In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, the role of higher education has become central to the debate about economic opportunity and income inequality. We approached Janet Napolitano, former Governor of Arizona and Secretary of Homeland Security and current President of the University of California, to discuss how she sees the role of higher education in today’s economy and society, and how students are driving change in the university’s mission.
Q: You have had the opportunity to assess the role of higher education from the perspective of a long career in public service, including as Governor of Arizona. How would you define the role of higher education in today’s economy and society and how should we evaluate the extent to which it is performing that role?
A: The role of higher education is still to prepare each generation for productive, constructive lives while creating knowledge and discoveries that strengthen the larger society. These days, that means lives and research that benefit people across the world. It’s clear that the results of the education and research that take place in colleges and universities have transformed everyday life. Public service remains a part of the role of higher education. I would say, though, there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to preparing students for civic life and public service.
Q: We clearly don’t have a one-size-fits-all system. Do the different types of institutions (i.e., public research institutions like the University of California, comprehensive colleges, and community colleges) have different roles or do they meet the same need but in different ways?
A: The roles are different, not only among colleges and universities generally, but also among public, non-profit private and for-profit private institutions. A public research institution like the University of California has roles that are similar to non-profit private universities such as Stanford and Harvard, but the scope is very different because UC and other public universities enroll so many more students than the privates. Whether public or private, research universities are doing the basic research that leads to inventions and medical breakthroughs that benefit the world, and producing people with professional, master’s and doctoral degrees. Comprehensive universities such as the California State University system focus on teaching, with less research activity and fewer graduate degrees than research universities. Community colleges are a great entry point to higher education; close to 30 percent of our UC students come from California community colleges.
Q: California has a Master Plan for Higher Education that goes back to 1959 and the days of Governor Pat Brown. Is it time to reevaluate that plan? Do we need more and/or different approaches to higher education?
A: California’s Master Plan for Higher Education has served the state, the nation and countries across the globe very well. Other states would benefit from developing their own master plans. In California, the Master Plan has enabled successive generations to choose a higher-education route from three tiers of opportunity: the 10-campus UC system, widely considered to be the best public research university in the world; the impactful California State University system of 23 campuses; and the widely accessible California Community Colleges, with 113 campuses. The plan still works. It’s the state funding of the UC and CSU systems that needs more public investment, following the deep cuts that followed the recession of 2008-09.
Q: How do you distinguish the University of California’s mission within the higher education network?
A: We have three missions that drive what we do: teaching, research and public service. The teaching mission is about communicating knowledge, the research mission is about creating knowledge, and the public service mission addresses community and global challenges.
Q: Isn’t public service a bit of a reach from the traditional teaching and research missions?
A: No, not in today’s world. Students increasingly seek out entrepreneurial activities and innovation as vehicles for change. They want to combine their learning and access to research with impact on the public issues they care about.
For example, here at the University of California, we are integrating our knowledge and research to combat global hunger and find sustainable food supplies for the additional 1 billion people that will be added to the world population by 2025.
Our Carbon Neutrality Initiative and our goal of being carbon neutral by 2025 build on UC’s cutting-edge climate research and provide leadership in sustainable energy practices. Public research universities are the ideal institutions to address these issues.
Q: These are broad missions, each with huge challenges. How do you assess how well you are meeting your missions?
A: With respect to our undergraduate education mission, we look at graduation rates and time to degree. We also look at the mix of our students to determine if we are expanding access to higher education.
We are proud of our results. Currently, 42 percent of UC undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college. We feel that this is one of the ways in which the UC system leads the nation in furthering economic mobility and addressing the skills gap.
Q: What about research?
A: UC research expenditures have doubled to more than $4.7 billion over the last 15 years, with the majority of funds coming from federal grants. Importantly, we measure our research mission not just by research dollars allocated to the university, but by research outcomes.
UC holds more active patents than any other university system in the country. Our research activities support nearly 27,300 full-time employees in California, and this does not even include commercialization of our research, which creates additional jobs. In 2014, California-based startups based on UC technology licenses employed almost 19,000 workers and generated nearly $14 billion in revenue.
Q: So universities are not only huge teaching and research institutions, but they are also economic engines.
A: Absolutely. We have launched the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative to build an entrepreneurial culture across the entire university. We have over 85 programs supporting all stages of the innovation pipeline. Central to this initiative is the UC Ventures Program, which supports entrepreneurship and technology commercialization by investing our own assets in UC discoveries and innovations.
Q: How do you measure success in your public service mission?
A: Here the metrics are not as clear. But on our carbon neutrality initiative, for example, we have benchmarks and timelines just as one would have for any major initiative of this type.
Q: These very ambitious programs must have a profound effect on the culture of the university.
A: They absolutely do. There needs to be more thinking about “the university” as an integrated whole and how we use the enormous capacity we have. Students are driving this change. Students are pretty turned off by electoral politics and working as civil servants. They don’t view government as their pathway to having an impact on these larger societal issues. But they’re very turned on by the idea of taking on the world’s challenges through entrepreneurship and innovation. Universities have to respond to this change.
Q: Is the cost of higher education actually rising or is that a misperception?
A: Sixty percent of our costs are related to personnel, and we have limits to how far we can reduce these. The challenge reminds me of the example in Economics 101 about a Mozart quartet: If you take away one of the musicians, do you still have a quartet? High-quality personnel is inherent in what we do.
Q: What about student debt? Aren’t students mortgaging their future income to attend institutions like the University of California?
A: The proportion of students graduating without any debt is higher than it was a decade ago. Almost 50 percent of our undergraduates leave with no debt. The remaining students have on average $20,000 in debt for the four years of undergraduate education. UC in-state tuition is $12,600 per year and has been flat for the last six years.
Because UC is unique among top research universities in providing opportunity to large numbers of low-income and first-generation students, we have strong financial aid support from the state and federal government to keep UC affordable. Fifty-seven percent of UC undergrads in 2014-2015 had all tuition and fees covered by grants, scholarships and other aid. Students from families making less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition or fees.
One place where the country needs to focus its efforts is reducing the costs of graduate education. There’s a real misalignment between the country’s needs and the funding of graduate training.
There is no support from the state, for example, for medical school education, which is very expensive. Yet we need more doctors in lower-paid areas like primary care. Our costs of medical education and our society’s needs are totally misaligned.
Frankly, the national debate on debt-free college is too blunt of a discussion. We have to look at where the debt is accumulating and evaluate debt in terms of things such as the student’s likely future income and ability to repay any debt.
Q: When you moved to your role at the UC system, what surprised you most?
A: I was not anticipating the public scrutiny of public education that I encountered when I first came to this job. In the past, tax dollars had been more plentiful and the common good provided by education was generally recognized. I entered public education at a time when higher public education was subject to a lot of critique and criticism. I take some of that criticism to heart; higher education needs to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
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