After an emotional build-up watching video of the President’s visit to University of Buffalo, I had a wistful experience being not more than 100 yards away from him when he spoke at a Town Hall Meeting at Binghamton University. As far as memory lane went, on the way there I observed much of the same old rural poverty that has been evident to any observer on route 96b south between Ithaca and Binghamton for the decades I have driven it. Many of President’s proposals for higher education reform are aimed at that population. When youth make their move out of Tioga County, it is most often through the military. Listening to him I came to understand that it is the young people from urban and rural poverty who are the focus of these reforms. When asked about predatory for-profit colleges, he described how some had preyed on military personnel and veterans in particular; this is from where his scorecard idea derives. The media would have been smart to pick up on that point rather than his comment about limiting law school education to three years.
About that: with all due respect to the New York Times, they blew his comment out of the proportion in which it was made. President Obama summarized his main points, laid out in more detail in his address in Buffalo, in opening remarks. A born teacher, he then made for a comfortable environment in which mostly students who politely raised their hands to be recognized asked him clear, succinct questions. The law school comment came as proverbially off the cuff. There was nothing “urging” about it, as the NYT reported. And both the paper and the comments that follow that article make way too much out of his qualifier of being in a second term. Harping on that remark, they seem to have missed his main points.
President Stenger must have been very proud of how those students comported themselves. All stereotypes of the “old” Binghamton as a 1960’s New York City extended, academic camp were nowhere in evidence; if one did not know it was a state university, one would assume from all the cues in and outside that room that it was a private college. Or maybe state universities have changed a lot since I was both student and teacher at them. The only time I heard President Obama “urge” anyone about anything was when he said that state legislatures have to meet their responsibilities toward state colleges and universities and raise the level of support that has fallen so dramatically over the last decade. You have my vote on that one enthusiastically, Mr. President! If I were a billionaire, I would sponsor a bus tour for our legislators to visit our colleges and universities across the state – including Cornell’s land grant colleges -- to be sure they understand how great they have become and what is at stake when they chip away at that support.
Remember when I said I felt defensive hairs rising in anticipation of President Obama’s pronouncements? They are now laying quietly down on my neck. The boost to higher education these reforms suggest do not impact the world in which I live and work significantly. Oh yes, more reporting, more compliance, more FTE and money spent. But on balance, if a “scorecard” can help a young person from Tioga County make informed decisions about his or her future, it is an expense we should be willing to bear. If we tie repayment of financial aid to income, we have a better chance of taxpayer return (default now valued at over a trillion dollars) and providing graduates with more options (read: not for profit work, for example as teachers in our public schools). And if we have a president who is aware of the many new developments in higher education today and who encourages innovation, we have a president who is at least paying attention.
And that is the greatest gift of all that he has given us. Even if that attention does not meet my highest hopes of declaring higher education a bona fide policy issue, it is a big step in opening the door to that conversation. Thank you, Mr. President, for visiting Western and Central New York. You looked a little fatigued to me 100 yards away. I wish you could have stayed longer to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of our surroundings. Perhaps another time; maybe one of your daughters might come to one of our fine schools? But in the meantime, you have done higher education – which is the “industry” in our region of great significance – proud, personally as a very successful man who used higher education as the springboard to make it against all the odds, and as a president, who continues to fight for what is right notwithstanding the tremendous misunderstandings about your policies that politics generate. Do come back sometime? I was sad to see you go.