How Can Trustees Champion the Value of Higher Education?

By November 20, 2018 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

The nation’s trustees have a unique opportunity to counter growing public skepticism of higher education. Trusteeship spoke with Norman R. Augustine—the retired chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp.; former under secretary of the Army; former trustee of Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Princeton; and former regent of the University System of Maryland—to gain his insights on the challenges facing the sector and the role of trustees in addressing them. Augustine serves on the Leadership Group of AGB’s Guardians Initiative, which seeks to engage board members in reclaiming the value proposition of higher education and its contributions to society.

What do you see as the value of higher education, and what are the challenges the sector is facing?

When underpinned with our freedom and free enterprise system, America’s higher education institutions are arguably our greatest competitive asset. In fact, the top four universities in world rankings are attributed to the United States. No one ever imagined that one day U.S. higher education institutions would find themselves under attack, as they are today.

While professing commitment to higher education, state governments have cut investment in their institutions of higher education by an average of 34 percent over the past decade. At the federal level, in 2017, Congress came very close to passing an income tax on the stipends received by graduate students that support the research they perform as an integral part of their education.

Perhaps worst of all, surveys now show that for perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, a majority of parents and young people are questioning the fundamental value of higher education, apparently dismissing its foundational role in the American dream itself.

What have been the responses from higher education leaders?

A few university presidents certainly spoke out, but with limited credibility because of the pulpits from which they spoke. The trustees of the nation’s universities were noticeably silent.

Trustees traditionally have focused on internal matters: setting budgets, selecting presidents, monitoring operations, raising funds from alumni, and approving the football coach’s salary. But they have largely remained mute on such existential matters as those noted above. I would, in general, agree that it is not the role of trustees to speak publicly about specific issues relating to their institutions. But trustees can, and should, speak out on major issues affecting higher education writ large. In doing so, not only do they serve the nation, but, given their position, they also are granted considerable credibility.

What advice can you offer trustees looking to get involved in advocating higher education?

There is much to be done, and it will not be easy. Trustees do have the opportunity to make a difference, whether through writing op-eds, giving speeches, or testifying before governing bodies. A few years ago, I happened to be testifying before a congressional committee in Washington when I was interrupted by an obviously annoyed member who said, “Mr. Augustine, you are always here asking for more money for education and research. Do you not realize that this country has a budget problem?” I replied, perhaps more succinctly than wisely, “Yes, I do realize that. But I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and during my career I worked on a number of airplanes that throughout their development phase were too heavy to fly. Never once did we solve the problem by removing an engine.”

Research and education are the engines that drive our nation’s economy, national security, individual health, and overall wellbeing. Both of these engines are the province of our higher education system.