Podcast: Benno Schmidt on Leading Yale, Fixing CUNY, & Launching the Whittle School

Benno Schmidt had the benefit of a great liberal education that prepared him well for a history degree at Yale and law school after that. He had the opportunity to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren.  

Columbia offered him a job teaching constitutional law and he received tenure before he was 30 and became dean of the law school soon thereafter. 

When his alma mater called, he became the president of Yale University–but it was back when there was a small endowment and campus full of buildings from the 1920s and 30s. Engineers estimated $5 billion of deferred maintenance. “The great challenge was how to fund this massive capital investment while not starving the operating budget,” said Schmidt. (Yale has a $30 billion endowment now.) 

In 1997, Mayor Rudy Guiliani asked Benno to chair taskforce to decide how to save City University of New York, the largest urban public university in the world but struggling with high remediation rates and low graduation rates. After studying hard for a year and a half, Schmidt wrote a report detailing a set of recommendations. Governor George Petaki made him chairman of the board where he had the opportunity to see nearly all of his recommendations implemented. He served as chair for 15 years during the CUNY renaissance.

Thirty years ago Chris Whittle convinced Benno to join him and together they built Edison Schools, a pioneer in the charter school movement. Three years ago they founded Whittle School and Studio. In September they opened campuses in Washington DC and Shenzhen China. 

Schmidt is excited about the scale potential of a global school, “With 10 campuses, we could invest $30 million in R&D in how to prepare teachers, in how to use technology.” 

“We plan to share our curriculum innovations and everything else with with public schools. It can be a real source of reform throughout education,” he added.

Benno discusses his 40 years of education leadership with Tom in this episode. 

We appreciate his sector leadership. 

Key Takeaways:

[:55] Benno speaks about his education background and how it affected his career path.
[8:12] Benno speaks about his time spent at Yale University and all that he accomplished there.
[10:40] Benno elaborates on his time spent at the City University of New York.
[15:58] About Benno’s fateful meeting with Chris Whittle.
[18:25] What Benno thinks about the opportunity of being the Co-Chair of the Global Advisory Board at Whittle School and Studios. He also speaks about what they’re working to accomplish, going forward.
[26:48] Benno speaks about what makes Whittle so special.
[28:40] Tom thanks Benno for his 40 years of educational leadership and for joining the podcast this week!

Mentioned in This Episode:
Benno Schmidt
Whittle School and Studios
Chris Whittle
Yale University
EdisonLearning (Edison Schools)
City University of New York
Warren Court

For more see

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

Subscribe to Our Podcast

This podcast highlights developing trends in K-12 education, postsecondary and lifelong learning. Each week, Getting Smart team members interview students, leading authors, experts and practitioners in research, tech, entrepreneurship and leadership to bring listeners innovative and actionable strategies in education leadership.

Find us on:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.