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Applying King's 'Dangerous Unselfishness'

1/25/2012 --

Former Washington, D.C., mayor urges people to do the right thing despite the risks.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—One of Adrian Fenty's favorite lines from Martin Luther King Jr. is about "dangerous unselfishness."

It's the idea that everyone, not just leaders, must show courage and stand up for what's right.

So when Fenty was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., he set his sights on the district's failing school system. Mayors in New York and Chicago had won control over school districts in their cities in order to push reform and improvement faster.

Ultimately, the move cost Fenty his job. He lost his re-election bid in 2011 as opponents of his school reform marshaled in opposition.

But he doesn't regret anything. Restructuring of that sort usually means upsetting people and unions with political allies. Fenty simply saw the district's schools failing too many minority children for too long.

"It's politically costly," he said during the Ross School of Business' annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture. "Do you fix the schools and throw your re-election up for a gamble or do you take the safe way out? "We have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe," he continued. "If we do that, we will develop that dangerous unselfishness that Martin Luther King talked about."

Fenty was elected mayor of the nation's capitol in 2006 at age 36 and took office in 2007. He had a lot on his plate—a baseball stadium, welcoming foreign dignitaries, and hosting President Barack Obama's inauguration.

But his priority was bringing a private-sector approach to government and the school system, one of the country's worst by nearly every measure, was at the top of his list. Following the model set by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Fenty convinced city leaders to put the mayor in charge of the district and appoint a chancellor to operate it.

He said the move wasn't about power and control, but accountability. Successive school boards had failed to take action in a district that, when he took over, graduated only 43 percent of its ninth graders while eight percent of eighth graders were proficient in math and 12 percent in reading. The idea is to have the buck stop with one elected official.

"I would have been derelict in duty if I hadn't taken on the school system," he said. "It wasn't that we didn't know what to do. There wasn't political courage to make the decisions people knew were necessary."

The real political risk was brought home when Fenty made his choice for chancellor. Michelle Rhee had no experience running a school system but came highly recommended by Joel Klein, then the New York City school chancellor. Fenty wanted somebody aggressive and without ties to the old way of doing things.

She told him: "people like me make re-elections difficult for people like you" and asked, "'Mayor, how much are you willing to risk?' Without really thinking about it before, I told her, 'everything.'" Fenty said. "She's telling me she's unwilling to take the job unless I'm willing to do everything in my power to fix the school system."

Fenty urged people not to give politicians a pass. Voters have a responsibility to punish politicians who avoid difficult decisions, he said.

Rhee went onto earn both praise and criticism as she and Fenty closed schools and warehouses, laid off central administration staff, and reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union that included accountability standards.

Test scores improved and in 2009 enrollment in the district went up for the first time in four years. But the reforms made some enemies and Fenty lost the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary.

Another line of Martin Luther King's came to Fenty during a cabinet meeting shortly after the election. The mood was understandably grim, but he chose to focus on what was accomplished. To that, he thought of the line from King's "Mountaintop" speech: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will."

Fenty said it's an important idea for any leader, be it a politician or CEO.

"Maybe longevity has its place, but what you get done in that time is more important," he said. "It's not about how long, it's how effective we were."

Overall, Fenty is encouraged by the educational reforms he's seen in 2011. He said change in states like Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana are trending in the right direction. He spoke highly of President Obama's Race to the Top funding competition through the Department of Education.

And he shared some advice for people trying to reform school districts. When you close schools, lay people off, and challenge unions, be ready for emotions to run high.

"When you close schools, it goes from theory to practice," he said. "People get very upset, very emotional. So do everything on the front end to be sympathetic and empathetic and understand that there will be emotions, even if what you're doing makes perfect sense."

-Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,