Just returned from Deerfield Academy, as part of a two day capstone project visit. The purpose of our visit (I travelled with my good friend and Klingenstein cohort partner, Alicia Johnson), was to learn about the history, culture, and mission of the school, through its current head, Dr. Margarita Curtis. Deerfield Academy was an exotic choice for us; we had many other distinguished independent schools from which to choose, but we wanted to visit a boarding school, especially one with the history and heritage of Deerfield, which traces its origins to the Revolutionary Period. The setting of the school is only miles from where Paul Revere made his famous “Midnight Ride” through the sleepy towns of New England, and a few people referenced the fact that patriots used to line up on the school’s current lacrosse field, with their muskets at the ready.
Then there’s the legend of Frank Boyden, the legendary headmaster of Deerfield who presided over the school from 1902-1968. Boyden is the subject of John McPhee’s fantastic memoir, The Headmaster, which tells the story of Boyden’s unconventional but deeply principled approach to education, back when Deerfield was an unassuming red schoolhouse serving the progeny of local farmers, and not a major institution endowed to the teeth, with ultramodern squash facilities, concert halls, and art galleries. Boyden was head of Deerfield before it became a coeducational boarding school in 1989, and one wonders whether his approach to education–with its emphasis on character building, integrity, and teamwork (mostly through athletics)–could work in today’s Deerfield, which, thankfully, is more diverse, egalitarian, and multicultural than it used to be (though it still has a ways to go).
But this is silly to dwell on. It’s about as silly as wondering whether Bob Cousy could succeed in today’s NBA. It’s a different game. The rules have changed. Fans want different things. It’s the same reality at Deerfield, where the school faces new challenges that demand a more flexible, fluid, nimble leadership approach. Boyden never had to worry about the continual threat of litigation; nor did he face pressure to diversify the school’s demographics, or pursue initiatives in global education. Boyden could focus on his main priority, the kids, because the distractions were fewer, and footprint of the school was smaller.
The times are different now, obviously. Schools like Deerfield are forever balancing their educational interests, with their institutional ones. They must defend and assert core values, while remaining competitive with schools like Exeter, Andover, and other elite academies that are perennially building posh new aquatic centers. Most challenging of all, schools like Deerfield have a presentation problem; are they bastions of privilege and meritocracy, or institutions committed to inclusion and social justice? Can they be both at once, without offending families who represent these opposing interests? Who decides?
There is no easy answer. The important thing is approaching these questions thoughtfully, intelligently, and assertively. To that end, finding a leader who embodies these qualities is essential. Someone who recognizes how to navigate competing interests, and bring about sustainable, constructive change. Someone who balances tradition and progress. Someone who develops meaningful relationships. Someone who sees students as the school’s first priority, the lens through which all decisions in the school– from the mundane to the profound– are made. This where Dr. Curtis comes in.
Dr. Curtis is an impressive person by any standard; that much is clear enough from her bio. She was born in Columbia, educated at Tulane, the Sorbonne, and later Harvard, where she completed a doctorate in Romance Languages. She published an award winning dissertation on Benito Perez Galdos, a Spanish novelist of the later 19th century. She taught at Harvard, served as Dean of Studies at Andover, and then was elected unanimously as the first female head of Deerfield in 2006.
It’s hard to describe Dr. Curtis specific leadership style; her engagement and competence spanned so many areas of school life. But what first stood out was how friendly and accessible she was; she hosted us for two full days, giving us complete access to the public and private workings of a school that had no reason to be so transparent;In every meeting, she showed a real familiarity with the issues; she was intelligent, resourceful, and creative; she was continually supportive and encouraging of the faculty; she never dictated anything, engaging instead in constructive problem solving and democratic dialogue; and she was funny, lighthearted, and genuine.