Janet Napolitano on Higher Education in America

Despite a bit of hyperbole — not surprising given Napolitano is a former Governor of Arizona, and possible Democratic contender for the White House in 2016 — this Washington Post piece is a thoughtful review of the current state of the American higher education system. She rejects as knee-jerk over-excitement the common claims that the US system is in crisis. However, she does see a worrying erosion of the state (both local and Federal) backing for public universities. The point being that both State and Federal governments are losing sight of the value of higher education, particularly in its traditional face-to-face, bricks and mortar guise. However, we need to notice that, she is writing very specifically about public research universities — Napolitano is currently President of the University of California, several campuses of which are joined on the THE World Rankings (for whatever that is worth), by Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas, just in the top 50.

Although recognising the disproportionate rise in tuition fees in most States, Napolitano prefers to see this simply as a general funding issue rather than as a specific social inequality issue — an idea she raises and then rejects too quickly for my taste.

There is also a recognition of the importance of basic research, by which I believe she means something other than headline-grabbing research. Every University would pursue and support the latter, if they could. But basic research — upon which the headline-grabbing variety depends absolutely — is dropping down the order of priorities. Indeed, one of the books she reviews here suggests separating the teaching and research units of Universities. Napolitano dismisses this idea — but of course endorses it in a different form precisely by having chosen to defend public research universities, rather than the system as a whole. What should be clear to anyone who understands the ‘economy’ of knowledge, is that 100 world-class scientists will not be able to pursue world-class work without a small army of scientists behind them doing the groundwork. Where that army is located is a different issue. And this is true, quite separately from the issue (which Napolitano pointedly does not discuss) of just how good an educator could be without some involvement in new knowledge-creation.

UPDATE: See similar and sympathetic remarks by the present of the North Carolina University system, Tom Ross, also locked in a real struggle with his State’s legislature. I wonder how he felt writing the phrase ‘just edging out Walmart’?

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