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Francis C. Keppel (1916–1990)

Educational leader and administrator, Francis C. Keppel was born in New York City. He was raised in an atmosphere of liberal reform; his father, Frederick P. Keppel, served as a dean at Columbia University and in 1923 was appointed president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Among the elder Keppel's many interests was the role of education in achieving social equality, and one of his most important decisions was to sponsor Gunner Myrdal's groundbreaking study of racial inequality, leading to Myrdal's publication of An American Dilemma in 1944. Francis Keppel was educated at Groton before entering Harvard in 1934, and apparently inherited many of his father's liberal proclivities, helping to cultivate a vision of equality that came to influence the course of American education.

After earning a B.A. in English literature in 1938 and being elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Keppel decided to pursue an abiding interest in sculpture, spending a year at the American Academy in Rome. In this regard Keppel exhibited a sensibility he may have acquired from his grandfather, an art dealer. Finding that his talents did not match his aspirations, however, Keppel returned to Harvard to take a position as assistant dean of admissions, marking the beginning of a long association with that institution. After several years of service as an officer in the U.S. Army's Information and Education Division during World War II, Keppel returned once again to Harvard to become assistant to the provost. It was in this capacity, through his efforts to locate candidates to lead the university's Graduate School of Education, that he caught the eye of Harvard President James Bryant Conant. Keppel so impressed Conant, who was unsettled at the lack of suitable candidates, that he appointed him to the job. Thus, at age thirty-two Keppel became the youngest dean at Harvard.

Conant's choice turned out to be judicious. Keppel was an energetic, imaginative, and effective leader for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, helping to transform it from a small concern focused on training administrators into a dynamic center of innovation and reform. During his fourteen years as dean, the school more than quadrupled in size, applications increased tenfold, and the endowment swelled. The school grew in influence as well. The thrust of Keppel's efforts at Harvard was in keeping with his liberal disposition: improving the quality of teaching, testing reform ideas, and suggesting innovations for practice. He expanded the master of arts in teaching program, an avenue for talented college graduates interested in becoming teachers. He also promoted experiments in team teaching, programmed learning, curricular reform, and educational television. Although most of these ideas had little long-term impact on educational practice, they reflected a spirit of innovation and originality that set Harvard apart from other education schools. At the same time, the school became an important center of education scholarship, and Keppel helped to forge ties to other departments in the social sciences and humanities at Harvard. He was a widely respected leader nationally as well, serving on a number of important committees, task forces and councils during his tenure as a dean.

In 1962 U.S. President John F. Kennedy appointed Keppel to the post of U.S. commissioner of education, the start of a four-year term in federal service. It was in this capacity that Keppel's liberal predilections and his abilities as a leader exerted their greatest influence. He was an aggressive proponent of civil rights, and threatened to withhold federal funds from racially segregated school districts under provisions for equal educational opportunity in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was this posture of assertive enforcement that many observers believe led southern schools to begin complying with desegregation directives in the 1960s.

In addition to this, Keppel generally is credited with being a major force behind the drafting and passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which substantially increased the federal role in public education. Working closely with President Lyndon Johnson and legislative leaders, Keppel helped to craft provisions leading to the establishment of Title I of the act, providing funds for schools serving poor children. He was a strong believer in providing educational opportunities to all children, declaring that education "must make good on the concept that no child within our society is either unteachable or unreachable." When the cabinet-level office of Health, Education and Welfare was established in 1965, Keppel became assistant secretary for education.

Keppel also played a leading role in the establishment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which was intended to be a means of comparing the performance of schools in different parts of the country and helping to raise academic standards. He helped to secure the passage of groundbreaking federal legislation in the areas of higher education, workforce training, and library services. In each of these instances, the federal role in general education was expanded significantly.

Keppel's reform propensities eventually landed him in trouble, and he departed Washington under a cloud of controversy. In 1965 he threatened to withhold some $32 million in funds from the Chicago Public Schools in response to charges that the system was illegally segregated by race, a decision based largely on an investigation conducted by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. This was a volatile issue in Chicago, where local leaders were under intense public criticism for inequities between schools attended by black and white students. Exercising his considerable political clout, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley made a decisive phone call to the White House that eventually resulted in a number of changes in the administration of federal funds. As a consequence, Chicago's schools received their federal monies, and shortly thereafter Keppel left government service. Ultimately, responsibility for supervising withholding actions was shifted from the Office of Education to the Justice Department.

After leaving Washington, Keppel became chief executive officer of the General Learning Corporation, a publishing and broadcasting venture. In 1974 he became director of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies for a Changing Society for several years before returning to Harvard in 1977 as a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education. He also served on a number of boards in these years, including those of Harvard, the City University of New York, the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, as well as education reform commissions in New York and elsewhere. During the 1980s he continued to provide commentary on the state of American education from his post at Harvard, giving a final interview in tandem with his longtime colleague Harold Howe just before his death in 1990.

Equipped only with a B.A. in English literature, Francis Keppel enjoyed a career as one of the nation's leading educational figures in the twentieth century. He helped to establish a prominent graduate school of education, and contributed directly to one of the greatest eras of educational expansion and reform in American history. An energetic proponent of expanding the federal role in education, he lived to see these ideas fall out favor toward the end of his life. Even this, however, cannot diminish the magnitude of his accomplishments, and the considerable imprint he has left on the schools of the early twenty-first century.


HOFFMAN, NANCY, and SCHWARTZ, ROBERT. 1990. "Remembrances of Things Past: An Interview with Francis Keppel." Change Magazine 22 (2):52–57.

KEPPEL, FRANCIS. 1961. Personnel Policies for Public Education. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.

KEPPEL, FRANCIS. 1965. How Should We Educate the Deprived Child? Three Addresses by Francis Keppel, Calvin E. Gross [and] Samuel Shepard. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.

KEPPEL, FRANCIS. 1966. The Necessary Revolution in American Education. New York: Harper and Row.

KEPPEL, FRANCIS. 1976. Educational Policy in the Next Decade. Palo Alto, CA: Aspen Institute for Humanist Studies.

MIECH, EDWARD J. 2000. "The Necessary Gentleman: Francis Keppel's Leadership in Getting Education's Act Together." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.


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