Rough and Rudy

Tough-talking educator Rudy Crew has returned to Washington to save primary education, but how long will he stick around?

ON JANUARY 5, the New York City Board of Education fired the chancellor of its million-student school system, Dr. Rudy Crew. The next day, January 6, University of Washington president Richard L. McCormick announced the hire of the executive director for the U's new Institute for K-12 Leadership: Dr. Rudy Crew. Coincidence?

Hardly. Crew left the superintendentship of the Tacoma public school system for New York in October 1995, but he's been no stranger in the meantime. In August 1998 he sparkplugged a statewide conference on one of his pet subjects: recruiting top people to serve as superintendents, principals, and school board members. Last February, in a fervent two-hour address to the UW Board of Regents, he expanded his focus to the need for general school reform and the role the U could play in it.

"We actually offered Rudy the job back last summer," says U Vice-Provost Louis Fox. "He said it would depend on his situation in New York." Publicly, everything still seemed hunky-dory in New York, but in the course of the fall even Crew's fans on New York's seven-member board began dropping hints that they found him growing "ambivalent" about the job. Despite Crew's protestations, the board voted four to three to look for a new chancellor when Crew's contract ran out in June 2000.

Maybe they were determined not to get caught the way Crew's previous employers in Tacoma had been. "We knew that New York was interested in recruiting him," says former school board member Pat McCarthy, one of Crew's strongest Tacoma supporters. "All we asked him was that he be up front with us about the process. Right down to the end he was insisting publicly and privately that he wasn't interested, and then one weekend he was gone, without even leaving a phone number where we could contact him."

Whatever backstage maneuvers it took, no one questions the UW's good fortune in nabbing Crew to head up its fledgling effort to provide higher-ed support for the struggling public K-12 enterprise. And whatever lasting impact Crew proves to have had on New York schools with his tough talk about goals and accountability, punishments and rewards, his four years there leave him probably the most widely known and generally respected figure nationally in a profession that usually gets little attention and less respect.

It's harder to see just what Crew stands to gain from taking the UW job, particularly when you visit his new office in a corner of the shabby and all-but-deserted old Fisheries Building on South Campus, at present barely boasting a functioning phone and devoid of even such essential amenities as a coffeemaker, posters, and potted plants: quite a contrast to the armed bodyguards and 24-hour chauffeur service he enjoyed in New York.

Quite a contrast, too, in job description. Apart from a stint as a high-school classroom teacher (in upscale Pasadena), Poughkeepsie-born Crew has worked as a line school administrator in California, Massachusetts, and Washington. His New York tenure was defined both for better and worse by his my-way-or-the-highway approach to subordinates—and to recalcitrant members of the system's numerous regional school boards.

The UW job, by contrast, carries no authority whatever, nor has it formal links to any individual or institution which does have authority over state education. There's no policy link with the College of Education, one of the oldest and most deeply entrenched units of the whole UW system. And though Crew is set to meet this week with Governor Gary Locke (who has made education one of his own pet projects), no date as yet has been set to coordinate the UW's effort with the elected official responsible for the K-12 system, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson.

Fact is, however much real need there may be for a institution devoted to the recruitment and enrichment of primary school administrators, the Institute for K-12 Leadership exists first if not foremost to enhance the UW's own political and economic leverage. In a speech last June President McCormick said as much, citing the U's interest both in better-trained incoming students and "the pressure of widespread public expectations . . . especially in our state capital, Olympia" for the U to get off its elitist horse and help clean up the perceived mess in K-12 ed.

How does Crew stack up as a holder of a powerless pulpit with an ill-defined congregation? Pretty damn well, in fact. Tacoma's McCarthy, admitting she still feels stung by the callous way Crew left his job there, says that Crew's greatest gifts may well be as a cheerleader, inspirer, and prophet, not in hands-on administration. Certainly his performance before the Regents last February made even hard-to-impress types like ex-governor Dan Evans and William Gates Sr. sit up and take notice. If the same talents can engender enthusiasm, support, and, most important, additional funding from traditional and nontraditional sources for workshops, training courses, counseling, and mentoring for K-12 administrators and principals, he'll surely be able to earn back the $175,000 a year the U invested to get him.

WHETHER HE HAS much of an impact beyond the UW depends on two factors. State education superintendent Bergeson is in total agreement with Crew's belief that administrators and principals have to be hands-on in shaping a first-rate education for those under their care. "The question is, will he take the time to learn where we are with education reform in this state? We have some absolutely terrific people working here. The first thing he has to do is find out what's going on," Bergeson says.

The second factor is Crew's own career imperative. After the battles he's been through over the last four years, he both needs and deserves some decompression time, and Washington State's the perfect place for it: Even if he were to work at 30 percent of demonstrated capacity, Crew, with his finger-snapping energy and straight-ahead East Coast style, would still be moving fast enough to make the typical resident dizzy. Despite years on the laid-back West Coast, Crew's style is still light-years away from the feel-good vaporing or arcane Educatese common in his field. If you didn't know his background, seeing him in action you'd guess him to be a tough, experienced labor lawyer or a successful entrepreneur risen from working-class origins.

Which is exactly what he is, of course. It is his unsentimental entrepreneurial approach to education, his businessman's demand that you can't produce results if you don't define goals, set objectives, and evaluate progress, that set him apart from the touchy-feely (and often wishy-washy) generation of educators preceding his. These are the qualities that have permitted him, before the age of 50, to achieve a preeminent place in his field. These same qualities make it unlikely that he will occupy his current modest assignment for long, however roaring a success he makes of it. No one disputes Rudy Crew's passionate commitment to the advancement of K-12 education. What some question is where this commitment stacks up in relation to the advancement of Rudy Crew. For the first time in his career, Crew is going to have to trim his sails to someone else's course if he's to achieve the stated goals of his job.

"His staying power will probably link directly to how willing he is to do some hard listening," Bergeson says. Crew has proven adept at listening to those under his care, to children, teachers, even principals. How willing or able he will be to listen to those over whom his authority does not extend? No question his current job, shaped in part to his own specifications, provides Crew with the proverbial "bully pulpit." But among his congregation this time out are those in a position to insist that he practice what he preaches if he wants them to listen.

You can't help wondering, given Crew's articulateness, his energy, his effortless common touch, if there isn't a gleam of political ambition somewhere there. When the question's asked, he looks down at the tape recorder whirring before him. "Is this running?" he asks. Yes, it is, is the answer; do you want it turned off? "That's all right," he says, leaning close to the microphone. "NO!"

Very effective. Very convincing? That remains to be seen.

Read a speech President McCormick made to Washington State principals and superintendants last summer that describes UW's campaign to get a toehold in the field of K-12 ed.

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