In a recent commentary, I raised the question of whether the United States is losing its global competitiveness in the area of scientific research. And yet, despite the fact that major reductions have been made in our research infrastructure and productivity due to cuts arising from sequestration and over a decade of federal research budgets which have not exceeded inflation, I was startled to learn that “only 38% of Americans feel science [research] is getting too little funding” (reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Strapped,” February 28, 2014). Why isn’t the message getting out? Why do so few Americans see the risk in falling behind in areas of research critical to understanding disease processes, to addressing environmental issues, to developing alternative energy, and on and on?
On March 26, 2014, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, issued a ruling which has sent shock waves throughout the world of big-time college sports. In short, he ruled that football players receiving full scholarships at the Big Ten school, Northwestern University, qualify as employees and are, therefore, able to unionize under federal law. Northwestern, as expected, has formally requested a review of this decision, a ruling which has engendered spirited debates around the country. On the one hand, Northwestern football players cite the requirements and restrictions applied to them as scholarship-holding athletes, conditions which they feel render them de facto employees, while Northwestern contends that college athletes are students, first and foremost, and therefore do not qualify as employees.
On a number of occasions over the last couple of years, I have shared my concerns with you regarding the decreasing level of support provided by the federal government for research at our nation’s universities. Indeed, as reported in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, entitled “Strapped”, by Paul Basken and Paul Voosen, the budget of the National Institutes of Health hasn’t exceeded inflation for more than ten years. This lack of growth in the N.I.H., and other federal granting agencies, coupled with the major cuts related to the recent “sequestration” process, endangers this nation’s research infrastructure and the productivity of our research scientists. To quote the authors, “Budgets are tighter than ever. In [a survey administered by the Chronicle], more than half of the researchers who had led a lab for more than six years said this year was the toughest” …. 62% had reduced lab staff, 78% had reduced the recruitment of graduate students and fellows and 47% had had to drop an area of inquiry that was central to the scientist’s research programs.
Over the last several weeks, the media has been filled with news of the revised SAT to be implemented in the spring of 2016 by the College Board. Championed by the relatively new President of the College Board, David Coleman, this newly-conceived SAT has received praise as well as criticism in terms of content, design and potential impact on college admissions.
In late January, President Obama announced the creation of a special task force to examine and, as necessary, coordinate federal enforcement efforts regarding rape and sexual assault on our nation’s campuses. This White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault will provide leadership for colleges and universities as they work on developing more transparent and more effective campus procedures to decrease and/or investigate incidents of sexual assault.
Early in my tenure as head of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, I – like many other university presidents – was asked to support the agenda of a Palestinian initiative known as B.D.S., a call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, given the organization’s belief that Israel was not complying with international law and Palestinian rights. Specifically, they were asking for our university’s participation in a boycott of Israeli universities ... a request I unequivocally rejected as being antithetical to the concept of academic freedom which is at the very heart of the mission of a university - institutions devoted to unfettered inquiry and discovery.
Scott Carlson, a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wondered whether “… American higher education is the proverbial frog in a slowly warming pot of water, not realizing that it’s about to be boiled alive.” Mr.
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Bill Keller began with what the author called a “caustic aphorism:” “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teaching.” He went on to give an inspirational exception to that rule in the work of one Bill Jackson, a teacher doing exceptional things in a Harlem classroom. And, I know each of us could give many examples of truly inspiring teachers who have made a difference in our lives. However, Mr. Keller’s bottom line is that, notwithstanding these many exceptional teachers, overall, the quality of teacher preparation in this country has been, at best mediocre, with obvious deleterious effects on the quality of learning in our nation’s schools. As recently as this past summer, Mr. Keller points out, the National Council on Teacher Quality labeled teacher education in this country “an industry of mediocrity” … the title of his opinion piece.
Late one evening not long ago, I had left the TV tuned to the David Letterman show while I finished up some writing. As the former president of two different public universities – one in the United States and one in Canada – imagine my shock when I heard the following: “I’m dumb, I went to a state college.” Let me repeat that: “I’m dumb,” said Mr. Letterman, “ I went to a state college.”
In recent weeks, there has been much reaction, both positive and negative, to President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable. The plan involves creating a ratings system for colleges and universities based on access, affordability and a variety of outcome measures and, eventually, linking levels of federal student aid to these measures. In order to implement such a ratings system, accurate data would need to be collected in such areas as tuition levels, graduation rates, student demographics and graduates’ earnings – a tall order, indeed, as one contemplates the extreme diversity of our nation’s system of higher education.