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Faculty, alumni criticize Temple’s decision to end its master’s in urban education

The university has argued that its larger restructuring of the College of Education and Human Development last year infused urban education offerings across departments.

Temple University's campus
Temple University's campusRead moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / File Photograph

Temple University’s board of trustees last March quietly voted to terminate the education college’s master’s in urban education, which in the ensuing months has brought criticism from alumni and professors who teach courses in it.

The university has argued that its larger restructuring of the College of Education and Human Development last year infused urban education offerings across departments and programs, broadening access to those perspectives, and that the school remains committed to the subject.

But critics say the result has been a lessening of emphasis on a topic that deserves more focus, not less, and signals a weakening of commitment to the needs of big urban districts, such as Philadelphia, where many of the program’s alumni work.

“We are an urban university so we should all be concerned and distressed that it would seem that urban education is losing institutional support,” said Steve Newman, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, the faculty union. “It seems to be a very unfortunate move and one we think should be reconsidered.”

On its website, Temple says its urban education courses explore how factors such as poverty, race relations and globalization “influence the conditions of education in urban settings and in how students, families, educators, and community members experience school policies and practices.” The goal is to train educators who are “critically conscious researchers and practitioners who contribute solutions to the challenges faced by urban” schools.

Two of a handful of full-time faculty who taught in the program were moved to other departments, and the degree name was changed to a master’s in educational leadership and policy with concentrations in education policy, school leadership and urban education. It was part of a restructuring that involved about two dozen changes, approved by trustees at the March meeting.

“Compared to what we had before, it’s greatly diminished,” said Will J. Jordan, an associate professor of urban education in his 16th year at Temple. “The restructuring has basically put an end to the urban education effort in the college of education that I have sort of been accustomed to and came here to work in.”

The urban education degree, he said, was a signal to employers that students had learned about issues critical to city schools.

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Its loss also was noted in a July 9 letter that some faculty sent to education Dean Gregory M. Anderson and top leaders of the university. The letter, obtained by The Inquirer, was signed by 16 tenured education college faculty and 15 other full-time education college faculty, who did so anonymously. The letter also was signed by two faculty members who have since left the education college for other colleges at Temple, including Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education policy professor whose national Hope Center for College, Community and Justice focuses on hunger, homelessness and other challenges college students face. Her center is now part of Temple’s medical school.

The faculty wrote that the loss of the master’s comes “at a time when institutions are striving for greater commitment to social justice and racial equality.”

In the same letter, faculty expressed concern about the larger reorganization of the college and the movement of some faculty from one department to another. They said they were “deeply concerned about faculty members’ loss of voice in our own college, and about a growing climate of fear, mistrust, and intimidation.”

Faculty, they said, have not been meaningfully involved in strategic planning, budgeting, programmatic changes and faculty hiring.

“There has been a change in the nature of administration to faculty interactions, which used to be based on an ethic of collaboration, care, and shared mission, to strict legal discourse, administrative coercion, and ultimatums,” they wrote.

Some faculty, however, pushed back and accused the letter writers of unnecessarily dividing the faculty.

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In its response, Temple didn’t address the complaint about climate issues in the department, but defended the decision to restructure the college, which the university maintained was in response to “enrollment challenges in existing programs” and to further the commitment to urban education, said university spokesperson Ray Betzner. Full-time faculty, he said, voted on the changes in fall 2019 and he maintained that the college has “deepened” its commitment to the school district through other programs, including a scholarship directed toward Philly-based applicants and expanded access to high school students who are dually enrolled at Temple.

Temple and its education college “always have been and remain fully committed to advancing urban education studies,” Betzner said. “As a Black scholar at Temple with expertise in college access, racial segregation, and inequality, … Anderson is acutely aware and appreciative of the importance of an urban education curriculum.”

The final cohort of about 20 students in the urban education master’s entered this academic year.

“Ending the Urban Education MEd program is a loss for Temple and a loss for the city,” wrote Zachary Steele, 40, who graduated from the program in May. “I looked at almost every education master’s program in the Philadelphia area and chose urban education because it focused on the sociology of race and education. It also gave me the latitude and freedom to design my own program combining elements of study in urban education, criminal justice, and higher education.”

Stephanie Virgo, who got her master’s in urban education in 2017, said the program helped her understand how policy impacts urban schools and how education has evolved over time and fails to support Black and brown students.

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“It really just opened my eyes to why the systems we have in place don’t work for urban schools,” said Virgo, a math teacher at Central High School in Logan.

Faculty are concerned the move could have financial implications.

Edward Fergus, an associate professor in urban education, said he came to Temple to teach in 2017 because of its focus on the topic. He said he has brought in $2 million in grants and contracts since he arrived but he worries that his ability to attract funders will diminish, given the elimination of the degree title and its programmatic home.

“Temple is not going to be this urban education hub that potential funders could see,” Fergus said.

He also worries that the college may attract fewer students without the urban education master’s.

“One of the wonderful things about having a standalone urban education program was that it drew people from across the country who were passionate about the field and committed to an asset-focused, social justice perspective,” said Maia Cucchiara, an associate professor of urban education, who has been at Temple since 2008 and was moved this year from urban education to middle grades education. “It also provided a space for people in Philadelphia who were committed to Philadelphia public schools.”