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Professor scaled obstacles to influence education policy

Robin Chenoweth
May 12, 2020

Philip T.K. Daniel wins service award after dismantling learning barriers for others

To understand how Philip T.K. Daniel came to receive the prestigious Distinguished Service Award at Ohio State’s 2020 Spring Commencement, it’s helpful to know the hurdles that he was forced to scale along the way.

Accomplishments like Daniel’s — earning both a doctorate in education and a law degree, being a long-serving member of Ohio State’s University Senate, writing four books, influencing national legislation on topics from cyberbullying to special education — those don’t just happen. That brand of achievement is driven.

Born into a de facto segregated neighborhood of Philadelphia, Daniel and his friends didn’t cross certain unmarked boundaries unless they were willing to take a beating. But his parents, born on tobacco plantations in the South and denied a proper education, were intent that their 14 children would each get one. And so, into the “forbidden” zone of Philadelphia the family moved.

Once there, Daniel recalled, “There were more than a few obstacles in the way.”

Opposition. Preconceived notions. Intolerance. His and his siblings’ hurdles weren’t just microaggressions. For a black student in a 1960s all-white American high school, the racism was entrenched, even conventional.

“Without thinking of themselves as being ill meaning, from a systemic standpoint, there were attitudes about what a student (of color) could or could not do, what a student would be capable of,” he said.

Once, when an incident shut down the school, a teacher checking IDs accused him of forging his to say “College Track.” He hadn’t.

“I decided at a fairly early age, I'm going to do the best I possibly can to be the best student that I can possibly be, despite what these obstacles are.”

Like so many before and since, Daniel had to be the best, just to achieve other students’ normal. He indeed went to college, earning four degrees.

“Other than my brother who was two years older than me, I didn't know a single soul who had ever gone to college,” he said. “I had never been west of West Philadelphia when I went to college.”

Daniel and Dean Don Pope-Davis meet with longtime education supporter Bob Weiler, center, in October 2019.

A champion for justice and equity

His past proved the perfect backdrop for a career that shines a light on education inequity, and fights the oppression that works its way into education settings in multiple forms, from discrimination against special needs students to sexual harassment.

Where education and the law intersect, Daniel has weighed in. His writings tackle the narrowing of constitutional and statutory rights such as free speech inside schools and universities; the negative impact of school choice; the suspension and expulsion of students.

Most of his work has been under the banner of Ohio State, in the College of Education and Human Ecology, where he has taught and researched since 1990 in Educational Administration. He was for years the endowed William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration, and after retiring was afforded the rare honor of retaining the title of Flesher Professor Emeritus. In 2018, Dean Don Pope-Davis invited Daniel back to share his invaluable wisdom as Faculty Scholar in Residence. He also was an adjunct professor of law.

Years after she read it in graduate school, Associate Professor Noelle Arnold keeps on her shelf a book cowritten by Daniel and former Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee.

“It still is the book on education law,” said Arnold, also associate dean of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Global Engagement for the college. “When I first came to Ohio State (as a faculty member) and saw him, I said, ‘Omigod, it’s T.K. Daniel.”

He has become a confidante and supporter of Don Pope-Davis, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology.

“T. K. Daniel’s scholarship reaches far and deep into issues of student freedoms, rights for disabled students and the effects of constitutional law and legislation on students and their education,” Pope-Davis said. “He has for decades made policymakers think beyond the statutes to the implications of the laws pertaining to all aspects of education. Here at EHE we are grateful for his contribution.”

A scholar for all seasons

He remains esteemed by university leadership, where he has served multiple terms in the senate and other university-wide committees.

“Dr. Daniel’s unique ability to find common ground and forge consensus stands as an inspiring and enduring example of collaborative leadership for which the Buckeye community will forever be grateful,” said Bruce McPheron, executive vice president and provost, during the commencement ceremony.

But perhaps most endearing is his relationship with and regard for his students. During his office hours, students regularly queue up outside his door.

“There are various kinds of students who I can look back on over time and say, not only did I influence them but they influenced me,” Daniel said. “If you see teaching as just the job, in my opinion, you're in the wrong business. To me it's a way of life.”

He cuts a scholarly figure, and is well put-together, wearing tweed caps in cold weather and tailored suit jackets in the heat of summer. Dressing casually for him, one colleague says, means “his jeans are pressed.”

His demeanor is both erudite and grandfatherly. He does have three grandchildren, one of whom lives with him as she attends Metro High School in Columbus. (He dedicated one of his books to her.)

His parents’ struggle and his own are never far from his mind. No lecture is complete without revisiting how Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal 1954 case that legally ended school segregation, has yet to be fully implemented.

“There are more than a few studies that will tell you that public schools at least are as segregated as they were from the 19th century to the 20th century,” he said. “The salad bowl approach to people getting together, we've gone south from there.”

And so, at 72, Philip T.K. Daniel has more to do. He keeps teaching, keeps speaking out, keeps serving.

“I've had opportunities for being educated,” he said. “I've had professional opportunities, over the years. I'm exercising those opportunities. And the way to do that is to pay forward.”

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