David T. Kearns, Champion of Education Reform, Dies at 80
Published: February 25, 2011
David T. Kearns, a former chief executive at the Xerox Corporation and a champion of education reform who served as deputy secretary of education under the first President George Bush, died Friday at a hospice near his winter home in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 80.
The cause was complications related to sinus cancer, which he had battled since 1992, according to the University of Rochester, where he served as a trustee for more than three decades.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Mr. Kearns came to Xerox from I.B.M. in 1971, rising quickly to president and chief operating officer in 1977, and then to chief executive in 1982. He presided over a tumultuous period of transition for the company and for American industry in general, with global competition and rapid technological change forcing many companies, including Xerox, to dismantle aging bureaucracies, cut costs and streamline manufacturing processes.
Mr. Kearns was credited with steering the company, based in Stamford, Conn., from the brink of bankruptcy, where it teetered in the early 1980s with just a fraction of the copier market it had once commanded — much of it lost to Japanese competitors.
“We are in the proverbial soup,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1984.
But Mr. Kearns saw the Japanese approaches to both business and education as models for American reforms. Through revamped product lines and a broad and sometimes painful restructuring, including thousands of layoffs, Xerox was on the rebound by the time Mr. Kearns stepped down in 1990. While at Xerox, Mr. Kearns maintained a deep interest in the state of American schools, advocating reforms based on tenets like local control over curriculums, school choice and performance-based pay for teachers.
He published his views on the topic in the 1988 book “Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive,” written with Denis P. Doyle, and his passion caught the attention of the first Bush administration, which tapped him to join the Education Department as a deputy secretary in 1991.
“I called him personally, more than once, and I’m not afraid to say I leaned on him pretty hard,” Mr. Bush said in a video tribute to Mr. Kearns prepared by the University of Rochester in 2008, upon his winning an award for a lifetime of civic engagement. “I said, ‘Your country needs you.’ ”
At the Education Department, Mr. Kearns continued to advocate for improved public schools as a means of restoring American competitiveness. He was also tapped by President Bush to head a task force dispatched to Los Angeles after riots set off by the acquittal of four police officers who participated in the beating of Rodney King.
Mr. Kearns left the department in 1993 — a year after receiving a diagnosis of sinus cancer — but he continued his crusade for school reform, helping to found a nonprofit organization called New American Schools and serving as a senior fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1993 to 1995.
He also wrote or co-wrote a number of books, including “Prophets in the Dark: How Xerox Reinvented Itself and Beat Back the Japanese” (1992).
Mr. Kearns lost his left eye to radiation treatment related to his cancer, prompting him to wear an eye patch.
He continued to devote time to the University of Rochester. In 2002, the university established the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Arts, Sciences and Engineering, which aims to expand the number of students pursuing careers in the sciences and engineering.
David Todd Kearns was born in Rochester on Aug. 11, 1930, and grew up in the suburb of Brighton. After graduating from Brighton High School, he attended the University of Rochester, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1952.
He joined the Navy after graduation but returned to New York in 1954, joining I.B.M. and eventually rising to vice president of its data processing division. He would later say that he left that company in part because he longed to head Xerox.
In addition to his wife of 56 years, Shirley, Mr. Kearns is survived by four daughters, Kathy Frame, Elizabeth Young, Anne Fields and Susan Alderman; two sons, Todd and Andrew; and 18 grandchildren.