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Gates: Steep price to pay for short-changing education

  • Sounding a dire warning
    Sounding a dire warning
    Chancellor Robert M. Gates told a Charter Day audience that unless colleges receive more government funding and figure out ways to conserve resources, every aspect of American life will be impacted negatively.
    Stephen Salpukas

The following are the prepared remarks by William & Mary Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65, L.H.D. '98 for the 2013 Charter Day Ceremony. - Ed.

It’s great to be back on campus, even in February.  Of course, it’s great to be anywhere but in Washington, D.C., where this week I would have been testifying in front of Congress on next year’s defense budget, which they would promptly shelve and go on their President’s Day recess.  Not once in the five years I presented a budget did the Congress pass an appropriations bill by the start of the fiscal year.  And, in fact, most times we didn’t get our appropriation until mid-way through the year – and a couple of years not at all.  The same thing is going on now.  Fiscal year 2013 started last October 1st.  In February, there is still no appropriation for the defense department.  The world’s largest and most complex organization for years now has been forced to live paycheck-to-paycheck. And Congress complains about inefficiency at the Defense Department.

Well, Taylor, you don’t have to worry about that, because you hardly get any money at all from the state – and that is the topic of my remarks today.

First, though, a personal aside.  When I was president of Texas A&M – and let me just say that if Texas A&M had a football team and a quarterback in 2006 like they did in 2012, I likely would never have become secretary of defense.  As I was saying, when I was president of Texas A&M, I would sometimes wonder whether it was scarier to be director of the CIA and responsible for a vast global network of spies – or to be responsible for nearly 50,000 students between the ages of 18 and 25.  Then, literally, overnight, I found myself responsible for more than 2 million men and women in uniform, most of them the same age. With respect to the Aggies who entered military service during my tenure as secretary, I never forgot that I was the one who had signed and handed them their diploma, and then, as defense secretary, signed their deployment orders to Iraq and Afghanistan. And then, too often, signed the condolence letter to their families as well. And so, a heartfelt thanks to the students, faculty and staff of William & Mary who have so warmly welcomed our veterans to this campus with programs for their reintegration. And thanks, above all, to those who have served, now and in the past.

The cause of public higher education has been a keen interest of mine even preceding my time at A&M, including when at the CIA I funded basic research on a number of campuses.  But today, in light of our national debate on priorities, I’d like to offer some thoughts about:

  • First, the historical importance of state-funded universities and research and development as a public investment and a public good; and
  • Second, the stiff financial challenges faced by public universities, the most immediate being the possibility of sequestration.

I’ve always been a straight-shooter, but with the election behind us, I feel especially unleashed.

State support for higher education in Virginia was first provided by their majesties King William and Queen Mary in the charter for this college dated 320 years ago today.

They did not just give license to establish the College, but also were pleased “to extend our royal bounty and munificence towards the erection and foundation of the said college . . . earnestly desiring, that as far as in us lies, true philosophy, and other good and liberal arts and sciences may be promoted. . . .”

But they went further, actually providing money and land to build and support the College.  As described in the charter, they granted “the whole and entire sum of one thousand nine hundred and eighty-five pounds, fourteen shillings and ten pence of good and lawful money of England . . . to be laid out and applied . . . towards the building, erecting and adorning the said college and to no other use intent or purpose whatever.”

But they weren’t done. In the charter, their majesties, also out of their “bounteous and special grace,” granted to the trustees “ten thousand acres of land . . . On the south side of the Blackwater Swamp, and also another ten thousand acres of land . . . lying and being in that neck of land, commonly called Pamunkey Neck, between the forks or branches of the York River.”

Thus, from its first day, this ancient college was seen by government as a public good, an investment in the future.  And royal government was willing to put its money where its royal mouth was.

Fast forward through history to passage in 1862 of the Morrill Act establishing land grant colleges and universities all across America, an act of faith in our future in the midst of a great civil war. And again, speed on to the first G.I. bill in 1944, enabling millions of veterans who had served in war now to go to college.  It is not a great stretch to assert that the economic pre-eminence of this country, and I would argue our national security and international influence as well, are due in large measure to these two visionary acts.

The first manifested a national conviction 150 years ago that our future as a nation required that higher education become easily available and affordable to the average citizen – and that teaching and research, particularly then in agriculture and engineering, were vital components of our economic development.

In the second act, also during another great and terrible war, the nation said that those who served in uniform should be able to go to college and thereby become a great generation a second time over by launching the astonishing American post-war, peacetime economy.  It is due to these two acts of vision and courage – both in the midst of awful wars – that we have prospered through continued investment in education and research.

The standard of living of Americans in the years to come will depend in large measure on the quality of the jobs Americans will hold, and the quality of those jobs will depend primarily on the quality and quantity of education they receive.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last fall, “My prediction is that the biggest domestic issue in the next four years will be how we respond to changes in technology, globalization and markets that have, in a very short space of time, made the decent-wage, middle-skilled job – the backbone of the middle class – increasingly obsolete.  The only decent-wage jobs will be high-skilled ones.

“The answer to that challenge,” Friedman went on, “will require a new level of political imagination – a combination of educational reforms and unprecedented collaboration between business, universities and government to change how workers are trained and empowered to keep learning.”

Symbolized by the Morrill Act and the G.I. Bill, we Americans agreed as a society a long time ago that college-educated citizens benefit the whole society: the economic, political and social benefit accrues to us all and not just those who receive the education.  That was the primary reason for the creation 150 years ago of the land-grant college system; it is why early in the twentieth century universal primary and secondary schooling was supported; it is why a system of superior state universities was created and generously supported and scholarships were given to needy students; it is why the G.I. Bill was passed.  Making a college education available to citizens at every socio-economic level was seen broadly as a worthwhile investment in the economic and social future of our individual states and of the country as a whole.  As Friedman suggested, that investment is probably more crucial today than ever in our history.

Higher education has had a vital role in our national security as well.  One of the key milestones was the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, a bill that greatly increased the federal government’s role in funding education at every level. What spurred government action was the Soviets’ launching of Sputnik a year earlier – an event that galvanized the nation to ensure that we would not fall behind the Soviet Union in math and science. 

Educators were often the ones leading the charge.  Some called the Cold War conflict “a competition in brains.”  The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said more colorfully that the United States “must return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas if it is to meet the Russian challenge.” And, indeed, the years proved him right.  Throughout the Cold War, universities were vital centers of new research – often funded by government – and also new ideas and even new fields of study such as game theory and Kremlinology, along with basic research in the hard sciences to support our country’s defense and space-exploration needs.  Federally-funded low-cost loans and fellowships made graduate school broadly available for middle-class students like me.

It seems that today, though, those visionary, forward-looking statesmen, politicians who supported higher education as a public good, a vital public investment, are in our rear-view mirror.

In recent years, we have seen a gradual abandonment of the principle that higher education is a public good and, correspondingly, the emergence of a view that higher education is a private consumer good of value only to the individual receiving it.

This trend has manifested itself vividly in the dwindling state financial support provided to public higher education.  For years, state funding for universities has been falling, tuition rising, and students are too often borrowing more than they can afford.  According to the Carnegie Foundation, during the 1990s, public colleges and universities drew more than half of their operating support from taxpayer sources.  Today, money from state coffers provides about 30 percent of funding, and the story is much worse in many individual cases, including here in Virginia.  At some of the nation’s most prominent public universities, such as William & Mary and the University of Virginia, state funding contributes less than 15 percent of university operating support.

According to an Illinois State University study, between 2011 and 2012 state aid to universities declined by nearly 8 percent, the largest such decrease in 50 years.  And the cuts are not a one-time phenomenon.  The University of Washington, my home state, now has lost 50 percent of its state funding in just the last four years.  Per student support for public universities has been reduced by more than 20 percent in 17 states and by more than 10 percent in 15.  And I believe that these statistics understate the decline.

Public universities have gone from being state-supported to state-assisted to state-located.  And the less financial support the politicians provide, the more control they seem to want.

Last year, I was struck by the fact that student loans became an issue in the Congress and in the presidential campaigns.  The controversy was whether interest rates should be allowed to rise and, if not, how to pay for the extra cost to the government.  I found it striking because when I was growing up this matter would have been mostly a non-issue, at least for those of us attending state colleges or universities.  Tuition then was either ridiculously low by today’s standards or, in some cases, free.  As I shared with you a year ago, my out of state tuition here at William & Mary in 1961 was $361 a semester.

A disturbing aspect of this change is its consequences for low and middle income students.  College has been a traditional path for upward mobility – and this has been particularly true for students who are the first in their family to attend college, as my brother and I were.  Consider that until the 1960s, tuition at the University of California system was free for all state residents, and fees remained very low for some years afterward. 

While programs for the elderly, which now consume more than half of all federal spending, are considered politically untouchable, there is no such resistance to cutting support for higher education, an investment in future generations.  To be blunt, Americans are mortgaging the future of our country to pay benefits to my generation while sacrificing the engines of economic and social growth for the coming generations.  This is a formula for national decline.

While the funding shortfalls at universities hit economically-disadvantaged and middle class students hardest, they also affect the ability of universities to conduct basic research, a special concern of mine.  What is discovered in research one day is taught in the classroom the next, and then employed as a tool of economic development, innovation and, in some cases, national defense.  The notion that teaching in universities serves students and research in universities does not – and that the two are at cross purposes instead of fundamentally linked, integrated into one another at the core -- betrays on the part of its purveyors a profound misunderstanding of how great universities get that way and stay that way and of the entire enterprise of higher education.  Our university system in the United States is universally acknowledged to be the best in the world.  Now some politicians want to screw that up too.

Federal funding for research and development overall has long been in decline. Between the 1970s and 1990s, it fell as a percentage of gross domestic product by more than 50 percent in the physical sciences and in engineering.  Federal R&D funding increased slightly in recent years but has resumed its long-term slump – just as China and South Korea are increasing their funding 10 percent, year over year. In a knowledge economy, American jobs will depend more on scientific research than they did in the 1950s, yet we spend much less on such research now as a share of GDP.

Fighting against this trend as defense secretary, I tried to protect and even increase science and technology funding, including basic research, even as the rest of the defense budget began to flatten and decline.

All of these challenges facing America’s public universities will come to a head in the months ahead.  Without a new agreement between the Congress and the president, hundreds of billions of dollars in mindless so-called sequestration cuts will take effect.  The effect on national defense and military readiness is by now well known – the leadership of the Pentagon and the aerospace industry has made sure of that.

Less well known is the impact on important domestic functions of government – homeland security, air traffic control, federal law enforcement, higher education, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and, related to those last three organizations, funding for basic research and development.  According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, under sequestration federal R&D funding will be reduced by nearly $60 billion over the next five years.  Cuts of this magnitude would have significant impacts on the pursuit of science, research, and innovation in this country.  They also come at a time when federal R&D spending has already declined by 10 percent in real dollars just since FY 2010.

My hope is that now that the election is behind us, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back in order.  We will all pay the price for short-changing education, research, and other investments in the future.  It will be felt in the decline of America’s quality of life, standards of living, and global influence. 

So, how to alter this increasingly bleak landscape?  First, and easiest of course, would be to have leaders supportive of the vision of 1693, 1862 and 1944.  But, I wouldn’t bet on that.  So what else can we do? 

Such a challenging environment makes it imperative for public universities to find new ways to both contain costs and expand opportunities to more students.  In short, to reform the way we do business.  No easy task, I know.  Since leaving the Pentagon I’ve reflected on the similarities between the three public institutions I’ve been privileged to lead: the defense department, CIA, and a huge university: all very large, proud, tradition-bound organizations staffed by career professionals who don’t always welcome change.

But we need to think boldly about the delivery and financing of higher education writ large, similar to the robust debate and experimentation taking place in the health care arena.  Both fields have seen massive, unsustainable cost increases in recent years without corresponding improvements in outcomes.

Just a cautionary note: one approach many are taking to cut costs is through automation and the use of on-line education.  As a graduate and now Chancellor of this great teaching college, I only hope we don’t go so overboard in the on-line world that we lose one of the fundamental benefits of higher education – live, in-person interactions with faculty and other students. 

This is especially important in an e-mailing, texting, tweeting, face-booking world where students may forget how to have a real face-to-face conversation or dialogue with people of different backgrounds and views.

However, if public colleges and universities don’t reform themselves to contain costs, improve access and increase graduation rates, federal and state governments will step in.  That can only be bad news because, like the dinosaur, government has a heavy foot, a small brain and no fine motor skills.

Believe me, I know.

And here I pause to give credit where credit is due.  Despite extremely low levels of state support, both William & Mary and the University of Virginia are ranked by the Princeton Review as being among the top five best values for students in America among public universities.  This is a remarkable tribute to the leaders, faculties and staff at both universities.

Today, we celebrate the 320th anniversary of a visionary act.  Two monarchs in a distant capital agreed to the request of a handful of frontiersmen to establish in the wilderness an institution of higher learning, a college.

As we celebrate, we must ask ourselves where are the visionaries of today comparable to those of 1693, 1862 and 1944? Visionary leaders who understand that higher education is the engine driving America to a better future for all its citizens – not a consumer good, but a public investment – and a public good.  The single most important driver of opportunity and prosperity at home, and for American influence and idealism abroad.

As we confront that question, as I said last year, in the great and urgent endeavors that lie before us, I have no doubt that the graduates and scholars of William & Mary – this community of learning, listening and working through issues – rooted in the original soil and the basic principles of American liberty have a special role, and a special obligation, to be part of the solution.  And, just as James Blair, King William and Queen Mary, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt believed and understood, that solution must include higher education available to all, for the benefit of all.

Happy birthday, God bless you and may God bless this ancient college, this commonwealth and our country.