by a researcher who needed help with computer programming and statistics, and this led to an opportunity to gain strong experience in those areas by the time he graduated.

Lesgold initially planned on attending graduate school at the University of Michigan, which was home to some of the first cognitive psychologists. His soon-to-be wife, Sharon, who grew up in Arizona, was “growing tired of Lansing winters,” so when Stanford University offered her a scholarship, their plans changed. Lesgold had already turned down a place at Stanford, but he called the school, explained the situation, and was accepted. Two weeks after getting married, the Lesgolds headed to California, where Alan Lesgold entered Stanford as a graduate student studying psychology.

At that point, Lesgold already was mulling the idea of combining research with practical, real-world applications. “My dad was an engineer, and I had always been intrigued by the notion that people ought to be doing some good in what they do,” he says. “I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do mathematical psychology because of its rigor. I wanted to see whether it was possible to—in a relatively formal way—see how thinking and learning worked. But I also wanted to have some impact on the world, so the research questions I asked were motivated by needs I saw in education.”

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Dean Lesgold with Helen Faison and George Miles; Lesgold speaking at the school’s Centennial Celebration Gala at Carnegie Music Hall; the School of Education celebrates 100 years in 2011.

A few years later, as graduation from the Stanford psychology PhD program loomed, Lesgold interviewed for faculty positions at Oklahoma State and Columbia universities. In addition, he was invited to interview at the University of Pittsburgh the day before a large research conference at which his Stanford academic advisor, Gordon Bower, was giving a presentation, and Lesgold was told he should stay for the conference. Being at the event with like-minded individuals was very exciting to him, and Lesgold accepted the faculty position at Pitt. He arrived in 1971 with an “I also wanted to have some impact on the world, so the research questions I asked were motivated by needs I saw in education.” appointment in the Pitt Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) and psychology department. Fifteen years later, he became LRDC’s associate director.

In the mid-1990s, however, Lesgold became burdened by the concern that while LRDC was “discovering relevant research information about how schooling should occur,” he wanted to have more of a practical impact on the way teachers were trained. Around the same time, he was approached about becoming a dean at Northwestern University as well as Pitt’s College of General Studies. However, both schools had fairly strict plans in place, and Lesgold wanted to be somewhere he could have more of an impact and create his own leadership path.

So when the School of Education deanship opened up in 2000, the fact that the other school inquiries had led him to ponder becoming a dean, in addition to his desire to have an impact on schooling, meant that he quickly decided that he wanted to be considered for the position.

Lesgold threw his proverbial hat in the ring, and he was named dean of the School of Education in fall 2000. At the time, the school was “quite strong,” in Lesgold’s words, as it “cared about producing teachers and took the matter very seriously.” However, research was only a small part of the total picture. Though it look him a while to learn about the School of Education, it was clear from the beginning that the school was not keeping up with Pitt’s growing prominence in research, so he began looking for opportunities to build up the school’s capabilities in the area.

In the decades before Lesgold was named dean, the school had continually suffered from job cuts. “Part of what I saw as my job was to help the school regain its confidence,” he says. The school needed to recruit strong faculty members, and it quickly became clear to Lesgold that there were too many requirements for the positions, not enough consideration given to candidates’ research experience, inadequate financial support for faculty research (also known as a start-up package), and salary offers to new faculty members that were well below market averages for top scholars. He worked on the areas that he could, and stronger candidates began taking the school seriously. Lesgold’s first hire was John Jakicic, who not only is still with the school as a professor and chair of the Department of Health and Physical Activity but also is now nationally recognized for his research.

“The way you build a really strong research faculty is to find really smart people who are productive and then do everything you can to make this the best place in the world for them to be productive,” Lesgold says. “We are now much more competitive on the start-up packages that we offer than on the salaries that we offer. I can guarantee that almost every person we recruited got a higher salary offer, but we offered the best arrangements for starting their research, and that sends a clear signal that doing good research is a high priority.”

Part of this support included the creation of new centers within the school, such as the Center for Urban Education (CUE), a motivation and engagement center, and the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center. “I knew we needed to have a center with an urban education focus. Beyond that, it has been a matter of good luck. When you have a group of smart people doing smart things, sometimes a few of them will cluster in one place, and if it looks like a socially valuable thing to do, then you support that place,” he says.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Dean Lesgold and his wife, Sharon, with Renée and Richard Goldman "not taking themselves too seriously" while wearing Lesgold's signature graduation clown nose; Lesgold congratulating a student during April graduation.

It was around the time that Lesgold became dean of the school that he really started thinking about the struggles of urban education from a real-world, everyday perspective. It was a different mind-set for him compared to being on the research side: “I remember having this thought that here we are coming up with the absolutely perfect way to teach reading or the absolutely perfect way to teach “Stepping down has never been an issue of ‘I’m tired of this,’ but I do think organizations benefit from periodic turnover of leadership, and change can be an energizing event. You put a set of ideas out there and help people understand them and be comfortable with them, and eventually it is time for somebody else to put another set of ideas out there.” algebra, but is there any reason to believe it will work for a kid who has his or her algebra class at 7:35 in the morning, did not get any sleep the night before, probably did not get breakfast, and may not have gotten a decent dinner the night before?”

Lesgold continues, “We have a remarkable separation in the forms of schooling by race and economic level. If you ask anybody what should happen in a school, and they walk into a top private school, a lot of those things are happening. Then you go into our public schools, and even though teachers are trying very hard, a variety of circumstances together result in schools that seem a little bit like prisons. Just stand in the hallway as students are moving from one part of the school to another. There is no sense of energy. Energy is not related to socioeconomic level. I have stood in the slums of Mumbai and seen huge amounts of energy, but we have managed to create environments that do not give kids the energy that they need to do serious learning and explore and stretch their minds.”

Lesgold knew he wanted to start working on changing things around urban education in Pittsburgh. “It takes a long time and is harder than anyone would think, but I at least think with [CUE Director and Professor] Rich Milner on board, we are confronting this issue.”

The difficulties surrounding what Lesgold calls a “golden age of higher ed” also present another challenge in education, as the amount of actual teaching that faculty members do has decreased while tuition costs have increased. “We have done really well as research universities, and the best research universities will survive, but we have reached a point where the cost of education has risen significantly when compared with things like overall inflation or health care.”

Lesgold sees this situation as unsustainable, and a reaction to it will be faculty members becoming more effective and efficient. “The trick is to do that without interfering with their scholarly work. We’re doing this through producing some online courses, and we are still at the point where those courses need to be taught by the very same person to the very same number of students as if they were here on campus.”

The objective is leveraging the school’s capabilities to be more productive without diluting the product or diverting the school from important research. “There are a few universities that have huge endowments that will survive for a very long time without being sensitive to market forces,” Lesgold says. “I think we are going to have to find some way to do more things that are valuable to society in order to become more economically productive. We can create a bigger footprint in society by serving real learning.”

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Lesgold with Interim Dean Lindsay Clare Matsumura; with Rita Bean and Paul Chmara; and next to a ice version of himself.

Lesgold feels that Pitt itself has a lot of learning to do in the productivity arena but is optimistic. In looking toward the future and his relationship with the University, Lesgold would like to help by exploring how to leverage technology related to productivity. “In today’s world, it takes more than a quality program to be successful and sustain growth. I think the chancellor gets it, and I think the provost gets it. That is going to be a challenge for the next dean,” he says.

As far as personal next steps for Lesgold, he has more than a few items on his to-do list. In the next year, he plans on writing a book exploring what has to change in schools given the world today’s children are entering—a world where many of the respected roles that once produced a good living are being done by machines. He also plans on traveling with Sharon. “Some combination of the nature of the job and an inherited sense of work ethic has kept us from traveling much except for [during] the summer. We will be in Africa in September, and there is a pretty long list of places we would like to go after that. Probably China again next year.”

Lesgold says that his retirement from the dean’s position will be satisfying, as the last year has been surprisingly difficult. “It is easy to say you are going to move on to something different, but the more you think about it, the more current projects you want to get finished,” he says. “My last year has been a lot harder than earlier years because I keep wanting to get things done so [that] my successor does not have to deal with them. It has been fun, though.”

He sums up the evolution and changing nature of education and its relationship to his role as dean in a characteristically pragmatic and generous way. “I feel pretty good. I think I have done a decent enough job that I can feel good about leaving. It seemed like maybe it was time for that,” he says. “Stepping down has never been an issue of ‘I’m tired of this,’ but I do think organizations benefit from periodic turnover of leadership, and change can be an energizing event. You put a set of ideas out there and help people understand them and be comfortable with them, and eventually it is time for somebody else to put another set of ideas out there.”

JOHN CONROY is manager of marketing communications for the Pitt School of Education.