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The Reformer

Under the deanship of Wilbur J. Cohen, the school's priorities, programs, and physical spaces were reorganized with a focus on societal renewal and urban education.


With a firm belief in renewal and at the height of campus protest, Wilbur J. Cohen assumed the deanship of the School of Education on July 1, 1969. No stranger to the university, Cohen had taught courses in the School of Social Work before returning to Washington and ultimately serving as secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. As an architect of Social Security and a firm believer in the Great Society, he would continue his interest in welfare and social reform throughout his tenure as dean. In fact, it was not uncommon for meetings to be interrupted by calls from policymakers seeking his advice. Addressing the regents shortly before he assumed office, Cohen identified the major issue facing the school as lack of priorities. No longer could the school be all things to all people.

Black and white portrait of Wilbur J. Cohen
Wilbur J. Cohen

Among Cohen’s first actions was relocating the dean’s office back into the SOE building in order to improve communication. The closure of the University Schools meant several former teachers were absorbed into the faculty and staff, while the building itself was transformed into university classrooms and offices. A reorganization of programs was undertaken in 1970 after months of faculty deliberation. The SOE, which had grown to 14 program areas, was organized into four divisions: Teacher Education; Behavioral and Social Foundations; Educational Specialists; and Higher, Occupational and Continuing Education. Committees and program directors were selected, and an associate dean and three assistant deans were appointed to assist in the administration of the school.

Under Cohen’s deanship the school’s priorities were centered around the theme of urban education. Teacher training expanded to include the inner city. Increasing number of faculty of color were recruited to run the new urban programs, such as the New Careers program, aimed at low-income Detroit women. The Program for Educational Opportunity and the Program for Fair Administration of School Discipline were established in 1970.

The number of candidates recommended for teaching certificates reached an all-time high of 1,471 in 1970-71. Demographics changed with the end of the baby boom and the need for teachers declined. The School was forced to address what was now a surplus of teachers. Enrollment began to steadily decline, with the exception of the doctoral programs, which experienced a large upswing as practitioners sought greater job security. New programs soon appeared, investigating alternative and innovative ways to utilize teachers in nontraditional settings. In response to growing multiculturalism, education became a means of social renewal. In a special edition of the SOE’s magazine, Innovator, Cohen remarked, “Education will be one of the major sources of individual and societal renewal.”