John Brademas

A Congressman Looks at Education

VTR Date: September 15, 1981

Guest: Brademas, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Brademas
Title: A Congressman Looks at Education
VTR: 9/15/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. By the time this program is seen, today’s guest on THE OPEN MIND will have been inaugurated as President of New York University. Now, this may seem strange to those who know his comment of just two years ago: “I’ve been asked more than once if I would be interested in serving as a university president. And my answer ahs always been, ‘No thanks. I am already in politics.’” But it does seem perfectly fitting and appropriate to all of us in the academic community who know that 11-term congressman John Brademas of the Third District of Indiana, and the Democratic Party’s enormously effective majority whip in the House of Representatives had always been on Capitol Hill the most energetic supporter of the arts, the humanities, and of the educational process itself. Defeated after 20 some years in Congress in a Ronald Reagan 1980 presidential sweep, John Brademas, who was known in Congress as “Mr. Arts and Mr. Education” now becomes the president of a major American university. Perhaps here he’ll become known as “Mr. Politics”.

Mr. Brademas, President Brademas, thank you for joining me here today on THE OPEN MIND. Thinking about how to begin our show, I thought that the shoe is on the other foot now and I wonder what changes will take place in your own basic thinking about the appropriate relationship between the government and the educational community.

BRADEMAS: In the House of Representatives, as you know, Mr. Heffner, I was a vigorous champion of using federal funds to support education at every level, but particularly higher education. And I don’t see any reason in my new responsibility to change my views on that subject. I think there is no doubt that federal assistance, particularly for university and college students, which is a major way in which we provide federal help for higher education in the United States, is absolutely indispensable to the ability of millions of young people to get a college education, and in my judgment it’s crucial to the well-being of the nation’s economy, to our military posture, and to the kind of society we have.

HEFFNER: What about the question of who pays the piper calls the tune?

BRADEMAS: I think it’s significant that we’ve been able to provide tax monies for higher education in this country without some unwarranted intervention on the part of the federal government. The national government does not mandate what kinds of courses ought to be offered at colleges and universities in the country, and if you look carefully at the several statutes that provide for assistance you’ll find statutory prohibitions against unseen and unwarranted intervention. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be on the lookout to be sure that the intent of Congress is not undone. But I think it’s been quite remarkable that we’ve been able to supply over the years literally billions of dollars to literally millions of students to pursue a higher education without some charge that Uncle Sam is trying to reach in and tell the nation’s universities how they ought to be run. I might say that there have been efforts made. In fact, I was a member of the Education and Labor Committee back in the period of the Sixties when we had so much unrest on campus, and then some of the same forces who are now warning against unwarranted intrusion by the national government on our college campuses were at that time trying to stick the long arm of Uncle Sam right into the campuses by mandating a cutoff of federal funds to all universities where there was any unrest on campus. That was a posture that was stoutly resisted by the universities of the country and we won that fight in a very close battle and kept Uncle Sam from sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong.

HEFFNER: But that’s one side of the coin. The other side consists of protests by university people that the government has indeed interfered with the educational process on one level or another, perhaps the way it’s mandated certain admissions policies.

BRADEMAS: Well, we’re now talking about another range of issues, related range. Let’s speak, for example, about Affirmative Action or statutory mandates that opportunities have to be made available to disabled students to get an education. Those are all areas where, at least in my judgment, at times bureaucrats have gone too far and they’ve had to be pulled back, and there are areas where reasonable people can have reasonable differences of opinion on what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. We’ve always got the problem, whenever tax monies are used, where you make the argument that it’s imperative for one reason or another to use public funds to support a particular activity of requiring a degree of accountability for the stewardship of those funds. We don’t like to just hand out tax monies and say, “Do with those monies as you will”. Congress usually articulates some public purpose that has to be served. And then we have to take a look to be sure that that purpose is indeed being served. And it’s possible that Congress may err or a president may make a mistake in saying that we should have more accountability than in fact is justified. Those are areas where, as I say, I think reasonable people can have differences of opinion. I happen to have been part of the effort in the House of Representatives and in Congress to work very hard to open up doors of opportunity to handicapped young men and women. The fact of the matter is that in American elementary/secondary education for years we denied the opportunity to millions — literally millions – of young people who suffer from physical handicap or mental handicap to have a chance at a tolerable education. And my friend, now the Republican Governor of Minnesota, Al Klee, and I wrote a law, the Education of Handicapped Children Act, that now provides funds to states and local communities all over the country to help handicapped children have a better chance. It may well be the case that in the administration of those funds too much interference on the part of government at any level is to be found, in which case, let’s talk about it, let’s cure the problem; but let’s not say we don‘t want to do anything for handicapped children. And the same kind of point can be made with respect to ensuring some access for handicapped students to our colleges and universities.

HEFFNER: And you don’t feel that at the end of the road there is some kind of, let’s call it irreconcilable conflict between those who say that the university must make its won decisions as to educational and perhaps even administrative rulings and not be interfered with by those who provide money?

BRADEMAS: No, I don’t. I think these are matters that ought to be the subject of constant attention, that ought to be susceptible of being resolved by reasonable people. And the fact of the matter is American higher education, generally speaking, strongly supports the continuing provision of federal tax dollars to support our colleges and universities, and in particular to help, through loans and grants, young people go to college. There is no opposition to that. There is no widespread movement saying that the provision of such funds carries along unwarranted intrusion by the United States government in the activities of our universities. That simply would not be an accurate description.

Now, I happen to be recently made a member, happen to have been made a member of the brand new commission created by the National Academy of Sciences to examine some of the relationships between the United States government and our research universities in particular. Because there I think you can make a case that in many instances Uncle Sam has gone too far, has made unwarranted and unjustifiable requests for information, and that the universities are well within their rights to say, “Wait a minute, this is not common sense”. In those situations let’s sit down and talk about it. And what we’re trying to do on that commission, I may say, is to work out some rational charter of relationships, of rational relationships between the federal government and universities.

So I guess I’m saying two things, Dick. One is, I think it is possible, and indeed it’s necessary, for higher education to flourish in this country, that we get help from the national government. But it is also possible for that help to be provided in responsible ways without unnecessary intervention. And the second thing I’m saying is that were it can be shown that intrusion exists of an unwarranted kind, let’s sit down and negotiate it out and undo that kind of unwarranted intrusion. I guess I’m preaching the gospel of common sense.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re preaching a very optimistic gospel. You’re saying it’s not irreconcilable. And yet I go back to the material that you have written in the past when you were in the Congress, and you’ve indicated that “It must be recognized by the university community that with public money comes public accountability. One cannot seriously regard those whose message to Washington is essentially, ‘Leave us alone. Simply send money.’” Now there has to be some break point, for even within your own university now there are those who wish to say that and wish to say that that is the function of government: send money; don’t make us accountable in your terms.

BRADEMAS: Well, I have to confess to you I haven’t heard too many voices of that kind. I think that what we’re talking about here is a matter of degree. And I do not think that any responsible person would say that we should simply dole out money from the federal treasure to universities, schools, or any other institution in American society for that matter, and say, “Do with it as you will. We really don’t care. It’s up to you and we trust you, and goodbye”.

HEFFNER: Don’t you trust the academic community?

BRADEMAS: I don’t trust any particular community with public tax monies unless there is some system of accountability. And that’s why I am a strong believer in the American separation–of-powers Constitution, because our Founding Fathers did not trust Congress completely, did not trust the president completely, did not trust the Supreme Court completely. We have a system of checks and balances. And when you’re talking about the use of tax dollars, there has to be some kind of system of accountability. The question resolves itself into whether or not x-system of accountability represents unwarranted intervention or intrusion or demands on the part of the government with respect to whatever institution is receiving public monies or not. And in my judgment there can be made cases, in fact I’ve taken part in, as a member of Congress, in leading a delegation of university presidents to the office of my good friend Joe Califano when he was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, to tell Secretary Califano that I thought he had gone too far at HEW in respect of one particular kind of regulation. So I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been a legislator writing laws that provide tax dollars, writing systems of accountability; I have also been a congressman saying to the executive branch, the bureaucrats, “Wait a minute. You’re going much too far, and let’s put a stop to that”. And I am now a university president aware that there has to be accountability for the stewardship of, particularly, public funds as well as private funds, but also I’m not going to allow, so far as I am concerned, any level of government to come in and tell my colleagues on our faculty how they are going to teach of what they are going to teach.

HEFFNER: But certainly by “accountability” you’re not speaking as you would if you were an accountant, if you were the fiscal…


HEFFNER: …officer of the university.

BRADEMAS: Well, that’s…we do need…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

BRADEMAS: We do need to have fiscal accountability. We need to be sure that people are not stealing money.


BRADEMAS: It’s as simple as that. I think everybody takes that for granted. But if monies are provided, for example, to a university for student aid, and those monies are taken by the university and used to build a building someplace, that would be a wrongful use of public monies. One is not supposed to do that. It may be a laudable activity to build a particular building, but if the monies are to be set aside, are specifically earmarked for the use of students, then they should be used for the use of students. That’s what I mean when I say “accountability”.

HEFFNER: And programmatically, no connection?

BRADEMAS: It depends. If monies are provided, let us say, but the national government for support of a program of research into some particular scientific problem, provided to a medical school, say, for research on the causes of cancer, if those monies are then used to subsidize a program for investigation into the causes of senility, that would not be a responsible use of those monies. But there has to be an understanding in advance, Dick, of what the monies are to be used for. But again, I’m trying to preach the gospel of common sense here.

HEFFNER: In the area of science, the area of genetic research has certainly come to the fore recently. And there the government had set forth originally guidelines that many people in the universities felt were too stringent. What’s your own feeling about those genetic research guidelines?

BRADEMAS: Well, I haven’t studied the guidelines and I’m not a natural scientist and I wouldn’t even begin to try to pronounce with some degree of intellectual respectability on them. But that is a good case in point. If the government says, “These are the guidelines that should be followed if you‘re going to use these federal funds”, and the university researchers say, “We don’t agree with those guidelines”, then the appropriate thing to do is to sit down and negotiate about the guidelines, and to have some responsible, rational dialogue. And there must be some kind of system whereby we can sort out differences and come to some accommodation. That’s the way a democratic society works.

HEFFNER: But having sat for so many years in the national Congress and having been charged with responsibility not just as a representative of your district in Indiana, but for the general wellbeing…


HEFFNER: …wouldn’t you tend to come down harder as a congressman on the side of the larger public interest as perceived by the national government? I mean that’s, as you say decent men, responsible men can differ. But I wonder whether you’re not going to be forced into a somewhat different position, a somewhat different posture now as a representative of a private, individual institution with an awful lot of private, very private citizens in it, your academic colleagues.

BRADEMAS: Every private university in the United States, with almost no distinctions, is also a public university. We all receive significant amounts of money at New York University from the State of New York through tuition assistance for our students, as well as, as I’ve already said, student assistance from the federal government. And research monies come in from the national government. So it’s now a matter in large part of degree, the extent to which a university can call itself private or public. We are a private university at New York University in large measure because we are governed not by the state legislature of the State of New York or by the national government. And I guess I have to say, to be as straightforward as I can, that I resist generalizing about these kinds of relationships. I like to look at a specific problem and try to give you a judgment. The kinds of questions you’ve been putting to me to back to the classic problem in political theory from the days of the Greeks: How we can have both order and freedom. And the fact of the matter is in a free society like ours, in a democratic society like ours, we have to have both. We want individual freedom, but at the same time we want a degree of orderliness in the way in which we carry on our business. We want liberty for every man and woman, but we don’t want anarchy. And the same kind of observations could be made with respect to the relationship between the federal government and universities. We want support form the national government, and we want to be accountable for the proper stewardship of those tax dollars. At the same time, we don’t want to have the national government trying to push us around and imposing demands upon us that are simply not justifies. And we must resist such efforts. So there’s something to be said for both points of view. And what we have to do as rational men and women is to sit down and, if we have difference, work out those differences in a rational way.

HEFFNER: President Brademas, one of your academic colleagues, another great university president, has recently commented from Yale very negatively about the force of the moral majority in this country and has deplored its influence. And I wonder, as you take over the reigns at NYU whether you have any reactions to that recent attack.

BRADEMAS: Well, I have great regard for Bart Giamotti, and I applaud what he had to say. This is, however, not an arena to which I am new. I have been a candidate for public office for 25 years and I have gone through a lot of campaigns, both congressional…and I worked in a presidential campaign once for Adlai Stevenson, and so I am not unacquainted with John Birchers and extremist types and people who pretend that they know all the answers to everything. And I am fond of recalling, whether I have the quotation accurately is not the point, what the great New Yorker, Mr. Justice Learned Hand once said, that “The spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who is not quite sure that he is right”. And I’m always suspicious of people who are absolutely convinced that they have the final answer on difficult, controversial problems. And therefore, with respect to the moral majority and other kinds of groups in our society who are absolutely convinced that on every moral issue they and they alone have the right answer, that is a spirit in all candor, that is antithetical to the spirit of freedom on which the American republic was founded. It is not the spirit, if I may say so, of the open mind, which is the name of this program.

HEFFNER: Do you have any sense that there is a threat at the moment, as he did, that we’re faced with a period now when the moral majority, the kinds of pressures he referred to, that you refer to, will be greater?

BRADEMAS: Yes, I think they are real, I think they are greater. I think there’s not doubt about that. I think they have mobilized politically, and very often it’s a lot easier for people who are absolutely convinced that they are right on an issue to generate emotional and political support for their point of view than people who are more open-minded, as it were, who may not be so tenacious about expressing a point off view, and sometimes they are the ones who get run over in a stampede. So I think that President Giamotti spike eloquently about a very genuine problem.

HEFFNER: Any signs of trouble at NYU?

BRADEMAS: No. I take great joy in the fact that I have the privilege of becoming the president of a splendid university located in the heart of a great and exciting city, and located in that part of New York City, Greenwich Village, which has become a symbol of American history of liveliness of mind and imagination. And you can see it physically when you go to Washington Square. And so I am well aware that there be all sorts of conditions of men and women there with all kinds of views, but I welcome that. That’s what a university ought to be.

HEFFNER: I meant really whether you see the university as now being pressured, whether you can point to pressure points given the moral majority’s attitudes.

BRADEMAS: I can only tell you that so far – and of course I’m just assuming the helm of New York University – I have not been subjected to that kind of pressure. That’s not been the case so far.

HEFFNER: Question: Just between the two of us, what’s the downside of going into academic life at this point? I won’t say going into politics, and academic life is politics, of course. But really, what are your concerns? Can you wake up in the middle of the night and think, “My gosh, I’m President of New York University”? What are those concerns?

BRADEMAS: There are several. And it may surprise you, I don’t know, if I were to tell you that my life as a university president is not all that different from having been a member of Congress, because in Congress I dealt with a multiplicity of interests and constituencies, each pressing for more resources when there were not enough to go around, with massive egos, with conflict, with controversy. So the lifestyles in that sense are not dissimilar. On the other hand, I do have to be concerned in a way in which I did not as one of 535 legislators, as the chief executive officer of a university with almost 45,000 students and a budget of nearly half a billion dollars, with great schools of medicine and law and arts and sciences and business. I have to be concerned that we meet two objectives: academic excellence, and financial stability. And pursuing those two objectives is not always easy. It’s possible, of course, to have financial stability if you cut back here and there and everywhere, but you would end up a third-class university. And we’re not going to do that at New York University. We’re going to have a first-class university. But to do that requires that you have to reach out and bring in more resources. And at a time, as we have said earlier, when Uncle Sam is cutting back funds, that means I have to worry a great deal more about generating financial contributions for New York University as do my colleagues elsewhere. And that means raising money. So the address is: 70 Washington Square South.

HEFFNER: Send money?

BRADEMAS: Send money, and it will be gratefully received if you want to help maintain not only our great university, but I would say the same thing with respect to other colleges and universities both public and private in the United States.

HEFFNER: We have a minute left. Question: A generation ago there was a real question on the part of many people whether many private institutions of higher education wouldn’t just disappear. Is that still a concern today?

BRADEMAS: It’s a concern, but I must say at New York University, and I think it’s also true to say for other private institutions, the commitment of our trustees, of our faculty our alumni and our students, is such that I believe that we will survive. And if we have their continued help, we will flourish.

HEFFNER: Will the Reagan tax plan as now enacted make it more difficult?

BRADEMAS: Yes, it will. The Reagan tax plan makes it less encouraging to potential givers to contribute to private universities. But I hope that if those who supported Mr. Reagan’s tax plan are listening they will feel a greater moral responsibility now coming from the private sector to give to the college and university of their choice, and I hope that one of them is New York University.

HEFFNER: I think it’s a matter of getting gout of the frying pan and into the fire. And thanks so very much for joining me today…

BRADEMAS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: …President John Brademas.

And thanks, too to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.