Higher Education Issues:
Some thought on Framing the Work of the commission and the National Dialog

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James J. Duderstadt
President Emeritus
University Professor of Science and Engineering
The University of Michigan

Washington, D.C.
October 17, 2005



Primary Goal
Possible Issues
The Approach of the Commission
Primary Goal

To assess the higher education needs of the nation and recommend strategies for addressing them.

Possible Elements

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It is important to understand and respect the multiple roles, unique characteristics, and strengths of higher education in America:

"Beyond the triad mission of teaching, research, and service, universities are the chief agents of discovery, the major providers of basic research that underlines new technology and improved health care. They are the engines of economic growth, the custodians and transmitters of cultural heritage, the mentors of each new generation of entrants into every profession, the accreditors of competency and skills, and the agents of personal understanding and societal transformation."(Rhodes, 1999)

The strength of American higher education depends upon characteristics such as:

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Possible Issues

1. The Changing Needs of the Nation
"The flattening of the world is moving ahead apace, and nothing is going to stop it. What can happen is a decline in our standard of living if more Americans are not empowered and educated to participate in a world where all the knowledge centers are being connection. We have without our society all the ingredients for American individuals to thrive in such a world, but if we squander these ingredients, we will stagnate."(Thomas Friedman, 2005)

We have entered an era in which educated people, the knowledge they produce, and the innovation and entrepreneurial skills they possess have become the keys to economic prosperity, public health, social well-being, and national security. Moreover education has also become a key determinant of one’s personal standard of living and quality of life. In the knowledge economy, it has become the responsibility of democratic societies to provide all of their citizens with the educational and training opportunities they need, throughout their lives, whenever, wherever, and however they need it, at high quality and at affordable prices.

2. Access to higher education

3. Affordability of higher education

"The traditional model of higher education finance in the U.S. with large state subsidies to public higher education and modest means-tested grants and loans from the federal government is becoming increasingly untenable" ... in the face of unfunded federal mandates such as Medicaid and the priorities of an aging baby boomer population. (Thomas Kane, 2003)

4. Accountability of higher education

"The university is the custodian, not only of knowledge, but also of the values on which that knowledge depends; not only of professional skills, but of the ethical obligations that underlie those professional skills; not only of scholarly inquiry, disciplined learning and broad understanding, but also of the means that make inquiry, learning and understanding possible. In its institutional life and its professional activities, the university must reaffirm that integrity is the requirement, excellence the standard, rationality the means, community the context, civility the attitude, openness the relationship, and responsibility to society the obligations upon which its own existence and knowledge itself depend." (Glion Declaration, 1999)

5. Quality, excellence, and leadership in higher education

"In an increasingly competitive, global, knowledge-driven economy, national security, economic prosperity, and social well-being depend increasingly on generating new knowledge through research and innovation; upon scientists, engineers, and other knowledge professionals; through infrastructure such as research universities, laboratories, and cyberinfrastructure; and supportive public policy."(National Academy of Engineering, 2005)

6. Public policy in higher education

"The solution of virtually every problem with which government is concerned: health, education, environment, energy, urban development, international relationships, space, economic competitiveness, and defense and national security, all depend on creating new knowledge and hence upon the health of America’s universities."(Erich Bloch, 1988)

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The Approach of the Commission

Although the states and the private sector provide the majority of the support for American colleges and universities, the federal government has had great impact in the past through key policies and investments. Examples include the Land-Grant Acts of the 19th century, the G. I. Bill and government-university research partnership (Vannevar Bush) of the post-World War II years, and the National Defense Education Act of the Cold War years.

The challenge to the Commission is to focus on the right issues, where change is necessary and opportunities exist and where the federal government can have real impact on assisting higher education to respond to the needs of the nation.

A Caution

In its September 10, 2005 issue, The Economist summarized the status of higher education in America as follows:

"There is no shortage of things to marvel at in America’s higher-education system, from its robustness in the face of external shocks to its overall excellence. However what particularly stands out is the system’s flexibility and its sheer diversity…It is all too easy to mock American academia. But it is easy to lose sight of the real story: that America has the best system of higher education in the world"

Hence, while higher education in the United States faces many challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities, it is important that the Commission approach its tasks by heading the physician’s caution: “First, do no harm.”

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