Professor J. Celeste Lay grew up mostly in Paducah, Kentucky. Her parents did not attend college, but nonetheless achieved what many would describe as the “American dream.” Her father was a towboat deckhand-turned-captain who later opened a business; her mother stayed home with four kids until she eventually taught herself computer programming in accounting and became the bookkeeper for the business.
Prof. Lay has always loved politics. In second grade, she did a project on the media’s coverage of the presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. She learned a great deal about politics in watching interactions among those in her community in school, church, and in neighborhoods. While in college, she spent a semester in Washington working for a member of the U.S. House. She got to attend a presidential inauguration and a State of the Union address; she met a Supreme Court justice; and, she got to stand behind the press secretary’s podium at the White House. After college, she worked as a staff member for a non-profit in Washington. Though she loved living in DC and being a part of real politics, these experiences taught her that she most enjoys studying politics. Prof. Lay earned her Ph.D. in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2004. She started her academic career at Tulane University. After a brief stint in the Northeast, where she taught at Stonehill College and lived in Providence, Rhode Island, she moved back to New Orleans in 2008.
Because of her early interest in politics, she has always questioned why some young people are interested and others could not care less, and what leads so many young people to adopt their parents’ partisanship and other values and others to reject these beliefs. These interests led her to focus most of her work on the study of political socialization. Again, likely because of her upbringing in a small town where she never really fit in, her work has examined political socialization in small communities. She is currently part of a team of researchers looking at the gendered dynamics of political development. They have asked hundreds of children across the United States to “draw a political leader.” They find that gendered political socialization begins at very young ages. Girls in the early grades (1-3) are just as interested in politics and more likely to draw women leaders; as they age, however, girls are less likely to draw women and become less interested in politics.
She traces her interest in education politics to a college class. As a sophomore, she was assigned to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in a class on contemporary political issues. As a fairly conservative, sheltered girl from a small town, this book (and the hundreds she’s read since) opened her eyes to the dramatic inequalities in opportunity in U.S. society. Her current work focuses on New Orleans schools, and her book on the subject will be available in Spring 2022. Prof. Lay is particularly interested in the civic and political effects of the changes in governance after Hurricane Katrina. The system is now composed entirely of charter schools and parents must actively choose a school for their children. Contrary to most arguments, her book shows that the reforms were not entirely the result of a crisis, but were rather the product of intentional, incremental changes begun a decade before Katrina at the state and local level. The reforms largely excluded the voices of parents and teachers, and Black parents in particular have little trust in the system.
In addition to her teaching and research, Prof. Lay has served in various administrative capacities. She was associate chair of the political science department for several years. In 2013, she created the Summer Minor in U.S. Public Policy and directed the program for seven years. In January 2019, she began serving as the Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the undergraduate college, Newcomb-Tulane College. In this role, she has seven direct reports and oversees a staff of about 30 people. She has been actively involved in the transition of programming for high-achieving students and international students. She also created the Office of Academic Integrity, which is working on both maintaining a fair process for students accused of academic misconduct and fostering a culture of academic honesty in all our work. Finally, Prof. Lay has helped to shepherd several programs aimed to improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for undergraduates at Tulane.