A decade or two ago, Marye Anne Fox, John D. Petersen, Thomas R. Tritton and Mark S. Wrighton might well have been delivering papers at one of the research sessions that are the bread and butter of the American Chemical Society's annual meeting. All four, after all, have bachelor's degrees and doctorates in chemistry and know their way around a lab.
But all four have long since abandoned their primary roles as bench scientists for what can often be a hotter seat: the chair of the university president or chancellor. And so the four appeared Wednesday not at a nitty-gritty session on scientific results -- the one in the room next door, say, on "Industrial Application of Enzymes on Carbohydrate Based Materials" -- but at a presentation with the lofty title: "University Chief Executives on the Future of Education."
Perhaps predictably, given that very broad charge given to the panelists by the chemical society's president, William F. Carroll Jr., who organized the session, they focusedon a diffuse set of issues.
Fox, chancellor of the University of California at San Diego, emphasized her institution's efforts  to supplement its declining state funds by collaborating with local research institutions and companies to incubate and support technology and life sciences businesses. Similarly, Petersen, president of the University of Tennessee system, catalogued its partnership with nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a way not only of expanding its research output but of improving teaching and learning in the sciences.
Tritton, Haverford's president, stressed (not surprisingly, he acknowledged, given his institution) the importance of involving undergraduates meaningfully in research, and how institutions can do so better.
And Wrighton dedicated most of his talk to the historical role of the U.S. higher education system as the envy of the world and the challenges it faces in staying that way.
If a common theme emerged among the four presidents, it was a variation on that: how to ensure that American higher education can continue to attract and train enough talented scientists, from within its own borders and from abroad, to help the United States sustain its place at (or at least near) the top of the world's list of economic and technologicalinnovators and leaders.
Tritton cited surveys showing Americans' scientific illiteracy as evidence that "we as educators ... haven't done as good a job as we may have liked" in making scientific subjects vital and interesting for students.
Wrighton noted the aggressive recruiting that universities in Australia, Western Europe and elsewhere are increasingly doing for researchers and students who have traditionally come to the United States, and encouraged American colleges to collaborate more with foreign institutions, even as they compete.
Petersen and Fox emphasized the need for colleges to do a better job encouraging women, members of minority groups, and others underrepresented in science and technology fields to enter those disciplines. Petersen expressed concern that about half of all Tennesseeans do not graduate high school, while Fox said colleges must reach into the elementary and secondary schools, since "girls decide against math in 6th and 7th grade."
She heralded a school set up by UC-San Diego, limited to students whose parents are low income and did not attend college, that has seen 97 percent of its first two classes of graduates go on to college.
"We must get involved very early, and very significantly," Fox said.