Alison Bernstein (1947-2016)

The worlds of education, the arts and humanities, international relations, gender equity and all things progressive have lost a great friend.  Alison Bernstein passed away on June 30th from endometrial cancer. Her death was reported in the East Hampton Star on July 7th and in the New York Times on the following day.

Alison was as special as they come, forward-thinking, courageous, tireless, positive, and as honest as the days are long. I met her when I was hosting a weekly radio series on NPR, “Options in Education,” and she was at the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) in the Department of Education.  Led by Alison, Russ Edgerton, Chuck Bunting and others, FIPSE was a hotbed of innovation, eager to push the inside of the envelope (not an easy task, especially in the federal government).

Earlier she had been a community college teacher and had earned her Master’s and Doctor’s Degrees in History from Columbia University.

Alison went on to become Vice President of the Ford Foundation, in which capacity she awarded millions of dollars in grants to programs for culture, the arts and the media, and for education from kindergarten through graduate school.

By then I had switched to television, and my program received some support from the Ford Foundation, though not directly from Alison’s shop.

A personal story that captures Alison’s qualities: One evening in the mid- or late-1990’s I went to an education reception honoring Early College High Schools, an innovation that Ford was supporting. I saw Alison and went over to say hello.  When she asked how I was doing, I probably gave some bland response.  “OK,” she said, not willing to accept my empty response but zeroing in. “Now tell me what your biggest problem is.”

Not a question, “Do you have any problems?” It was a directive, “Tell me….”  Because she had neither time nor tolerance for bland responses, I told her the truth: I was spending at least half of my time fund-raising when I should be reporting, and, worse yet, I was striking out pretty much everywhere. Things were looking grim for my new non-profit production company, I admitted.

“I can help with that,” she said.  “Here’s what I’m going to do,”she said, after asking me for the names of the half dozen or so foundations that I was trying to get support from.   “I am going to invite all of them to a meeting.  I will tell them that Ford will give Learning Matters (my new non-profit) ONE MILLION DOLLARS (emphasis added!) on the condition that the rest of them, collectively, give Learning Matters the same amount. All I had to do, Alison told me, was to show up prepared to impress everyone with a terrific presentation, including video.

Less than a month or two later I went to the Ford Foundation for a morning meeting, gave my presentation, and answered questions….until Alison dismissed me.

Later that same day Alison called me with the news that the group had agreed to match Ford’s donation.

Those grants put my company in the black and gave us legitimacy.  That turn of events allowed me to do what I did best….and began a string of about 15 years of success in both journalism and fund-raising that lasted until the Great Recession hit us hard.

And it was all because of Alison, who invariably cut to the chase and knew how to make things happen.

I know that her many friends have similar stories to tell, and I hope we can all share them at the memorial service, which I understand will be in September.

Rest in peace, Alison.  Your legacy lives on, in your words and deeds and in the lives of those your courage and generosity changed for the better.

5 thoughts on “Alison Bernstein (1947-2016)

    • Alison truly walked the talk. Elected the first president of our class, as a student leader she was the equal of the college’s president. Alison was our Eleanor Roosevelt in the sixties.


  1. Alison Bernstein, with Betsy Campbell and Steven Zwerling, was instrumental in supporting the Ford Foundation’s Rural Community College Initiative, which ran from 1994 to 2002, and was administered by MDC, Inc. It was my privilege to serve as a Domestic Policy Consultant for the Foundation in the early years of that program’s launch.

    Our nation’s 600 rural community and technical colleges together serve about 38% of US community college enrollments. They have strong commitments to access and place-based development strategies.

    Under Alison’s leadership, Ford’s Education, Media Arts, and Culture Division worked with Ford’s Rural Poverty and Food Systems Division in tandem to help rural community and tribal colleges that served one of the 330 counties identified as having persistent high poverty. Twenty five pilot colleges from Appalachia, the Lower Mississippi Delta, the Tribal areas of the High Plains, the Four Corners region of the American southwest, and the Rio Grand Border region participated.

    Sadly, fifteen years later, I have to report that the Ford Foundation’s Rural Community College Initiative was the last major philanthropic demonstration program aimed at this sector.

    Alison Berstein was a visionary with heart, and she will be missed.

    Steve Katsinas
    Professor of Higher Education and Political Science and Director
    Education Policy Center
    The University of Alabama


  2. John, nice tribute to Alison. I’m not sure I ever told you this, but when I was a freshman at Vassar she was a senior and the president of the student body– this was 1968-9, a time of turmoil. Not only was the Vietnam war raging, and campus protests around it, but there were the MLK and RFK assassinations, urban unrest, and growing black student militancy at colleges, including genteel ones like ours. On top of that Vassar was going co-ed and the president at the time, an Englishman named Alan Simpson, had this idea to open the Vassar Institute of Technology with nearby IBM. A visionary idea, but a no-go in the political climate of the time (IBM’s complicity in the military industrial complex).
    Alison navigated all this. We were in awe of her. So I knew her longer than you did, except I didn’t interact with her much in a professional capacity except for one or two times when she was at Ford. I was very saddened to read that she had died.
    Dale Mezzacappa
    Contributing Editor
    Philadelphia Public School Notebook
    (former education writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and past president of the Education Writers Association)


  3. So sad to learn about the loss of the inestimable Alison Bernstein. I knew her from Vassar-especially knew of her when she was a trustee, and finally as a visionary at the Ford Foundation. She was always the voice of wisdom and the voice of the future. Progress is hard to achieve, yet Alison was an deftly accomplished sculpture of lasting change. When she was in a room, she had the command of that room. We will miss her and live in debt to the difference she has made!


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