Keith Bell will be among the oldest doctoral graduates at Ohio State's autumn commencement ceremony. 

Courageous in the pursuit for education equity, a former superintendent gets his EdD

Some people seem to “outlive” others — not necessarily longer or more trouble-free lives, but with a fuller, more buoyant existence.

Consider Keith Bell. At 62, he will be the second oldest doctoral student to graduate at Ohio State’s autumn commencement on Dec. 16.

His choice to pursue a doctorate in education came after many positive — and some not-so-ideal — career situations. In 2016, after working for six different Ohio school districts, Bell could have retired. Instead, he retooled.

“Education is the conduit to independence,” he said. “That’s been really a driving force for me.”

The Doctor of Education program he chose, with an emphasis on educational administration, puts to use professional experience while allowing students to do research normally associated with getting a PhD. But with the EdD, the emphasis is on thoroughly understanding an educational problem.

So, in the college uniform of sweats and athletic shoes, Bell for two years schlepped a backpack and hobnobbed with students, coaches, data miners and professors. His dissertation research centered on university admission rates of first-year black male students.

“Here you have a historically marginalized group of people who are continually not having the opportunity to get what college has to offer,” he said. “For me that’s a problem.”

His second suit

The students he interviewed might not know he also wears business suits and runs an education leadership consulting company. In fact, he has been a school administrator throughout Ohio: a district superintendent in Euclid; a deputy superintendent in Columbus and Westerville; a principal in Westerville, Groveport and Gahanna; and was lately a finalist for the superintendent job in Columbus City Schools. (Doing research is more his bag, he’s decided.)

He’s hoping to work with the College of Education and Human Ecology to drive up enrollment of black males, who are underrepresented — and desperately needed — in the teaching field. He’s a dream-big kind of guy; he seeks to dissect the reasons too few young black males apply and ultimately choose to come to Ohio State. He hopes his recommendations to the college will become a model for the university.

“You have to know what the barriers are,” he said, “to understand how to undo them.”

Deconstructing barriers means asking tough questions: Why since 2009 have enrollment rates decreased for first-year black males at Ohio State, even though diversity overall has increased? And why do some black males choose not to attend college at all, even though they’ve been accepted at Ohio State?

“Keith's dissertation in practice was important and was educative to many people,” said Noelle Arnold, associate professor of educational studies and associate dean for equity diversity and global engagement. “He translated a personal passion into an area of inquiry that he can continue to build upon for the college and the university.”

Bell is working with Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity to secure funding for more research “looking at the space between high school and college.”

Shedding light on problems and finding solutions involves taking risks — which can happen only after people learn to face fear, Bell said. And he seems to relish situations that others back away from. Which explains another type of suit that he wears.

Keith Bell wears his wetsuit while on a dive in the Caribbean.
Keith Bell in his wet suit.

No control and zero fear 

Bell is an accomplished scuba diver — not exactly a pastime that attracts a lot of black males, he said. “It separates me from what’s typical,” he said. His last big dive off the coast of Jamaica brought him frighteningly close to a 12-foot shark.

“I went in to get a better look,” he said. Back in the boat, the other divers thought he was nuts. “People said, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ No. I’m not in control. I give up control. If he wanted me, he had me.”

“Panic will kill you in the water. You’ll kill yourself because of the fear that you start to embrace.”

That core of courageousness bleeds into everything Bell does. Lifelong learning: He went back to college in his fifties. Inequity in education: He’s tackling the “unsolvable” problem. Tough moral dilemmas: His motto is to do the right thing, then let the chips fall where they may.

“It’s not the situation, it’s what we make the situation to be,” he said.

The night before he defended his thesis, his wife, Toni, fretted. He slept like a baby. Toni, his parents and brother attended his dissertation defense the next day. When they walked back into the room after the committee had deliberated, James L. Moore III, Ohio State’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, said, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

“I looked behind me; I thought someone else was in the room,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s me.’”

Believing and achieving 

As a teacher, principal and superintendent, he drummed one mantra into his students: Believe, achieve and behave. Repeating messages of promise, and emulating that hope, he said, is critical to their success.

“These kids drove me. I always told them to never stop your education — always be about education and never stop learning,” he said. “I want to be a model of that. I just want to give back to them so that other kids can get the same opportunity.”

So the night before he puts on his doctoral cap and gown, he’s inviting scores of his former students to a celebratory bash at the Ohio Union. The guest list includes Smart Columbus Director Jordan Davis, New Orleans Saints player John Hughes and EHE student recruiter Ari Toles. Bell has invited current students, and his neighbor’s band, Blue Spectrum, will play. Admission will be a donation to the schools where he’s worked.

"I have so many stories of how (Bell) transformed our school with his leadership and countless memories of all the small and big things he did for me that changed the trajectory of my life forever," said Davis, who heads the city's multi-million-dollar initiative to make transportation more efficient. She attended Westerville South High School when Bell was principal. "He has devoted his life to empowering young people to do more and be more. He has always been the first to set the example for others by how he lives his own life."

Bell plans to dance until the Ohio Union staff kicks him out. And then, he’ll put on that cap and gown.

Others who’ve achieved his success might be sitting on a beach tipping back frozen cocktails. But Bell’s journey of bringing others to higher education is just kicking into gear. And he’s suited for the challenge.

“When death catches me,” he said, “I want to be completely out of breath.”

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