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Regents praise Tisch’s leadership, with an eye on what comes next

When Merryl Tisch announced Monday that she will step down as chancellor of the Board of Regents in March, fellow Regents praised her vision during a divisive time.

But the collegial tone glosses over divides that plagued the board in recent months on contentious issues like state testing and teacher evaluations. Her successor, many said, will be challenged to chart a course between those who have been supportive of Tisch’s policy decisions and the growing segment of Regents chosen because they oppose them.

“The work of the board is going to be bringing all these different voices and all these different issues and redefining what the next five years are going to look like,” Regent Betty Rosa said.

Tisch spearheaded a host of programs spurred by New York’s Race to the Top grant and the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. The fast pace of those changes over the next few years helped fuel a more recent anti-testing backlash. Tisch’s support on the Board of Regents has also waned, most recently with the replacement of two reliable Tisch allies from the board in March.

But on Monday, this divide was nearly invisible. Rosa pointed out that though she did not always agree with Tisch, she never questioned that departing chancellor “deeply, passionately cares.”

Tisch earned the respect of board members by serving nearly 20 years as a Regent and six as the chancellor. As chancellor, she helped raise the board’s public profile and was a vocal proponent of many policies that had broad support among Regents. She also dipped into her personal fortune and helped raise private funds to support the state’s Race to the Top initiatives at a cash-strapped time for the department, a former colleague said.

“Her generosity was incredible,” said the colleague, Harry Phillips, who stepped down as a Regent this year after three terms.

“She’s led the board through some very difficult times and quite honestly, it’s not easy to be a leader,” said Regent Lester W. Young Jr. “I think exercising real leadership is difficult and I think she’s been able to do it.”

In the months and years ahead, the board will play a vital role in approving changes to graduation requirements, overseeing state assessments, and providing guidance around a host of other regulations that districts and schools must follow.

“Only time will tell,” said Regent Beverly Ouderkirk about the board’s priorities moving forward. “We’re a new board to begin with, and then to be faced with this, it’ll take us some time to sift through it.”

Regent Catherine Collins — along with Ouderkirk, one of the Regents elected after challenging an incumbent who had supported Tisch’s leadership — said that she expects her fellow Regents to tackle state education with similar zeal.

“I don’t think it’s going to deter us from making progress, by no means,” Collins said.

No current Regents discussed potential candidates to succeed Tisch. But Phillips, the former Regent, offered an early endorsement: Long Island’s Roger Tilles.

Tilles, whose stint as a board member dates back to 2005, said he was open to the leadership role, but had apprehensions about the time commitment and giving up his chairmanship of the Cultural Education subcommittee. He said the chatter about his candidacy reminded him of another policymaker whose colleagues had recently recruited him for a leadership role in Congress.

“I’ll have to consider it later on if it’s ever offered to me,” Tilles said. “I feel like Paul Ryan.”

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