Time flies like an arrow
Fruit flies like a banana
~ Groucho Marx

High Noon for Higher Education

“Right to Rise” Forms Cornerstone of U.S. Higher Education
Illinois Alumni magazine May 2006

In 1636, a mere 16 years after landing on North America’s shores, the Pilgrims put themselves to another task — establishing Harvard University.

More than 100 years later, founding father Thomas Jefferson declared, “If we’re going to have a successful democratic society, we have to have a well-educated and healthy citizenry.”

And in the 20th century, the essayist and philosopher W.E.B. DuBois went on to say, “A university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation, … and for this work no other human invention will suffice.”

Americans have long seen higher education as key to making their nation flourish. In this second part of its series, “High Noon for Higher Education,” Illinois Alumni looks at the United States’ devotion to public education - or as Chancellor Richard Herman at the University of Illinois put it, how the American soul is “captivated” by creativity.

‘The right to rise’

“This nation had the idea that you could rise from nothing and become something,” said Stanley O. Ikenberry, HON ‘02, president emeritus of the University of Illinois and past president of the American Council on Education. “You could be a son or daughter of a farmer or factory worker in Illinois, and you could go to college and become anything you wanted to be: a doctor, an engineer, an agriculturalist or a businessman.

“The land-grant system of placing major state universities in every state across the United States grew out of a very widely held belief in America at that time and today that everybody ought to have an equal chance and opportunity to work hard and develop whatever talents reside within them,” he said.

President Lincoln referred to this idea as “the right to rise.”

When Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act in1862, he referred to these land-grant institutions not as public universities but as “the public’s universities.” The Morrill Act provided grants of land to the states to support higher education in agriculture and mechanical arts. Eventually, 69 land-grant institutions were created in whole or in part by the act, and the fields of knowledge offered were expanded.

The land-grant system — “the greatest social invention of modern times,” as UI President B. Joseph White calls it — is central to the ideal of public higher education. With the land-grants, he said, the federal government stepped in to say, “an educated citizenry is important to all of us, and so we’ll help make it happen.”

From the beginning, the mission of these schools has differed slightly from their private brethren. The schools — including the University of Illinois — were intended to offer (with the help of state support) education and access to new knowledge to all residents of their respective states.

Herman refers to the land-grant universities as the beginning of a recognition of “the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people.” He believes this concept to be at the heart of public higher education, something “which we have and must continue to honor,” he said.

And the grand vision of the idea remains. “The mission of the University of Illinois,” White said, “is to transform lives and serve society by educating, creating knowledge, and putting knowledge to work on a large scale and with excellence.” In other words, by lifting up their own citizens, the states lift themselves up with better-educated teachers, lawyers, bankers, farmers and others.

Land-grants are dedicated, primarily, to the education of their own state residents, but have also, over time and with state support, developed into internationally renowned research institutions. This evolution has enabled state residents to go to outstanding schools at a minimal cost and allowed the states to reap the benefits of the discoveries, inventions and intellectual capital encompassed by such places.

The democracy-education link

Along with the “right to rise” is the recognition that an educated citizenry benefits the democratic system.

“The U.S., going back almost to its origins, placed a very high value on education,” Ikenberry said. “If you don’t need an all-powerful, all-wise king to make the big decisions for you, it means that you yourself as a citizen need to be educated and informed” (or as Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, put it more wryly, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be”).

Nevertheless, until the establishment of public colleges and universities, access to a higher education was limited. Over the years, that access has continued to broaden, encompassing more and more of the U.S. population.

“Our country works best when all parts share equally in opportunity and when all ethnic groups participate,” said Constantine Curris, AM ‘65 LAS, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

One of the broadest grants of access came with the GI Bill of Rights, or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which offered veterans returning from World War II a free college education. That action “forever changed the size and scope of higher education,” Herman said. Even Harvard, the inaugural private university in the United States, recognized long ago in its 1955 report titled “General Education in a Free Society,” that “education will not be adequate until it more fully reflects the face of society.”

“It would be foolhardy,” Herman said, “to believe that such talent is only found in one socioeconomic class.”

Curris noted that many college presidents at the time resisted the bill, arguing that it would dilute the quality of higher education. However, he pointed out, the opposite happened, and the majority of those veterans attended public institutions.

According to Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, diversity on college campuses benefits both the individual student and the entire student body.

“We know that creating a diverse student body makes for a stronger educational experience for every student,” she said. “Students learn better in a diverse class. They are more analytical and more engaged. The teaching environment is more enlightening. The discussion is livelier and more often mirrors real-world issues.

“These students are more open to perspectives that differ from their own, and they are better prepared to become active players in our society.”

Global competition

That society has come to include not just the United States, but the world. Today, economic competitiveness is one of the most widely proclaimed reasons for needing to ramp up the quality and accessibility of higher education.

“The world - the entire world - is bifurcating into two kinds of people,” White said in a 2005 speech, “those who have bright prospects because they have a good education, are motivated and live in a good political and economic system; and those whose prospects are dim because one or more of these conditions doesn’t pertain. Educated people and the knowledge created by research are the new, true wealth of nations - and states and cities - in the global economy.”

The GI Bill clearly demonstrates the link between widely available education and economic health, Curris said.

“When one looks at the macro picture of what happened,” he said, “you increased the proportion of citizens with college degrees, and the country has benefited. We saw an explosion in terms of engineers, teachers, business people and great economic advancements in the ’50s and ’60s, in large measure due to the capabilities of the veterans educated with the GI Bill.”

A recently released report by the National Academies, titled “Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing And Employing America For A Brighter Economic Future,” warns that education and access to that education for everyone, especially in science and technology, is the only way for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy.

“The society that does not have a strong system of higher education is severely disadvantaged in its goal of economic success,” Ikenberry said.

Freeman Hrabowski, AM ‘71 LAS, PHD ‘75 ED, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County notes that in Maryland, politicians and policy-makers have recognized the economic benefit of investing both in undergraduate education and in research that leads to startup companies.

“The state sees that investing in these institutions will lead to this development of companies and an increasingly strong work force,” he said. “And similarly investing in these institutions produces more effective teachers in K-12. We’re building arts and culture in our city because that’s also a part of economic development and just a quality of life issue. Whether we’re talking about science and technology or economic development or K-12 education or arts and culture or policy decisions, universities are vital to the future of our country.

“Higher education will be seen more and more as the only solution to the question of how competitive will we remain in the light of the ascendancy of India and China,” Hrabowski said.

And many educators agree that the diversity that college environments provide will help with that global competition. The education that students receive takes place not just in the halls of academia but in dorm rooms and dining halls, where students are exposed to people of varied backgrounds and experiences. According to Herman, that argument - that students learn from each other in and out of the classroom - is a compelling one in light of the imperatives inherent in Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” - that students need to be educated for work in a global and interconnected society. Some administrators and educators don’t believe that breadth of global diversity can necessarily be found within a state’s borders.

While an educated populace may be an economically competitive one, the question remains - is a college degree more a matter of private consumption or public benefit? Education leaders argue that the public benefit must not be underestimated, and that if states increased funding, they would see an enormous payoff to their investment.

“Public higher education is getting caught in the discretionary part of funding,” Herman said. “Yet, the simple truth is there was no state that was economically successful in the 1990s that didn’t have a close link between its economy and innovations to research. The long-term interests of the state are served by their link to us.”

Preparation for life

Ideally, graduates should glean from their college experience the ability to think analytically and critically, to communicate clearly and logically and to become socialized as adults. Where do they gain those skills?

“If you talk to the CEOs,” said James Duderstadt, president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, “what they want to see is people with the ability to communicate; people that have a commitment to lifelong learning; people that understand and appreciate diversity, human diversity working in a global environment; people who not only embrace and tolerate the world of change but can drive change. Those are the objectives of a liberal education, in a sense.”

Curris believes that the role of public universities is not just to serve as “public-funded alternatives to private counterparts,” but carries a set of responsibilities not necessarily shared by private ones.

“Public universities were founded and have been sustained to fulfill public purposes,” he said. “Public education is about access, affordability, economic advancement, public education, homeland security, scientific research and citizenship education.”

And much more than that. “Education and work are the levers to uplift a people,” DuBois said. “Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence.

“Education must not simply teach work - it must teach Life.”

Read more writings in my features, essays or books