The Education of a President

To enlighten others about blindness, Perkins’ leader started with himself

steven rothstein headshot

Outgoing president Steven M. Rothstein leaves an 11-year legacy.

Getting acclimated to a new job is challenging, no matter who you are or where you work.

Steven Rothstein did it with a blindfold. In his first month at Perkins School for the Blind, the president – who had never before worked in the field of blindness education – let down his guard and took the arm of an orientation and mobility teacher to wander campus for the better part of a day without sight. He didn’t do it for lack of other, more “presidential” things to do. He certainly didn’t do it for appearances (he nearly walked into an oncoming car before his guide, who let him get that far for the sake of the experience, yanked him back). He did it to understand.

“My learning style is to participate in as much as I can,” said Rothstein. “If it helps me understand a little bit better what our students are going through, that’s good. I don’t want to imply that my experience was the same (as what students who are blind experience daily). But this way, when I talk to donors and legislators and people, I can talk about Perkins’ mission in a more direct way. It helps me do my job.”

Rothstein would call upon that experience, and many others that followed, to inform an ambitious 11-year tenure that facilitated tremendous change and growth for Perkins, and major strides toward improved education and equality for children with visual impairment around the world. That leadership comes to an end as Rothstein steps down this spring.

“For an organization that grows and thrives, change is good every now and then,” he said. “Someone different will come in and offer different skills and abilities. It’s an opportunity (for Perkins) to grow and flourish.”

It’s a bittersweet time for Rothstein, who shared thoughts about Perkins’ milestones and his impending departure in a recent interview with “Perspectives.”

He is known by colleagues as having his hands in everything, and for the seemingly tireless, endless energy he injected into every project under his purview. Rothstein, however, says little about his role in it all.

“I’ve often said that as president, my job is to help people do their job. I don’t mow the grass. I don’t teach the students. I don’t prepare a chicken for lunch. My job is to facilitate other people to do the great work that they do.”

But he has plenty of praise for those individuals, the 800 people responsible for Perkins’ day-to-day operations, and the thousands of others who are part of the community that, by Rothstein’s count, impacts nearly 1 million people around the globe annually.

“I’m proud of what our team has done, what donors have allowed us to do, and the participation and accomplishments of our Board of Trustees, friends and partners,” he said. “We’re in double the number of countries we were in. Thousands of kids and their teachers are now served, who weren’t before. It all starts here.”

A former assistant commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, Rothstein took the helm at Perkins with a desire to invest himself in the worthy work of an inspirational nonprofit. Legally blind in one eye – a fact of which few people are aware – the new president had little other first-hand knowledge of the field, right down to the organization itself. That truth hit home his first few days on the job, when a new student appeared in his office, inquiring the way to the gymnasium.

“I was overwhelmed,” he recalled. “I had barely been to the gym myself, and there’s no direct route.”

Nevertheless, he offered her his arm. Together they took the first steps in what would be a life-changing experience and personal education for Rothstein.

“I guided her down to the gym, and that was a real sense of accomplishment. And I figured if I could get her to the gym, every­thing else would be fine.”

That kind of fearless drive defined his next 11 years, as Rothstein challenged Perkins to do more. Updates to curriculum, increased use of technology, a new Lower School and construction of the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology transformed campus. A reinvigorated effort to train teachers around the globe and support the education of all children with disabilities created new partnerships in more countries. A commitment to technology established a new, cutting-edge direction for Perkins Products, leading to revolutionary developments such as the Perkins SMART Brailler, the LightAide and more. Stances on the importance of braille, accessibility and advocacy for disability rights raised Perkins’ profile on a global level, prompting support from government leaders, fellow nonprofits and human service agencies.

Rothstein remains a champion of the campus community, what he calls the heart of the organization. His pride for the students, faculty, staff and volunteers that make it tick is unmistakable. As for the students who have impacted him personally, there are hundreds. Their memories take various forms: Photos that line his office walls, emails sent to him to celebrate passage of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).Poignant moments and funny quips, such as the young woman waiting for her prom date who reveled in Rothstein’s compliment on her dress, and then joked that her blind boyfriend would never appreciate her good looks.

“The staff and students and families are a big part of my life,” he said. “That’s going to be the hardest.”

He has yet to announce his next career move, which he says will involve a leadership role at another nonprofit. It will not, however, be in the field of blindness education – because, he said, it doesn’t get better than Perkins.

“What makes Perkins special is not this incredible campus, even though it’s beautiful. It’s not the unparalleled history. It’s the people. It’s the staff, the volunteers, the parents, the trustees, the donors. They go above and beyond, and they embody the attitude of possibility. We fundamentally, unequivocally believe our kids can do anything. And if you believe that, the rest is just how do we get there?”

Read more about: Perkins Leadership