New A&S dean

Bob Sternberg wants to engage this community of learners

Bob Sternberg © MELODY KO

Few people are able to take events in their lives and construct a career out of them. Bob Sternberg has. In elementary school he scored poorly on an intelligence test; today, as a psychologist, he continues to study standardized testing and how people learn in different ways.

His mother fled Austria when the Nazis took over, so he studies hatred. When he gave a student what turned out to be lousy advice about a job, he began studying wisdom. While serving as the president of the American Psychology Association (APA), he began examining leadership.

Now he has a new challenge. Having spent 30 years at Yale University as a professor and four more there as an undergraduate, Sternberg, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, professor of management and director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (PACE Center), became dean of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences on August 15. He succeeds Susan Ernst, who has returned to teaching and research in the biology department.

Early in August, Sternberg greeted guests in his large, book-lined office at Yale to talk about why he is changing his career direction. A tall man with white hair, Sternberg, 55, flashes a frequent smile and enjoys making a quip.

“There are times in your life,” he said, “when you feel like you need a new challenge, and I came to one of those times. I’ve been very happy here, but I’ve always had this notion that after 30 years or 1,000 publications it would be time to leave, and I’ve reached both. In 2003 I was president of the APA, and I got so excited about the work I was doing I realized that academic leadership was something I really enjoyed.”

Transformational leaders
“Another reason is that Tufts is in an extremely exciting phase of its existence. I greatly admire what President Bacow and Provost Bharucha are doing. I study leadership, and the truth is that most academic leadership is transactional. There’s a give and take between leaders and followers, but the institution doesn’t change much. There are very few presidents and provosts now who are transformational leaders and who are genuinely transforming their university in a positive way. I thought it would be exciting to be part of this leadership team.”

Most of Sternberg’s academic work focuses on the notion that there are different kinds of intelligence and that intelligence testing and standardized tests can do some students a disservice. After doing poorly on an IQ test as a child Sternberg said, “My teachers thought I was stupid, so I thought I was stupid. Everyone was happy because I was supposed to be mediocre, and I was.”

He grew up in New Jersey, where his fourth-grade teacher, Virginia Alexa, believed there is more to a person than test scores. “So I went from being a so-so student to being a really good student. I learned early about self-fulfilling prophecies and the harm they can cause. A key theme of my work is that conventional tests only give you a very limited vista of what a person can do, and so we should be careful in drawing conclusions from them.”

After obtaining his undergraduate degree in psychology summa cum laude from Yale in 1972, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1975. He dedicated his book, Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determines Success in Life (Plume, 1997), to his fourth-grade teacher.

Diversity of learners
Sternberg founded the PACE Center at Yale. “Most of the work we do,” he said, “is dedicated to the notion that assessments should be much broader and that instruction should value not just students who are traditional learners but also students who are more practical learners or who are more creative learners. One of the things I hope to do at Tufts is work with faculty and others who are interested in improving teaching and assessment to reach all of the diverse styles of thinking and learning that students bring to the classroom.”

Over the next year Sternberg will move the PACE Center to Tufts, and he has invited key members of his staff to join him. “They’ve already told me there’s space at Tufts for the PACE Center—that’s the good news,” he said. Then he offered one of his frequent quips: “The bad news is that it’s in Oklahoma.”

PACE performs a variety of roles in the United States and abroad. “We work with teachers from elementary school through college on how they can teach in ways that all students can learn. We look at learning styles and cultural backgrounds. When we work in Kenya or Tanzania, we see that students come to the table with different styles. When you work with kids from different ethnic groups and from different cultures, you discover the one-size-fits-all environment is really detrimental to many kids. It’s like having a spotlight, and the spotlight only shines on the same students, always from the same angle. We look at students from different angles.”

One of the programs at PACE is called the Rainbow Project, which creates supplements to the SAT, which high school students take as part of the college admissions process. “It’s called ‘Rainbow’ because it looks at diverse abilities and different bands of the spectrum,” Sternberg said. “We devise tests that measure creative thinking and practical thinking. The goal is not to replace the SAT but to supplement it. We don’t think the test is bad—just incomplete. In a pilot study across the United States, we substantially reduced ethnic-group differences, showing that academic excellence and diversity are two sides of the same coin. Similarly, in our instructional work, we substantially increase student learning by teaching to the strengths of all students, not just some of them.”

Listening and more listening
Sternberg said his first goal at Tufts will be to get to know people, have them get to know him “and see how we can work together in harmonious ways to advance Tufts’ goals. It’s very important when you take a new leadership position that the first thing you do is listen, the second thing you do is listen, and the third thing you do is listen. You really have to learn the culture. Good leadership starts with learning the new environment, where you fit into it and where you have a contribution to make.”

In addition to getting to know Tufts, Sternberg expects to continue his regimen of walking for about 45 minutes each morning. Will he go running with President Bacow, who leads the Tufts community in annual training for the Boston Marathon? Well no, “but I might time him,” he said, flashing yet another big smile.

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer for Arts, Sciences and Engineering in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at