Imagine! An Educator In The White House!

President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will bring an educator to the White House.

OK, so she’s not the President, but First Lady Jill Biden has been talking about education to her husband for 43 years, and she is not likely to stop now.  As Joe Biden said in his first public remarks after the election, “Teaching isn’t just what she does — it’s who she is.”  

You have only to imagine a conversation between Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to presage the tone and priorities of this new administration. Dr. Biden is a working mother who took fifteen years to earn her doctorate. She has decades of experience as a community college professor. I confess that I will miss Betsy DeVos’ elegant wardrobe, but not her contempt for public education.    

What will be the agenda for the new Department of Education — and what are some limitations for transforming schools and universities?

Biden has to move immediately from campaign white paper to a coherent plan for learning-in-the-age-of-Covid. The year of lost learning has been so devastating on so many levels, especially for our most vulnerable students. 

From the beginning of this pandemic, taking care of America’s students and teachers should have been #1 in the minds of public health and economic planners. Safe schools are fundamental to stable parenting, and stable parenting is fundamental to productivity and economic recovery. Instead, our schools were paralyzed or bullied into opening without national guidelines and funding for testing and tracing, for operational expenses, for training and instructional technology. 

As Covid comes under control (a collective deep breath as we all say a silent prayer), other mission-critical DOE initiatives will emerge: affordable college, lifting the burden of student debt, stability for dreamers and international students. 

Candidate Biden also spoke eloquently about the importance of college as a pathway to the middle class. A top priority should therefore be building solid bridges between higher education and careers.  

That one takes effort from all sectors. The federal government can serve a critical role in building new three-way partnerships between government, universities, and the private sector. The government can help fund the creation of new programs and credentials that support in-demand job opportunities.  The government can call for new levels of transparency and accountability around the employment prospects of its students. 

These are all important levers of government, and if you don’t like these, we can suggest ten more. However, the impact of any of these will be muted unless they are matched with a sea change in the culture of higher education. As Lumina Foundation head Jamie Merisotis noted recently in an excellent interview with University of Texas Chancellor J.B. Milliken, transformation can only come from within, driven by the faculty and the institutional leadership. 

Could this be the moment when colleges and universities accepts the imperative to connect higher education to the world of work? I bet that Professor Biden saw the need for this at Northern Virginia Community College. And even those most skeptical about higher education’s readiness to change have to admit that the universities certainly hustled to implement online learning in the spring of 2020, even those who previously derided it as “not what WE do.” (Irony of ironies, faculty unions at University of Florida and elsewhere are now filing grievances about a forced return to face-to-face instruction.)

So maybe the day is coming when “vocational” is no longer a dirty word, a future when faculty feel a new sense of urgency to connect what they do in the classroom and research labs to the employability of their students. In this scenario, the newly elevated position of Dean of Career Services (or the “Dean of the Rest of your Life”) takes a seat in the University President’s senior cabinet, a peer to the Dean of the Faculty and the Dean of Enrollment.

A new emphasis on careers does not mean the end of Shakespeare:  just the opposite. As Joseph Aoun and Jamie Merisotis have eloquently argued, it is just those human skills most exercised by the liberal arts that are essential to survive the inevitable job shifts caused by artificial intelligence and automation: empathy, creativity, cultural agility, critical thinking, communication, collaboration. 

A new emphasis on careers does not diminish the important role of research. It’s great to have an incoming president who cares about science and recognizes the irreplaceable role of our great universities in the discoveries that cure us, inspire us, and keep us safe.

However, research and publications should not be the sole arbiter of quality in higher education. Let’s also recognize and reward superlative teaching institutions, especially the ones that crack the code on preparing its students for a lifetime of continuous learning.  

This is a turning point in higher education. Unless we restore public confidence in the value of the college degree, even a well-intentioned Department of Education will have an uphill battle to fight for funding. 

Universities have to rethink their commitment to innovation and to student success.  No government agency can do that for them. If they fail, we end up with a marginalized system of American higher education. If they succeed, the university rebounds and retains its essential role as a bulwark of democracy and the most reliable springboard ever invented for upward mobility and economic opportunity.

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