Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to the Association of American Universities

Posted on April 20, 2009

Not long ago, a few senators had supper in the Majority Leader’s office in the Capitol with former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso who was completing a year as a scholar-in-residence at the Library of Congress. One of us asked Dr. Cardoso what memory he would take back to Brazil about his time in the United States. He replied, “The American university. The greatness and the autonomy of the American university. There is nothing in the world quite like it.” The United States does not just have the best universities in the world – it has almost all of the best universities. A recent ranking by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai ranks 35 American universities among the top 50 in the world, eight among the top ten. Higher education, says commentator Fareed Zakaria, is America’s best industry. Along with our national laboratories, our research universities have been our secret weapons in developing many of the competitive advantages that make possible the high American standard of living. In the midst of our pride, I suggest we remember the warning George Romney, then President of American Motors, gave Detroit’s automakers a half century ago. “Nothing is more vulnerable,” Romney said, “than entrenched success.” At that time, the Big Three didn’t just make the best cars in the world – they made almost all the best cars. But the automakers then didn’t listen to George Romney. You know the rest of the story. The Japanese perfected smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Today we are bailing out the automakers who didn’t listen. American higher education would do well to heed Romney’s warning. And so should the rest of us, since our country’s success depends so much upon the quality of our colleges and universities as well as our access to them. I suggest we begin by addressing our research universities. I propose that the National Academies assemble a distinguished group of Americans to assess the competitive position of the American research university, both public and private, and then respond to the following question: “What are the top ten actions, in priority order, that Congress, that state governments and that the universities themselves could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence needed to help the United States compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st century?” I hope this proposal sounds familiar. It is a narrower version of the request that I, along with a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen, made in 2005 when we asked the National Academies to respond to the following question: “What are the top 10 actions, in priority order, that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century?” The Academies responded to that request by creating a distinguished commission headed by Norm Augustine which reported within ten weeks from its first gathering a list of twenty recommendations along with strategies to achieve those recommendations. The report was entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” After a great deal of bipartisan work, the Congress and the President produced the America COMPETES Act of 2007 which included many of the Augustine Commission recommendations and established a blueprint for maintaining America’s competitive position. That blueprint provided a helpful basis for additional funding that became available this year. I can still remember the afternoon in the Spring of 2005 when I had sat through a long Senate Budget Committee meeting. What was bothering me most about what I heard that day was that the uncontrolled growth of entitlement programs, mainly Medicare and Medicaid, would squeeze out essential investments in education and research that are critical to the nation’s prosperity. I had seen this also during the l980s as governor of Tennessee as I struggled, as almost every governor since has struggled, to pay the growing costs of Medicaid as well as prisons and public schools and still have funds left to support quality in higher education. Those struggles have particularly been a losing battle for public universities. My own research shows that nationally, from 2000 to 2006, total state higher education funding has gone up 17.1 percent while average tuition at public four year institutions has gone up 63.4 percent and state funding of Medicaid has gone up 62.6 percent. In a 2003 study of funding of public universities, Thomas J. Kane and Peter R. Orszag – Peter is now the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama Administration – suggested that the quality of students and compensation of faculty has declined significantly at public universities relative to private universities. They concluded, “Taken together, the results suggest a startling and troubling deterioration of the relative quality of public universities. The most recent set of state budget cutbacks, if anything, will accelerate this trend … as a result, the traditional model of higher education finance in the U.S. with large state subsidies to public higher education and modest means tests grants and loans from the federal government is becoming increasingly untenable.” The recent stimulus package with support for higher education offers some relief but only temporary relief. Here is how Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen described the situation in his budget address on March 23: “Higher education presents a challenge. Under the rules we have been given, they are getting a great deal of the Tennessee stimulus money; they not only won’t have to make cuts, but cuts they have already taken in Tennessee have been restored; about $100 million extra in this fiscal year. Yet when this money ends 21 months from now, our campuses will suddenly need to begin operating with about $180 million less in state funding than they had this year. More than most other areas, higher education has dodged a bullet and bought some time, but there is a great deal of work to be done to recognize and streamline for a much leaner future …” I considered asking that this new National Academies report be only about the pressures on public research universities, but that would have set up competing recommendations and presented an incomplete picture. Private universities have their challenges, too, especially during this recession. But the changing role of state support for public research universities and its impact on quality deserves special attention in the report. I also believe that a portion of the Academies’ assessment should include the relationship, or lack of relationship, of our research universities to the seventeen Department of Energy national laboratories which employ more than 30,000 scientists. These labs – three of which were founded as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II – are also secret weapons in our nation’s drive for competitiveness. I have seen first-hand how the alliance between the University of Tennessee – Knoxville and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has produced joint professorships, Centers of Excellence and a thriving science alliance between the two campuses. During the next few days I will meet with National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone and discuss with him creating a formal bipartisan letter of request to the National Academies and how the Academies will respond to the request. * * * One way Congress could improve the quality of higher education is to stop overregulating. I voted against the new higher education bill enacted by the Congress last summer because after three years of work the Senate spewed forth a well intentioned contraption of unnecessary rules and regulations that wastes time and money that ought to be spent instead on students and improving quality. At the close of the debate, I carried onto the Senate floor a stack of boxes as tall as I am that contain the rules and regulations for the 6,000 higher ed institutions that accept federal grants and loans. Senator Mikulski, who has agreed to work with me to reduce the number, came over and the stack was a foot taller than she is. The former president of Stanford, Gerhard Casper, estimated that these regulations cost institutions – from Harvard to the Nashville Auto Diesel College – 7 cents of each federal dollar to do all the busy work to fill out paperwork and comply with these regulations. The bad news is that the new law we passed doubles those rules and regulations with 24 new categories and 100 new reporting requirements. These new requirements include a total of 54 so-called college watch lists which I believe will be too confusing for families to understand, and complicated rules involving textbooks which only will prove that members of congress have no idea about how faculty members prepare courses. Most of these complications of rules – graduation rates in 48 different categories; disaggregation of student reporting data by 14 racial, ethnic and income subgroups; employment rates of graduates of institutions – will leave college administrators scratching their heads and create thousands of new jobs for people who fill out the forms. All of this will be put on the web, I suppose, and most of it will be shipped to Washington, D.C. for someone to read. Having once been the Secretary of Education myself, I do not know who will read all these new regulations and all these new reports, and I don’t know what they would do about them if they did read them. * * * The Academies may suggest that Congress and the states make changes in the way they help fund and regulate research universities, but much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by the research universities themselves. They are the ones who should be most concerned about George Romney’s warning that “[t]here is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success.” And I can guarantee you that if some of the recommendations are going to have to do with additional funding, then members of Congress and state legislators are going to be asking what universities are doing to reduce costs, especially the costs of attending the university. At the American Council on Education Meeting in February, I said that what I hear in Congress is, “Every time we increase Pell Grants, colleges raise tuition.” That is one reason why, in exasperation, congressmen pile on new rules on already overregulated colleges. I suggested than that university administrators might want to be ready with some concrete explanation of what they are doing to reduce costs before asking for more money. I offered two suggestions: 1. That colleges offer some – not all, but some – well prepared students the option of a three-year baccalaureate degree, cutting one-third the time and one-fourth the cost from a college education; and 2. That community college be free for well prepared students, citing a group of Tennessee counties and businesses that make up the difference between the cost of community college and federal and state scholarships for any qualified local student. Two weeks ago, I visited a university president who actually listened to what I had to say in February. On April 13th, Randy Lowry – at Lipscomb University in Nashville – announced a new three-year option for some qualified students, a plan for veterans to attend tuition-free, and a plan to make it easier and cheaper for community college students to attend Lipscomb. Taking into account the student earnings during the year that he or she is in the workforce instead of attending the university, President Lowry estimates a Lipscomb graduate with a three-year degree might avoid up to $50,000 in debt. In offering a three-year option, Lipscomb has some good company in Hartwick College in New York, Judson College in Alabama, Bates College in Maine and Valparaiso in Indiana. In February, the state of Rhode Island decided to create a pilot program for a three-year degree model. * * * It may seem like a simple, even inconsequential request to ask the National Academies to tell us the top ten actions Congress, states and research universities need to take to maintain university excellence. But my experience is that most ideas fail in Washington for lack of the idea. We have plenty of planners, publicists and politicians to run with the idea. So I look forward to the idea: the recommendations, in priority order – one set for Congress, one set for the states, one set for the research universities themselves. There is no reason these recommendations should not have the same impact that the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report had and continues to have. And remembering George Romney’s warning – “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success” – we should all hope that this new report from the National Academies does have that impact.