Panelists look at future of higher education

Feb. 24, 2001 7:20 p.m.

While federal funding for higher education through legislative and executive actions remains paramount, decisions in the judicial branch of the government could be more crucial for colleges and universities in the near future.

"I think that what happens within our court system may end up being more important than what happens within the legislative and executive branches of government," William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation told an audience at Princeton University on Saturday.

"Many of us would agree that it is important for the great private universities and the great state universities to continue to do something about the color-coding of opportunity that is still so very present," he continued. "The ability of thoughtful folks to do just that depends upon the court's allowing them the flexibility and autonomy to make their own determinations about admission.

"The recent case at the University of Michigan was very encouraging in that a judge not thought to be sympathetic to this kind of effort upheld the program that the University of Michigan has to enroll a diverse student body. What will happen to that case as it goes up on appeal is enormously important," he said.

Bowen, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and served as president of the institution from 1972 to 1988, participated in a panel discussion celebrating the centennial of the Graduate School that was part of Alumni Day activities. The panelists all were previous winners of the James Madison Medal, Princeton's highest award for alumni of the Graduate School.

Asked to reflect on the future of higher education under the new administration in Washington, the panelists expressed concern about funding for basic research.

"It's critically important that the federal government give strong support for basic research in the university. I'm not sure about the intent of this administration," said Robert F. Goheen, president of Princeton from 1957 to 1972. He called for research support in the humanities as well as the sciences.

The speakers also warned about gaps in this country's educational system, both between K-12 and higher education and within higher education.

"We've experienced a real breach between higher education and K-12," Goheen said.

"The real issue is the K-12 problem," agreed John W. Milnor, director of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Universities are stuck trying to educate the people they receive, many of whom don't know how to communicate or are frightened of math."

The panelists said that universities can do their part to work on this problem by providing better undergraduate education for prospective teachers and more professional development programs for practicing teachers. "Universities should take a more aggressive role," Goheen said.

The gap within higher education comes as a result of the bullish financial markets over the last several years.

"In these last years, the financial markets have been incredibly generous to institutions that were well endowed in the first place," Bowen said. "That's true in the foundation world as well as at universities. Now those organizations that didn't start out with a big leg up -- a substantial base of financial assets -- find themselves very poorly off in terms of relationships with what were once thought to be peer institutions.

"So you see wealth disparities across the landscape and that raises real questions," Bowen continued. "How to put those resources to good use without having adverse effects on the system is a real issue."

Other panelists included: Jack W. Peltason, former president of the University of California System; Frederick Seitz Jr., former president of Rockefeller University; and Robert Venturi, partner in the firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601