Boyer, Ernest LeRoy, Sr.

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Boyer, Ernest LeRoy, Sr.

(b. 13 September 1928 in Dayton, Ohio; d. 8 December 1995 in Princeton, New Jersey), educator, author, and foundation executive who had a profound influence on American education in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Boyer was the second of three sons born to Clarence W. Boyer, a Dayton businessman, and Ethel French Boyer, who helped with the family business. Boyer’s grandfather, the Reverend William Boyer, at age forty, moved his family into the Dayton slums, where he ran a Brethren in Christ mission for more than forty years, setting an example that inspired Ernest Boyer’s commitment to a life of public service. In grade school his family’s pacifist tradition set Boyer apart by preventing him from helping his classmates in war bond drives, a popular form of competition among schoolchildren during World War II. In 1944 he transferred from public schools in Dayton to Messiah Academy at Messiah Bible College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, on a small campus operated by the Brethren in Christ Church. At Messiah, Boyer excelled in academics, sports, chorus, government, and publications.

After graduating in 1946, Boyer sailed to Poland with “Operation Heifer,” a postwar project to replenish that country’s decimated livestock. Exposed to war-ravaged Europe, he made his first attempts to communicate across culture and language barriers. He returned to Messiah Bible College and graduated with a two-year degree in Bible studies in 1948.

In 1950 Boyer completed a bachelor’s degree at Greenville College (Illinois), where he had developed into a formidable debater. Marriage to Kathryn Garis Tyson, a classmate at Messiah Academy, took place on 26 August 1950. The Boyers had four children. Kathryn, a registered nurse-midwife, later delivered most of their grandchildren.

Boyer took a few graduate courses at Ohio State University. At the University of Southern California, Boyer earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in speech pathology in 1956. The following year he was a postdoctoral fellow in medical audiology at University of Iowa Hospital. In 1960, after brief teaching and administrative posts at Loyola University (Los Angeles) and Upland College, he directed the Western College Association Commission to Improve the Education of Teachers. From 1962 to 1965 he was director of the Center for Coordinated Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In 1965 he became vice president for university-wide activities of the State University of New York (SUNY). On 30 July 1970, Boyer succeeded Samuel B. Gould as chancellor of the youngest, largest, and most complex public university system in the nation. With continual encouragement from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the 1960s and 1970s were years of remarkable growth for SUNY. For Chancellor Boyer the times were complicated by the geographic dispersion of sixty-four semi-autonomous campuses and the need for system cooperation and by the increase in student activism and campus unrest. Nonetheless, Boyer oversaw many innovative programs.

In 1971 the creation of Empire State College, based in Saratoga Springs, freed adult students from the demands of campus residency and class attendance. Through tutorials and learning contracts, they were able to work and earn degrees. Empire State College, which Boyer was key in creating, has served as a model for adult learners for much of higher education. As chancellor, Boyer exemplified academic and political statesmanship. He imbued large meetings with a sense of intimacy. He was quick to summarize complex issues and propose effective solutions. Boyer remained the contemplative professional at the center of controversies such as antiwar protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Even though SUNY was a volatile, sprawling multiversity, Boyer worked to ensure that it remained, at its core, a community.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter called Boyer to Washington, D.C., to serve as Commissioner of education under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Here Boyer encountered a large and dispirited bureaucracy. In a brief two years he was able to streamline much of the work of HEW. He reinvigorated his colleagues by founding the Horace Mann Center, an internal professional development program. Commissioner Boyer struggled to address widespread problems of basic literacy and promote equity of educational opportunity.

In 1979 Boyer accepted the presidency of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton. For Boyer this was a difficult choice; he and President Carter were close. But, as HEW secretary Joseph A. Califano, Jr., observed, federal regulations were anticipated that could prevent Boyer from becoming a foundation executive. (Boyer had to leave before 1 July 1979, when the Ethics in Government Act took effect.)

Under Boyer’s direction, the Carnegie Foundation systematically examined the full spectrum of American education for more than fifteen years (1979–1995). Boyer initiated major studies that argued for critical restructuring of primary, secondary, and college education. He participated in the studies as well as in the writing and meticulous editing of the reports, which advocated reform in university governance, general education, concepts of scholarship, and public service. Boyer’s quest was to return education to the center of American life and to restore transformational powers to the nation’s schools. Boyer cherished the potential of the spoken and written word. Each report that bears Boyer’s name is suffused with his communitarian philosophy expressed through an exquisitely crafted prose style. In College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (1987), he wrote: “We proceed, then, with the conviction that if a balance can be struck between individual interests and shared concerns, a strong learning community will result. And perhaps it is not too much to hope that the college, as a vital community of learning, can be a model for society at large—a society where private and public purposes also must be joined.” Boyer’s other major works are Quest for Common Learning (1981) with Arthur Levine, The Control of the Campus (1982), High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America (1983), Campus Life: In Search of Community (1990), Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990), Ready to Learn (1991), The Basic School: A Community for Learning (1995), Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice (1996) with Lee Mitang.

From 1979 to 1995 Ernest Boyer was a tireless advocate for American education. His commitment to educators was unparalleled. His archives contain more than 1,500 speeches, lectures, and articles. Boyer crisscrossed the country continuously, sometimes making more than fifteen appearances in as many states in one month. The nation’s colleges responded by awarding him more than 150 honorary degrees.

During the closing years of his life, Boyer had a running battle with cancer. The day before he died, he worked from his home in Princeton. A few days later he was laid to rest in the cemetery of the Perkiomen Valley Brethren in Christ Church near Graterford, Pennsylvania, the church where he was married forty-five years earlier.

Ernest Boyer captured best the spirit of his own life in a 1984 address commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Messiah College: “The tragedy of life is not death; it is destined for us all. The tragedy of life is to die with convictions undeclared and service unfulfilled.”

Extensive archival materials covering Boyer’s personal and professional life are housed at the Boyer Center of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. There is no biography of Boyer. Obituaries are in the New York Times (9 and 10 Dec. 1995).

Joseph G. Flynn