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Joel Klein

Joel I. Klein became New York City schools chancellor in July 2002 after serving in the highest levels of government and business. As Chancellor, he oversees more than 1,500 schools[…]

Justice Lewis Powell helped show Klein the way.

Question: Explain your career trajectory, from lawyer to educator…

Joel Klein: Well I started out as a lawyer. That was sort of what I wanted to do, and was very fortunate early on, had a clerkship on the Supreme Court with Lewis Powell who affected the way I think about public service, my career. Basically, after a number of years in private sector, I was asked by President [Bill] Clinton to be his deputy counsel and then from there went to the NHS Division of the Justice Department, and that really had a profound impact on me in terms of public service and in terms of government and in terms of bureaucracy and thinking about how do you make bureaucracy much, much more effectively managed well and so forth.

And when I left at the end of the Clinton Administration, I decided that my career would be at the intersection of media and technology, not dissimilar to where you’re putting your career these days. And I went to Bertelsmann, a German media company. And I was basically running the corporate aspects in the United States for Thomas Middelhoff. And it was in the middle of all of that that the mayor got elected, Mike Bloomberg, and he asked me whether I’d like to be considered for Chancellor.

I had done a fair amount of work in the district of Columbia, in fact, was thinking of going on the school board when Mayor Anthony Williams got some appointments there, and I was part of a group that was kind of advising Tony Williams.

And given my background and my passion about education and my sense that education is not working well, particularly for poor kids in the United States, ehen the Mayor asked me after he had just gotten control from the legislature in Albany, I decided this is where my heart and whatever talents I have should be and it’s been almost six years now.

Question: As an outsider, what did you bring to the job of chancellor?

Joel Klein: I had a meager background. But yes, he did have to apply for an exemption, I think, for me.

What I think is that, fundamentally the system is a service delivery system and it's broken--its incentives are misaligned, it's managed poorly, it basically tolerates mediocrity, rewards failure.

And I think if you're a change agent, then some of the very same principles apply in the Justice Department. If you're fundamentally a transformative leader, which I've considered myself to be, I thought this was as important an opportunity and quite frankly an opportunity I trained for for much of my adult life.

I believe so deeply that education is the great leveler, and if you get that wrong, in almost a Rawisian sense, you get the preconditions to what it means to grow up in America, you get those wrong. And so I had a sense that this was going to take a systems transformation. It's always hard to speak for the Mayor on what motivated him, but I suppose a combination of his sense that somebody who is outside the system was beholden to the structures that existed, the players that existed, somebody who had a fair amount of managerial experience, which I had had in the Justice Department and at Bertelsmann, and somebody, I hope this mattered too, and I had my passion for making sure that education was equitable, and that whether you were rich or poor, black or white, you got a fair shot at the American dream--something that's not happening in our country. And I hope those are the things that resonated with the Mayor.

Recorded On: March 30, 2008

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