Chancellor Ernest L. Boyer: Portrait of a National Leader in Education
By Mike I. Bailey, student, SUNY Empire State College
May 20, 2016
“To give knowledge to students, but also to channel knowledge to humane ends are our most compelling obligations as educators,” were the words of iconic educator Ernest Boyer. Throughout his career and life, Boyer consistently raised questions concerning the ethics of knowledge, education and learning through an intense engagement with people.
Born Sept. 13, 1928, in Dayton, Ohio, to Clarence and Ethel Boyer, he was one of three male siblings in his family. Boyer attend Messiah College, where he would meet his future wife, Kathryn Garis Tyson, before transferring to Greenville College in his junior year. While he initially began studies at Ohio State University, he left for the University of Southern California, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees.
Boyer served numerous higher-education institutions in administrative roles, including at Loyla Marymount University, Upland College and the University of California at Santa Baraba, before joining the State University of New York as executive dean in 1965. Five years later, he was named chancellor of SUNY and eventually conceived the founding of SUNY Empire State College in Saratoga Springs. ESC was unique, with its mission to deliver education to adults whose job, family and civic commitments were barriers to a traditional education, introducing the option of flexible distance learning.
Under Boyer’s leadership, the SUNY system developed a non-campus approach to education, where adults studied with mentors and through contracts. The concept was developed with to encourage lifelong learning. Another approach Boyer took was to personalize SUNY by reaching out to faculty and administrators and creating summer institutes and retreats to serve as “seedbeds” for ideas.
He remained at SUNY until 1977, before moving to Washington, D.C., to serve under former President Jimmy Carter as the United States’ 23rd commissioner of education. He spoke of the experience as one where, “I became informed about the issues of public education, [and] got involved in discussions about excellence and quality.”
Toward the end of the Carter administration, he was offered the opportunity to succeed Alan Pifer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Boyer believed that the nation’s most urgent problem resided centrally within the high-school education system. He pointed to the high dropout rate among minorities, stating that, “to add more course requirements will lead to more failure among inner-city students, unless we have smaller classes, better counseling and more creative teaching.”
One of Boyer’s major accomplishments was creating dialogue between teachers and administrators about educational programs that would reflect innovation and transform learning. Another accomplishment for Boyer was redirecting the foundation’s agenda to include public school. He also felt education improvements were ignoring too many impoverished children and sought to open the national dialogue to include nutrition, prenatal care for teenage mothers and provide care for the children of adults attending summer classes.
For his ongoing efforts in raising national awareness about higher education and learning, Boyer was honored with more than 130 honorary degrees by 1994, when he also received the Presidential Award, the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, from United States President Bill Clinton. Other noteworthy honors include being named Educator of the Year in 1990 by the U.S. News & World Report, the Distinguished Service Medal by Teachers College of Columbia University and the James B. Conant Education Award in 1994.
Ernest Boyer passed away on Dec. 8, 1995, in his home in Princeton, N.J., at the age of 67, after a three-year struggle with lymphoma. He is currently survived by his wife, Kathryn, and four children, Ernest Jr., of Brookline, Mass., Beverly Coyle of Princeton, N.J., Craig, of Belize and Paul, of Chestertown, Md.