Call to Arms for Private Colleges

In an address to fellow presidents about the future of higher education, MIT's leader says "our story isn’t well understood by Congress or the public."
February 5, 2008

Act now or expect Congress to intervene in ways you might not like. That was the message from Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to a group of her colleagues assembled Monday for the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, in Washington.

Specifically, Hockfield called on private college leaders to better articulate to lawmakers exactly how their institutions are providing a public good, and why college officials -- not the federal government -- should continue to set their own policies on spending and pricing.

“Our story isn’t well understood by Congress or the public,” Hockfield said. “We need to make our case as individual leaders."

Hockfield's talk, titled "The Issues Facing American Higher Education," comes at a time when Washington lawmakers are looking at proposals to help control the cost of college and debating whether it's time to start telling colleges how much of their endowments they should spend. Many college leaders have expressed concern with the ways in which Congress is getting involved, and some already have begun to sound the horn that colleges' missions are misunderstood, in no small part because presidents don't explain them well enough.

"There's a new struggle for the future of higher education, and here at home our model is under assault," Hockfield told the audience.

She said American higher education is defined by competition, openness and flexibility. Competition for faculty, students and funding has strengthened institutions, Hockfield argued. Institutions thrive on intellectual openness. Private colleges stand on tuition, endowment and research funding, and "Congress has systematically threatened the strength of each of the three," she said.

The call to punish institutions with high percentage increases in tuition for their sectors is a "worrying trend," Hockfield said. "We operate in a free market in many respects. We should let market forces help us along."

Likewise, Hockfied argued that the idea of forcing wealthy colleges to spend a minimum proportion of their endowments (with the expectation that money would go toward driving down the cost of tuition for some) is "quite bizarre." As others in higher education have pointed out in recent days, the effort, Hockfied said, is targeting "outlier institutions" that serve a small percentage of students. "We can't solve access issues one high-profile media event at a time."

"Talk about a short-term focus," she continued. "The idea that universities have somehow fallen short of their fiscal responsibility by not spending 5 percent every year, when most of us spend in a way that keeps in mind stability over time" is misguided. "We're looking out not just for students of today but for students in 150 years. It’s the myopia – the narrowness of perspective.”

Hockfield also decried what she called the lack of federal investment in research support. Of particular concern to Hockfield, the first life scientist to lead MIT, is stagnant spending on the sciences.

"No wonder more and more promising young scholars are finding greener pastures abroad," she said. "If we can't reverse stagnation in science and engineering Ph.D.'s, we can't expect our dominance to last."
Hockfied added that explaining to Congress that colleges are seeking to expand access for students and continuing to get a bang for their research buck is more than a once-a-year job. Institutional leaders should be in regular contact with state lawmakers, she said, and try to visit Washington delegates several times a year.

“We will weather this current debate in Congress,” she said.


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