Alexander pushes math and science education, diverse thought on campus

Posted on December 15, 2005

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, speaking in Nashville yesterday, urged higher education officials to boost scholarships for math and science students, increase money for basic research and allow foreign students who earn certain doctoral degrees to stay in this country to work. He also lamented "growing political one-sidedness" on campuses that he said threatens funding. Lamar spoke to a gathering of higher education officials at "A National Dialogue: The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education." The commission, created by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings this fall, met in Nashville on Thursday and yesterday and will have similar meetings across the country over the next several months. The next will be in San Diego in February. By Aug. 1, the commission must recommend how to make colleges more accessible and affordable for families, accountable to policy-makers and competitive with peers worldwide. Federal policy-makers are worried that the nation's colleges are not producing enough qualified workers and researchers, particularly in math, science and engineering. A string of government and independent reports has raised alarm about U.S. competitiveness. Alexander asked the commission to lobby the Bush administration to make the National Academies' "Augustine Report" a focus of his upcoming State of the Union address in January and of his remaining three years in office. Here are the major points of the report: • Recruit 10,000 new science and math teachers with four-year scholarships and train 250,000 current teachers during summer institutes. • Triple the number of students who take Advanced Placement math and science exams. • Increase federal funding for basic research in the physical sciences by 10% a year for seven years. • Provide 30,000 scholarships and graduate fellowships for scientists. • Give foreign students who earn doctorates in science, engineering and computing a "green card" so they can live and work here. • Give American companies a bigger research and development tax credit so they will keep their good jobs here instead of moving them offshore. He also urged anyone with a vested interest in higher education to push for deregulation. "The greatest threat to the quality of American higher education is not underfunding. It is overregulation. The key to the quality of our higher education system is that it is not a system. It is a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous institutions," he said in his prepared statement to the group. The college review is the most significant higher education initiative by the Bush administration, which is better known for its focus on reading and math in early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act. The commission is composed of leaders from academia and business, along with officials from the departments of defense, energy, commerce and labor. Alexander said funding for colleges is threatened by a "growing political one-sidedness" on many campuses that doesn't allow for more conservative ideas. "How many conservative speakers are invited to deliver commencement addresses? How many colleges require courses in U.S. history? How many even teach Western Civilization? ... Those are politically unacceptable topics," the Tennessee Republican testified. Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and former president of the University of Tennessee, said colleges need to bring in more speakers and academics "with a different point of view from the prevailing point of view. "I know it's the single biggest criticism I hear of higher education, because I'm always the one saying 'Let's have more money for colleges and universities,' " Alexander said. "The biggest thing I get thrown back in my face is, 'They're politically one-sided. Why should I support them?' " Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an advocacy group, said what threatens college funding more is that states are giving less to higher education because they must pay more to help fund Medicaid, the federal and state health-insurance program for the poor. "It's the biggest single concern we have," Callan said. States currently appropriate about $70 billion to colleges, much of the funding that keeps them running, he said. Alexander agreed and told commission members Congress needs to overhaul Medicaid so states have to contribute less. From 2000-04, state spending for the program was up 36%, while spending for higher education was up 6.8%, he said. Higher education will continue to "suffer over the next decade if this trend continues," he said. •