Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Terrel H. Bell (1981–1984): Secretary of Education

Terrel Howard Bell was born in 1921 in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. After serving as a sergeant in the Marines during World War II, Bell earned a B.A. from the Southern Idaho College of Education at Albion in 1946, an M.A. from the University of Idaho in 1954, and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Utah in 1961.

Bell maintained his focus on education throughout his career. He taught at the high school level (1946-1947), served as professor and chairman of the department of educational administration at Utah State University (1962-1963), and worked as the superintendent of public instruction for all of the public schools in Utah (1963-1970).

Later during 1970, President Richard Nixon named Bell, a Republican, as deputy commissioner for school systems in the United States Office of Education, a subcabinet agency of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). He served for two years before becoming the acting commissioner (1972-1973). Ultimately, in 1974, Nixon named Bell as permanent head of the office; Bell served until 1976, when he resigned to become commissioner and chief executive officer of the Utah System of Higher Education, a post he held until 1981.

President Ronald Reagan appointed Bell secretary of a department -- education -- that the President ultimately wanted to abolish. Though Bell was aware of the President’s sentiments, he was convinced he could change Reagan’s mind. During his tenure in the Education Department, which lasted from 1981 to 1984, Bell established the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1981 and issued the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

Though President Reagan did not abolish the Department of Education, he did continue to cut its funding. Bell ultimately resigned as a result. Terrel Howard Bell then returned to Utah, served as professor at the University of Utah, and died in 1996.