Dream Keeper

by Tom Hanlon  /   Oct 16, 2017

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The dean of the College of Education is an ILLINOIS success story. As we celebrate our sesquicentennial—150 years of impacting and shaping innovation across the state and
the globe—one figure on this campus has been present for nearly one-third of those remarkable years. His students know him as “Doc.”

In some respects, Jim Anderson has lived a serendipitous life. He didn’t set out to be a dean, or, before that, a department head, or earn a Ph.D., or even go into education. Actually, he never even set out to attend college himself. But those things happened. From afar, it looks serendipitous. From closer up, though, you see the talent, the fearlessness, the work ethic, and the fortitude of a person who encountered opportunity and kept driving forward.

James D. Anderson was born on November 21, 1944, in Eutaw, Alabama. The town is pronounced like the state, but the similarities end there. Eutaw’s summers start hot and humid and get hotter and more humid; its winters are mild and void of snow. Anderson grew up, like most of those around him, with no air conditioning; they didn’t complain because that was just life as they knew it.

“We slept in that weather and played in that weather and never knew anything different,” Anderson says. “It would be 75 degrees at Christmas.”

Before Anderson was 3 years old, his father, Fred, fresh out of the Navy and newly trained in tailoring and dry cleaning, moved to New York. Anderson’s mother, Annie, a cook for
a well-to-do family in Eutaw, raised her four sons on her own.

“When my mother was in school, the county and city only provided nine grades for African-Americans,” Anderson says. “Shortly after she graduated ninth grade, they extended to twelve grades for African-Americans, and she tried to go back and get her high school diploma, but she was married with a child, and my father was off in the Navy, so she had to work.”

His mother never got over not being able to finish high school, he says. “Doing well in school was something she always emphasized. We were not allowed to miss a day and we were expected to not just be there, but to excel to the extent that we could. So we were all focused on doing that out of respect for her.”

But applying himself in school did not necessarily translate to going to college. They simply didn’t have the money to do so. His older brother moved to New Jersey after graduating, near relatives and in a state where opportunities were greater than in Alabama. Anderson assumed he would follow in his brother’s footsteps.

“I just wanted to graduate and leave town and find a job,” he said. Enter a major serendipitous force in the form of Mr. Herman Hughes, his homeroom teacher. Mr. Hughes had gone to Stillman College in nearby Tuscaloosa. He talked to Stillman dean, Brewster Hardy about Anderson’s potential. On commencement day, Anderson received the news that he had a scholarship awaiting him at Stillman.

Tuscaloosa is just a 35-minute jaunt up Interstate 20 from Eutaw. That short trip would become the first leg of a journey that has not quite come full stop. Anderson attended Stillman College, with his mind set initially on doing something with a mathematics major. But courses in sociology swayed the young man’s interests from numbers to people, and he ended up with a sociology degree, a minor in math, and a lot of question marks about his future.

He was interested in graduate school—but this was 1966, and not a lot of African Americans were filling grad rosters. He recalls that only one African- American was in graduate studies at the nearby University of Alabama. His name was Dr. Joffre T. Whisenton.

“He became the first African-American to get a doctorate in education from the University of Alabama,” Anderson says. “He happened to be one of my mentors as well as the head basketball coach at my college.”

Enter a serendipitous discussion with his placement director at Stillman. Or, rather, several such conversations.

“He told me about a fellowship program here at Illinois in the College of Education,” Anderson remembers. “It was for a program for undergrads who did not major in education to come get a master’s plus certification. There was such a shortage of teachers that they were trying to draw undergrads into the field who had not thought about teaching. I applied for the fellowship, thinking nothing would come of it. I figured at least it would get the placement director to stop bothering me about it.”

But something did come of it, much to his surprise, and Anderson undertook the next leg of his journey, to Champaign, Illinois, to “go to graduate school and think about education as a career.” Champaign was 650 miles due north of Eutaw, but in some ways, seemingly farther.

“I thought it was so close to a song of Harry Belafonte’s, ‘Try to Remember,’” Anderson says. “It talks about trying to remember September when the grass was green. That’s what campus was like for me. The quad was green, the climate was ‘oh-so-mellow.’” 

As Anderson worked toward becoming a secondary education social studies teacher, the quiet climate—at least politically—took a sharp turn for the worse when strong and sometimes violent protests against the Vietnam War rocked the campus.

“It got so I couldn’t even make my way across the Quad to get to my classes,” Anderson says. “This place went from being quiet and ‘oh-so-mellow’ to being up in arms, which lasted for the rest of my studies here.”

In Illinois, Anderson experienced snow for the first time. He also experienced what he would come to understand as the greatness of the College. “I didn’t have an appreciation of the people who were here, the award-winning research and contributions they were making,” he says. “I would go other places as a graduate student and people would say, ‘Do you know so-and-so? Do you know Metcalf, Smith, Stanley?’ I’d say of course I knew them. They’d say how lucky I was. I’d say ‘Lucky?’

“I began to realize that these people were known not just regionally or nationally but internationally. Max Bieberman, with new math, he was on faculty here. Bereiter, Engleman, they were on faculty here and doing pioneering work with Lilian Katz and others. They were unpretentious and modest.

“I had a guy who said, ‘Do you know Larry Metcalf?’ I said ‘Yeah, I have him for class.’ He pulled out a book that Metcalf wrote and said ‘I’ll give you $20 if you get him to sign his text for me.’”

That $20 back then is equivalent to $140 today.

James D. AndersonIt began to dawn on Anderson that he was in a special place. “All the cutting-edge research and the outstanding professors here, I felt blessed to be here,” he says. “I came to recognize that this College of Education was an iconic one, very special, that it was simply loaded with faculty from department to department. The education I was receiving was not just cutting-edge nationally but also internationally.”

Anderson received his M.Ed. in history and social studies education in 1969 and his Ph.D. in history of education in 1973. He started as an assistant professor in 1974 in Educational Policy Studies, made professor in 1987, and since 1990 has been a professor of history.

He is highly revered in his field. He is an Edward William Gutgsell and Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor. In 2012, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. 
He has won numerous awards for his scholarship, including the American Educational Research Association outstanding book award for The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, and he has served as an editor of journals, as an expert witness in a series of federal desegregation and affirmative action cases, and as an adviser and participant in several PBS documentaries.

Those achievements are gratifying. But what brings a grin to his face is something else altogether.

“What’s really stood out is when I engage with students,” he says. “Seeing them develop.” He has taught and advised students, been on their master’s or dissertation thesis committees, spent numerous summers with the Summer Research Opportunities Program (which provides research opportunities to underrepresented undergraduate students), and mentored students. He has seen those students rise to successful careers, some to positions of prominence, including deans and provosts.

“That’s been the most rewarding aspect of my career,” he says. “When you can work with young people and help them realize their aspirations and ideas, that’s very gratifying. You see their doubts, you start to work with them, you see them evolve over the years, and you go, ‘Yep, that’s magic.’”

He likens himself to being a “dream keeper” for students, referencing a Langston Hughes poem by the same name:

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world. 

When Anderson’s head was turned from numbers and math to people and education, a new passion took flame that has never burned out. He saw the influence he could have on individual students, and the social impact he could have on groups of students, particularly those who face greater obstacles in life.

For example, he taught adult education in Fairfield, Alabama, while he was in graduate school at Illinois. “That was my first teaching job, and I liked it a lot,” he says. “It also had a social impact. As the Civil Rights Act passed, a lot of states, including Alabama, were starting to add credentials as qualifications for jobs to exclude by education who they formerly excluded by law or by customary practice. They were now taking jobs that in prior years did not require a high school diploma and saying you now had to have a high school diploma or an equivalency to even apply for the job.

“The adult education I was teaching was preparing people to get their high school equivalency. So it was meaningful that way in terms of social impact.”

For his practicum he student taught at Marshall High School which is located on the west side of Chicago. “Marshall had about 5,700 students at the time, with a seating capacity of approximately 2,200,” he recalls. “It was the classic ghetto school in some ways, the classic inner-city school, and I walked in a bit overwhelmed initially. But I got excited because I could get students interested in things they were not formerly interested in. I was working hard to say to them you have a great mind, you can do anything anyone else can do, apply yourself, let’s engage, let’s not worry about background, about poverty, about the inner city; when we close the door, we do have some control over what happens to us and what we learn.”

The young Anderson was ready to teach in Chicago upon earning his master’s, but Chicago was not ready for him. “Chicago was not interested in taking us [black teachers] on at the time,” he says. “It was like we were the Young Turks, the Black Power movement, and in some ways they were not quite ready for us yet.”

Enter more serendipitous moments with several professors, who talked Anderson into working on his Ph.D.

“So I went for my doctorate in education,” he says. “It was somewhat of an accident, from being on the outside of education to being on the inside. I would have never known I could enjoy being a teacher or a professor except for those early years, where I felt very rewarded in my teaching."

I was here to witness the genesis and evolution, to see the campus change in so many ways. There’s a sea change from the time I arrived to where we are now. We have more work to do, and where we are now should we in no way be content and satisfied."

During his years on campus, first as a student and then as a professor, Anderson has seen a lot of change. "I was here to witness the genesis and evolution, to see the campus change in so many ways. There's a sea change from the time I arrived to where we are now. We have more work to do, and where we are now should we in no way be content and satisfied. But knowing where we were then and where we are now, there are a lot of changes."

When Anderson drove north those 650 miles to Champaign and settled into his first year of graduate school, he only knew of a handful of other African-American grad students across campus. He estimates there were about 200 undergraduate black students. “If you took African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native American students, combined they comprised less than 2 percent of the student body,” he says.

Then in 1968 came Project 500, an initiative designed to bring in more underrepresented students. It did—it tripled the number of African-American students. Housing concerns and other issues resulted in a less-than-smooth transition and a riot that resulted in the arrest of 248 students. But the project did mark a shift in the university becoming open to all students.

“It was the beginning of a more diverse undergraduate population across the board,” Anderson says. “Now minorities are close to a quarter of the university’s undergraduate students.”

Another change he has witnessed has to do with faculty. When he arrived as an assistant professor in 1974, there were close to 130 faculty in the College. Now that number is in the 60s. The primary issue, of course, is money; the surplus of revenues from his early days has dried up as the state has languished for years in budgetary woes.

The College is focusing on other avenues of funding, including partnerships, Anderson notes. Some are in place and the College is actively pursuing others. Corporations, he says, should be eager to invest in education because they, and society, will benefit from a well-educated population.

“It’s going to be a bigger push at the university and on campus and we want to play a major role in that push,” he says.

Another change related to the budget issues but being implemented for academic reasons is the greater emphasis on undergraduate enrollment and education.

“The college has always had a strong emphasis on graduate training and research,” Anderson explains. “We could do that business without having to worry about staying afloat. Now you can’t.”

Instead, he says, the College needs to find a balance between the undergraduate and graduate programs, to generate more revenue-growth programs, to continue the work it has always done, and rest it on a solid financial foundation.

“We are in a reorientation where we are looking at that balance,” he says. “And it’s not a bad thing because undergraduate education is something we should really stress in this university, and moving master’s degree programs to revenue-generating programs is a good idea that will enable us to continue our excellence in training and research at the doctoral level.”

The College is in the process of expanding its online master’s degree programs. The potential for reaching significant numbers—certainly in line with the university’s land-grant mission—and generating substantial income through the online offerings is crucial. Once that revenue growth happens, Anderson says, the College will look to add faculty.

“We want to make sure we can afford those new additions,” he says. “Once we get our new plan underway and are generating that kind of growth, then we’ll be in position to shore up the faculty in spots where we need to. There are places where we have losses and we need to rebuild in those places.”

Lack of revenue and a shortage of faculty does not mean a scarcity of significant accomplishments for the College of Education. Among stalwarts and icons of the past, Anderson lists the Center of Study for Reading, started by Richard Anderson; the work of Samuel Kirk, known as the “Father of Special Education;” the seminal work by Max Bieberman in mathematics; Lilian Katz, a giant in early childhood research.

A strength of the current faculty, in a trend that will only grow stronger, is the collaboration across campus. Anderson mentions research grants and other interests with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and with other units. “They may not be as big of an impact nationally and internationally, but in terms of the College, it’s critical we collaborate in places where there are mutual interests,” he says.

“There was very little of that when I came and even very little in my early years as a faculty member. We have a lot more faculty now who are involved across campus and working with colleagues on similar research and program-development projects.”

Our scholars have headed up positions around the world, developing educational systems and providing the quality of training and research that enables them to have the impact on the world, and that is still critical for us.”

“We have to find a way to continue that tradition, because it’s important not just for us, but for the nation as well, and even internationally,” he says.

Anderson experienced another serendipitous moment in his career back in 1992. To that point, he had taught only graduate students. Then came a protest, resulting in the arrest of about 150 students who said the university was not supporting Latino students, failing to recruit enough Latinos, and failing to establish a Latino studies program. One result was the university agreed to develop a course on race and diversity—and the students recommended Anderson to develop it.

He did, and then to his surprise, he found out they wanted him to teach it too.

“I taught it that semester, and I’ve taught it every semester since,” he says. “And I want everybody to know it’s extremely rewarding and challenging and such a great part of your career to teach undergraduates.”

Anderson became head of Education Policy Studies in 1994. In 2009, three departments were merged to create the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, and the College was looking for a new head. The discussion naturally led to Anderson.

“When they first asked me to be department head, I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to leave that part of my career that I loved so dearly,” he says. “But I looked around the room and I was by far the oldest and the senior professor and it didn’t seem fair to ask anyone else to do it, so I took it on.”

Just as he has taken on the other challenges in his career, including those now facing him as dean: head on. Academic and professional challenges to him are like growing up in Alabama with no air conditioning: You learn to live with them, face them, and not alter your life because of them. They are life as you know it. 

Figure with Caption 
Dr. Anderson mentoring Ronald Rochon, Ph.D. '97 Ed.Policy, who went on to a successful career in higher education. Dr. Rochon currently serves as provost at the University of Southern Indiana.

“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is the decline of state resources and putting ourselves in a position to be great in the face of those declining resources,” Anderson says. “As we rethink the land-grant mission in the 21st century, we have to think about public engagement, we have to think about servicing the state, we have to think about ways we can continue to be a college of education in a land-grant university. Our historic obligation has been in so many ways to serve the whole state and to help in areas that we can. That is our charter.

“The challenge for our college is to be in every county, to be engaged in teacher development and curriculum development and meeting the needs of students across the state. Even though we are and always have been a global college and we have engaged with and trained people around the world, I always think about our land-grant mission to grow within the state.”

When Anderson first walked onto campus in 1966, students walked around with notebooks and pens, not laptops. “Distance learning” meant you were taking some books home with you to study during breaks. The Age of Technology has changed everything, including education.

And it has changed the way that Anderson sees the world and the role the College of Education plays in it.

“We are at the beginning of a lot of work in digital learning,” he says. “I would hope that we would have solidified that and be one of the outstanding places in the country to contribute to that field. I think we can contribute a lot to the state in that area. 

“When I think about the next Illinois and the next America, I’m very conscious as a historian that things change quite imperceptibly. One day you look up, and wow. Twenty-five to 30 years out, the nation will be 35 percent Latino, there will be no majority population, there will be a very diverse society. Everyone will need to know how to live and work and learn in a multiethnic democracy, and my goal is for our College to prepare students for that next Illinois, that next America.

“I would hope that as a College we can anticipate the next America, we can anticipate the next Illinois, and make sure that our graduates are fully prepared to be leaders in that context.”

A Poetic Interlude

Gwendolyn BrooksAs a graduate student, Jim Anderson was a teaching assistant in a class. "I used a Gwendolyn Brooks poem called 'We Real Cool' to talk about some of the youth challenges in our society and ways in which they think 'cool' is okay, but it leads to incarceration and some serious problems," he recalls. "And a student, Nora Blakely, says, 'Gwendolyn Brooks is my mother.'"

"I didn't believer her. I said, 'If she's your mother, I'll believe that when she comes down and reads in my classroom.'"

Later that semester, Gwendolyn Brooks appeared in his classroom doorway. She smiled at Anderson and asked if she might read some poetry, as her daughter had invited her to do.

Anderson, after picking up his jaw from the floor, said of course. "She's a poet laureate of the state, an outstanding poet," he says. "I didn't imagine one of her daughters would be in my class. It was awesome."

Gwendolyn Brooks photo provided by Nora Brooks Blakely