Former politicians are turning down lucrative job offers elsewhere to teach students who are interested in, but sometimes cynical about, the political process.
Not long after John F. Street had closed one chapter in a long career as a powerful force in Philadelphia politics, he embarked on another chapter. This time, Street was settling into unfamiliar terrain as a celebrity at one of Pennsylvania’s largest institutions of higher education.
When word started to spread across Temple University’s campus that Street had been hired to teach an urban politics and policy class this spring semester, hundreds of students tried, unsuccessfully, to enroll in his course. Within an hour, the two sections of the class — each with 30 students — were filled.
Nowadays, the former two-term mayor of Philadelphia is perhaps the most recognized face on Temple’s campus where he skillfully guides undergraduates each week through the decision-making process that mayors in urban cities have to employ every day.
“It’s gone a lot better than I thought it would,” says Street, who at 64, admits that he was unsure how his 19- and 20-year-old students would respond to him in the classroom. “My students are very attentive, and they have a real appreciation for the political process.”
While White politicians have long retreated to the academy in pursuit of highprofile jobs as professors and university presidents, the trend is relatively new for Black politicians like Street who come to the academic setting after having served long political stints as state legislators, mayors and congressional leaders.
Dr. Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that the entry of Black political leaders into the academy is a direct result of the university opening its doors to individuals who were historically limited from pursuing opportunities in the academy.
“Of course, Black politicians in the first generation also did not have the kind of credentials that were required to teach at the university level,” says Walters.
Now, many Black politicans have law degrees from top-notch universities or deep experience in public policy institutes before serving out their terms.
“For many years, one of the reasons why Blacks did not come out of their political jobs is because they had no place to go,” says Walters, who adds that the trend has changed in recent years with many Black officials deciding not to run for re-election in some cases.
In many cases, these former politicos are turning down lucrative job offers elsewhere to work, in some cases, at urban universities where they are providing hands-on training to a younger generation of students who are interested in but sometimes cynical about embarking on a career in the political arena.
“I think there is an enormous advantage with having someone like myself in the classroom,” says Street, who was urged by Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell to try out teaching. When Street expressed an interest, colleges and universities from across the city came calling and tried to woo Street onto their faculty.
At the end of the day, Street chose Temple, in part, because he is an alumnus of the university’s law school and has long lived within walking distance of the university’s main campus located in the heart of North Philadelphia. His son is a Temple undergraduate; another son earned a master’s degree in education there; and his daughter, Rashida Ng, is currently an assistant professor in the architecture department at the Tyler School of Art at Temple.
“For whatever reason, I have had a long relationship with Temple,” says Street, who notes that Temple, unlike some of the other surrounding schools, boasts a rather large minority population, an important detail that ultimately factored into his decision to join the faculty. “It’s a great school, and I am particularly impressed with its commitment to the community.”
Counting on a Celebrity Politician
Like Street, former Congressman Major Owens, who represented Brooklyn in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years, hadn’t given much thought to teaching either. After retiring from Congress in 2007, Owens — who is a trained librarian — spent a year at the Library of Congress working on his memoir.
But Dr. Edison O. Jackson, who is president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, had been courting Owens for sometime to join Medgar Evers as a distinguished lecturer. Ninety-five percent of the students who attend Medgar Evers, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, are of African descent, and Jackson thought that these students — many of whom are first-generation college students — would benefit from having a political celebrity on campus. “
He’s a known quantity and has been a fighter for our institution,” says Jackson. “He exemplifies the type of leadership that we are trying to encourage and motivate in our students.”
Owens’ course, which is offered this semester for the first time, has 15 students and is part of the college’s civic engagement requirement. “
I teach the structure of government, and many of my students did not pick this up from high school,” says Owens, who chaired the congressional subcommittee on select education and civil rights from 1987 to 1994. “We talk about the key ingredients in the performance of a politician. How do you hold politicians accountable?”
This is not Owens’ first foray into teaching. He previously taught at the now-defunct School of Library Service at Columbia University, and since leaving Congress he has received and politely declined many full-time offers at other institutions.
“I have a high attachment to Medgar Evers,” says Owens, who is 71. “I’m not interested in an administrative position. I want the flexibility to work as a consultant and teacher and have the freedom to really employ my expertise.”
Building on a Storied History
Kurt Schmoke was working at an international law firm when he was first approached about the possibility of serving as dean of the Howard University School of Law.
Schmoke, 58, served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1988 to 1999. He had thought about the possibility of doing some teaching down the road but not the possibility that he would one day lead the very law school where Charles Hamilton Houston, the architect of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, served on the faculty.
“There are times that I miss being involved in elective office, but I am thrilled with my position,” says Schmoke, who also teaches a seminar called “American Election Law and Policy” for third-year law students. “But life in a university means there is politics; you just don’t have to deal with campaigning and the press.”
Since arriving at Howard, Schmoke says that he’s been busy trying to build on the law school’s storied history, attracting students from 30 different states.
“I have to remind the legal profession that Howard’s best days are not behind us,” says Schmoke. “When we talk about Howard, we talk about Brown v. Board of Education. What we do here remains very relevant, and we try to engage about the issues of today and tomorrow.”
Pursuing a Second Career
Julian Bond, 68, who is chairman of the NAACP, took up teaching in the late 1980s after he served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1965-1975 and then the Georgia state Senate from 1975 to 1986.
Over the years, he taught twice at Harvard University, once at Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and Williams College. He currently teaches history at the University of Virginia, a job that he secured after a friend who was teaching there asked him if he was interested. He is also on the faculty of American University, a post that he was recruited to by the former president of AU.
Given the dearth of minority faculty on college campuses, Bond recommends teaching as a career for former Black politicians, but cautions that they’ll “have to become ‘teachers’ and not ‘political figures.’”
“Surely they’ll bring great expertise if their teaching is about what they know best — serving in office and running for office,” he says. “But after a class or two, as was true with me, their students forget who they were and want them to become knowledgeable informative instructors.”
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