Vartan Gregorian

The Higher Education Investment Act

VTR Date: May 21, 2009

Vartan Gregorian discusses the Higher Education Investment Act.


GUEST: Dr. Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 05/21/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And our conversation today stems from a rather novel full page advertisement that quite intrigued me when it ran in major newspapers shortly after Barack Obama’s election.

That ad called for a “Higher Education Investment Act”. And it was an open letter to President Obama and his Administration, signed not only by the President, the Chair and the Vice Chair of the prestigious Carnegie Corporation of New York…but also by an impressive cadre of distinguished Presidents, Chancellors and Board Chairs of many of this nation’s major public universities….including Richard McCormick, the President of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, where I’ve taught for so many decades.

Of course, key to the Carnegie Corporation’s efforts in calling together the educational leaders who sounded this clarion call for our nation to invest — and really invest heavily — in public higher education, is today’s Open Mind guest, who I admiringly identify as “a man for ALL intellectual seasons” whenever he joins me here over the years.

For Vartan Gregorian…historian, teacher, librarian, university president, foundation chieftain…is just that, leading The New Yorker magazine to begin its compelling 1986 Profile of my guest by noting that “The New York Public Library houses many treasures, but few are as colorful, complex, civilized, and stimulating as Vartan Gregorian, its president and chief executive officer.”

An immigrant to America, my ebullient Armenian guest has been a much admired historian and teacher at Stanford University, the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania before becoming President of the New York Public Library, then of Brown University and now of Carnegie.

Clearly, his long experience at both PUBLIC and PRIVATE institutions inform Dr. Gregorian’s insistence – as he writes in a recent Carnegie Reporter – that this “time of crisis means a time to INVEST in public higher education”. And I gather from watching recently when he was Bill Moyers’ guest, that the truly operative word here IS “invest”. No bounties for – but rather meaningful, extensive investments in – higher public education.

And I would ask my guest why this emphasis on investment?

GREGORIAN: We live at the time when everybody talks about cost and immediate result, immediate benefit. Not too many people talk long term investments. And that’s why when I picked Bill Moyers show as well as in the letter that we wrote to President Obama … open letter … we transmit it on behalf of public higher education leaders, I had to remind people, once again, that war is no excuse not to invest in higher education. Crisis is no excuse. And certainly cost is no excuse.

And I’ll tell you why. In the middle of the Civil War the greatest tragedy to befall our nation, where five to six hundred thousand people died, were few Americans there.

Abraham Lincoln established the land grant system of universities in this country. 1863 … in the middle of the … 1865 … in the middle of Civil War Abraham Lincoln surrounded by all the generals, all the good and bad news, was thinking about the nation’s future when he established National Academy of Sciences.

In the middle of the Civil War he established a commission to study the benefits of the metric system. Because real, real leaders think about the future. Not about what next election is going to be or immediate election is going to be and how to please the popular opinion.

The leaders have to lead rather than to react. In the middle of World War II, right smack in the middle of II, Yalta, Potsdam, all of this going on, Roosevelt engaged Vannevar Bush of MIT to study the future of science in our country. An endless frontier was the result, was issued and later adopted by President Truman. Shaped out nation’s future scientific endeavors.

Whereas Lincoln provided land-grant universities which allowed America to compete, even after our great losses in Civil War, to compete in the age of industrial … age of industrial revolution.

Roosevelt, Truman invested in American higher education and scientific endeavor in the middle of World War II with all the problems … thinking future, post-war development of America.

And that report of Vannevar Bush on the endeavors of Mr. Lincoln provide America with the kind of structure which way … put it way advance in science and technology. Because Vannevar Bush recommended that science should be invested through universities. In Europe they put institutes. The reason it had to be commissioned through universities for a competition and no monopoly of ideas. But furthermore to allow graduate students… as well as undergraduates to learn about research. Not to divide learning and research, but try and to combine.

Right after World War II Truman … Higher Education Commission … 1947 … to organize nation’s resources. And that’s why the letter to Obama was reminding that times of crisis, the terrible things we’re going … is an opportunity to invest, not just spend. And we believe, and I still believe, that higher education is a great investment, because it prepares generations.

Especially … all higher education in America I should not distinguish … especially public higher education because land grant universities were supposed to provide America and Americans the kind of education system for ordinary citizens, who’s means of going to college and others because of class structure or lack of income … could be barriers. Well, that was established. In 1956 when I came to California as a freshman, to Stanford … Stanford was $750 a year, Berkeley was $50. People could afford to go and work and be educated.

That was the dream … combination of public sector, providing opportunity … you providing your effort … and learning and becoming self-sufficient, expert citizen.

And that was thanks to the investments of a century. And that’s what we were reminding President Obama, that universities are ready, always, to be able to spend … whether it’s in science, whether it’s in technology, whether it’s in education.

Especially when 80% of our work force is a product of our public higher education institutions … community colleges, state colleges, state universities and others. We’re talking about huge numbers.

And now the challenge is completely different, you know that. That … a one hundred million, roughly, adults over the age of 18 … a full 45% of Americans have never attended college now. One hundred million Americans.

And there are studies that if they attended even one year of college, their earning power would be increased by 70 billion dollars.

So, it’s an investment because education leads, not only to jobs, but also to an educated citizenry. We should not judge just education … but it’s immediate yield … but how important it is, education, for our democracy to have educated citizens as members of our nation.

HEFFNER: Well, I ask you the leading question … but in terms of your answer … I’m puzzled … why haven’t we realized this well enough to be willing to invest. Obviously your call to the President came because we’re not making those investments.

GREGORIAN: Well, what is happening nationally now … the public does not know. The public thinks everything public they’re already paying through their taxes. Public library, public parks, public transportation, public university, public hospitals … they think they have already taken care of it.

But they don’t realize that now in some universities … Michigan, for example, you have (laugh) … 7% of Ann Arbor … University of Michigan, Ann Arbor … 7% comes from the state of Michigan. And many other universities are 12%, 13%, 14% … majority of less than 49% comes from public sector.

The public has other needs besides… Also remember one thing. Our nation is now 300 million people. When we started it had 100, 110, 120 million … we still believe that what we took care of in the past, with spending the same amount … it should take care of … not mentioning inflation … but also not mentioning all the technological advances that are costly for universities … all the proliferation of fields of endeavor, because specialization is here to stay, unfortunately. And it requires, also the kind of investment in research.

All the laboratories, the new laboratories … equipment. All the legal aspects of it … you have to guarantee insurance for the laboratories, for students, for this … all the unfunded Federal regulations … title this, title that, title this. It’s nice to pass, but no accompanying money. Universities have to take care of it.

On the top of it, there’s the expectation that … our K to 12 school system failed. University has to repair it for those who went to university, with remedial work. So it costs a lot, but the cost is fixed in many ways … and universities public higher education, their increase of tuitions having 6.6% … 2.7 times more than consumer price index and the public gets shocked … how come it’s so expensive?

They still don’t realize that your Rutgers, your CUNY here is $10,000 versus $40, $50,000. The … Yale … I was told, by former President of Yale … Yale per endowment … per student support from the endowment is $22,200 per student.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

GREGORIAN: CUNY is a $8,000 or $10,000. Then you have the entire … buildings and grounds and all of this … so what I’m afraid is happening … as a result … politicians don’t want tuition to rise. Universities are forced to increase their student body in order to cover, cover their costs. And you cannot do that because each additional student brings additional costs and additional responsibilities.

So the result is … what I compared once … we have a good soup, but now we’re adding … with some meat … adding more water, more Tabasco sauce to make it taste good. But we don’t say that the quality may suffer in the long run.

Because all of these short term “fixes” are not going to be saving it unless there is a new public commitment to higher education.

Because public institutions used to go to the public sector for their funding … in the 19th century, early 20th century.

Private universities were private funding. But now all bets are off. Private school … public … public goes to private … in all of these things … public higher education is in no shape to compete.

As a result they’re turning away … just community colleges … are going to turn away 250,000 students away.

Berkeley, California now is 10,000 and more … because the funds are not there … and you cannot do anything … more and more at the expense of quality. Salary differentials between private and public universities is widening.

And Berkeley, CUNY Graduate Center where we’re filming this, all of them are sitting ducks to be picked up by successful private universities, who can raise money, who can get governmental grants as well, who can instantly put up a major laboratory, with their Board approval and private funding. Publics cannot do that. They were not created to be able to do that.

HEFFNER: Vartan, I, I need to ask you then, what in the world is the matter with us that we don’t realize what we’re doing?

GREGORIAN: Well, this is … there’s, there’s been a … in 1967 I think I wrote in my Carnegie Report … Governor Reagan …


GREGORIAN: … suggested at the time that publics are competing against private universities … like my alma mater. That Berkeley … the rest of California is competing with my university … Stanford … with USC and others.

And then he suggested, and I say only “suggested” because it was not that clear cut … even though many people think it’s clear cut … the public should stick for rank and file … Stanford and other privates for the elite students.

In a sense, introducing concept of two tiered education in our country. Because for one reason … all these years I’ve been fighting since my library days, even when I was President of Brown testifying on behalf of public higher education … they were always insinuating that excellence belongs to the domain of the private.

The public institution, by the very nature of public cannot seek excellence, because excellence costs, excellence is expensive and should not belong to the public.

HEFFNER: Do you think the public institutions have a mass inferiority complex?

GREGORIAN: No, but if this last longer, they may develop one. But at the same time, you see it in the Times and in Washington Post, or Boston Globe, advertising by UCLA every day …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I, I’ve noticed that.

GREGORIAN: … or two.

HEFFNER: Indeed, and I think to myself …

GREGORIAN: It’s long overdue. It’s long overdue that these talented, corporate leaders, these talented artists, writers and others are as great as products of private higher education.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but I must say that as I read those ads, I think to myself, “my god, what they’re spending on this”.

GREGORIAN: It’s a one-time expenditure, by private individuals …

HEFFNER: An investment.

GREGORIAN: Investment. To educate the public. The fact that public does not understand financing … or how finances work in this country … how economy works in this country. Why not explain per costs … you have …

HEFFNER: Is … is this to any extent … and it’s a leading question … the fault of the public institutions themselves? Have they not made their case?

GREGORIAN: Well, you just are the public part of public and you said “how come they’re spending money putting advertising?” Nobody questions privates doing that.

HEFFNER: You’re right. You’re right.

GREGORIAN: They’re entitled to do that. But publics cannot because “they’re wasting money”. And I don’t think they’re wasting … education … educating public is very important and public institutions have to be accountable, have to be transparent and have to be judged by the products they produce … namely, the educated citizen and expert. That’s what the “cost plus” should be … whether the investment has paid off or not.

Unfortunately, we have adopted from Wall Street, the quarterly system. Everybody wants immediate results. And that’s a very dangerous thing because education … it took 20 years for the decline … public higher education … it will take another two decades to fix it. There are no easy fixes.

And public higher education is not just assault, immediate assault … but gradual decline. One of my friends … I told him … I said I read in One Thousand and One Nights or one of those fancy tales … the owner the donkey did not … decided not to … save money and not to feed the donkey. His donkey.

Well, nothing happened first day, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth, sixth, seven, eight, nine. Eleventh day the donkey died. They asked the owner what happened. He said, “my god I had trained him how to live without eating …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

GREGORIAN: … by the time he learned, he died.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

GREGORIAN: And when we discover … we’re a crisis oriented society … when we discover that things have gone so bad, then we mobilize all effort to remake it. And what I’ve been saying … don’t wait for that … see where the causes are … yes there’s duplication among public higher education … try to bring cooperation. Yes, there’s mediocrity … hold them accountable.

HEFFNER: All right, let me ask you a key question. The ad that you and your colleagues at Carnegie wrote and that was subscribed to by these leaders of public higher education … did it reach the ears that it should have reached? And did it have the effect that it should have had?

GREGORIAN: I think some effect because people read papers we put in Washington Post, Boston Globe, for all these reasons. Because Senator Kennedy is chairman of education committee. New York Times certainly. Washington Post, our national newspapers. Boston Globe … three of them. They are read. Although the people who are in Washington, I have to remind you … are graduates of our great public higher education and private institutions for higher learning.

All the individuals who are in charge of our economy are products of our higher education. All our Congress, Senators, Congressmen, corporate leaders are products of our higher education. Obama … President Obama is product of our higher education. So in a sense this is not an alien language, but the main thing is to what extent this occupies a central commitment on the part of legislators to invest in the future of … you want equality, you want equity, you want new technical … investment in technical fields. Universities are it.

HEFFNER: Of course, this morning I received, as I’m sure all Rutgers faculty members received, an email from Dick McCormick the, the President …


HEFFNER: … who signed on to your advertisement … saying we’ve got to get the state to understand …

GREGORIAN: To our letter, not advertisement.

HEFFNER: Why do you … why do you …

GREGORIAN: Because we did not advertise … it was an open letter, not advertisement.

HEFFNER: Showing a bias here?


HEFFNER: McCormick’s email indicating that would we help the faculty … everybody at Rutgers …


HEFFNER: … in explaining that we, the university, in its efforts, returns six to seven times …


HEFFNER: … the cash benefits that the State puts into the …


HEFFNER: … university. A very important point. Why didn’t your letter … I’ve corrected myself …


HEFFNER: … why wasn’t it published in the state capitols rather than the national capitol.

GREGORIAN: Because … that’s a very good point. Because, for some reason … I think wrong reason … they assumed that states know already … state legislators and others know. Which was wrong, in my opinion.


GREGORIAN: On the other hand, this letter was in preparation for some time in August … we had no idea of the crisis coming or stimulus. So stimulus, unfortunately, took over the intent of the letter. Because initially the intent was for President Obama, when he was elected, to say, “American higher education, both public and private, are ready to roll their sleeves and work with you to remaking our America”.

But there are so many needs all of a sudden came … that this did not register the way it should have registered. Because you’re putting among all kinds of this … public transportation, national security, health and others … we have neglected many problems and they all … all the chickens have come now to roost.

But central to all these problems, in my opinion, is scientific knowledge, technological knowledge, prepared workforce. All of them require education. Education is the answer to all of them. Not the problem.

HEFFNER: Vartan, why doesn’t Carnegie underwrite a very real study of all the examples that you’ve given of times in our history … in the Civil War. In the Second World War. To give us an understanding of why in those times … those crisis times …


HEFFNER: … our leaders and the people around them.

GREGORIAN: Well, we have done some of this, naturally. We have invested in teacher education. We have invested in journalist … schools of journalism … we have invested in K to 12 education. And on and on.

But, you’re raising an important question. Because at the time … many times … there was trust in government … that government will do the right thing by the people. And we have now a very … sometimes cynical … generation … parties in generation, competing priorities, competing interests, lobbyists and all, each one wants a piece of the pie.

It requires leaders to say, “I gave at the office.” We’ve given to Rutgers. Rutgers has to provide you workforce retraining, all right, for those who have lost because of technology. Rutgers is going to provide you teacher education. Rutgers is going to provide urban planning …

I’m just surprised that each Governor of a state … maybe they have … I don’t know … does not have a brain trust … in Michigan, for example … some brilliant faculty members at Ann Arbor and Michigan State and others … to say “what should state of Michigan do to come by its economy and so forth combat its economy and so forth.

Our faculty members … American … give advice to foreign governments, foreign corporations, everything. Why not have University brain trust, along with businessmen and others to form a commission, standing commission regardless who’s the Governor, whether Democrat, Republican and others … to say, “this is planning for energy, this is planning for urban transportation in the state” and to use that power that is generated by public investment in higher education or private education for the service of our nation … our economy.

We just react from one crisis to another, rather than long-term, the long-term plan dealing with it.

HEFFNER: Vartan Gregorian, it seems to me what you’ve got to do is write another letter and publish it as widely …

GREGORIAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you so much joining me.

GREGORIAN: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.