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Spellings Commission Keynote, September 26, 2017


Thank you, Governor Hunt, for that warm and generous introduction.

Thank you, Chancellor Folt, for bringing us together for this timely and important discussion. I know you and your staff — especially Debbie Dibbert — have worked hard assembling such a fantastic group of leaders and thinkers in higher education, and I’m grateful to be with you.

Buck Goldstein and Chancellor James Moeser both did a tremendous amount of planning to make this day happen. And Kim Andrews in my office has done a lot of legwork, so thank you.

My longtime friend Michael Lomax spoke earlier. He and I have known each other for many years, and it’s a treat to have him here today.

And a decade-long thank you to Cheryl Oldham, who served as executive director of the Commission and is still out here spreading the good word. That’s some serious dedication.

Thanks to all the fantastic panelists who made time to be with us. Terry Sullivan, Mark Schlissel, Joe D. Simone and Michael McPherson — all dedicated servants of American higher education.

I also want to thank Frank Bruni for being here to lead this morning’s excellent discussion. Frank, as Chancellor Folt mentioned, wrote a book about college admissions called “Where you go is not who you’ll be,” —— which is easy for him to say since he was a Morehead Scholar at Carolina. But he’s been a great friend to this University and to the cause of sanity in higher education, a cause that needs all the help it can get.

Chancellors Robin Cummings of UNC Pembroke; Thomas Conway of Elizabeth City State; and Cecil Staton of East Carolina University are all with us today.

And I’d like to acknowledge all of the University faculty and staff who took the time to be here. You all are the heart and soul of this institution, and I know that the core work of the University — the teaching, research and public service that defines us — happens because of you.

And none of us would be here without the support of our state lawmakers, several of whom are in the audience today. Thank you to Representatives John Fraley and Ed Haynes; and Senators Chad Barefoot and David Curtis — glad to have you with us, and grateful for your service on behalf of public education in North Carolina.

Finally, a quick hello to the UNC Board of Governors members, current and former, in the room today. Always good to know that your bosses are in the audience before you start speaking…

As Governor Hunt mentioned, he and I have known each other and worked together for many years, advancing the cause of high-quality public education here in North Carolina and across the country.

When we were forming the Commission on the Future of Higher Education back in 2005, we absolutely knew Jim Hunt needed to be a part of it. Not just because of Governor Hunt’s reputation as a thoughtful leader and reformer in public education, but because no discussion of the country’s higher education sector would be meaningful without a strong North Carolina voice.

The system of higher education in this state, built and sustained by generations of leadership and public support, really has been a model. To be here ten years later, leading this institution, is a privilege I couldn’t have imagined then. So thank you.

If you look at the Wikipedia page for the Spellings Commission, there’s a picture of me and Governor Hunt sitting side-by-side. He’s smiling serenely, looking relaxed and cheerful with his hands resting in a thumbs-up on the table in front of him. Meanwhile, I have both palms up in the air in front of me, like I’m preparing to block a tackle. If I had to guess, that’s probably how we’ll both look at the end of this day, too.

Thank you all for coming. It’s not very often in life that you find yourself looking back over a decade and feeling grateful to be having the same conversation you were ten years ago.

But I’m genuinely thrilled to be having this discussion on the 11th anniversary of the Commission’s report. And I’m especially glad to be having it on the campus of the country’s oldest public university, a fitting venue to reflect on the past and set forth a vision for the future.

Right off the bat, I want to make something clear: I didn’t call it the Spellings Commission. I called it, “A National Conversation: The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education,” because I know academics appreciate concise titles. But journalists value column inches, so they created the shorthand. And it’s been following me around ever since.

Secondly, I would have made the list of recommendations a lot shorter and a lot easier if I’d known about this UNC job. The title of the Commission report is actually, “A Test of Leadership,” and my goodness did we get that part right. Since moving to North Carolina and moving into the UNC Presidency, I’ve joked with friends that this is payback for having led this Commission. It’s one thing to make a bunch of recommendations from Washington; it’s very different to figure out how to implement them.

Honestly, that’s what drew me to this job — the chance to help make public policy work on behalf of students, parents, and taxpayers — to put my money where mouth has is.

And now that I’ve been at it for almost two years, I’m proud to say that the work of the Commission holds up pretty well. Even with a new vantage point — a fresh appreciation for the pressures and constraints of working in higher education — I believe the Commission put forward a fair, well-informed, and ambitious set of goals.

And I believe the work of our bipartisan group of experts and policymakers — including some of the top university leaders from across the country — fundamentally shifted the conversation around higher education. It’s clear that the Commission’s guidance still carries strong influence more than a decade later. That’s why we’re here.

In shining a light on issues of affordability; learning quality; and the need for greater innovation, the Commission helped set the agenda for balanced, thoughtful improvement of the country’s higher education system. Sure, we have a long way to go, but I have no doubt that we’re in stronger shape as a result of the discussion we started eleven years ago.


There seem to be two competing narratives about higher education in our country. Either it’s hopelessly broken and in need of dramatic disruption, or it’s extraordinary in every way and should be shielded and preserved as-is.

Neither of those are true, of course. And I think the Commission deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the legitimate pieces of each narrative while rejecting the dogma of both.

The opening line of the report called higher education one of our country’s greatest success stories. And it is — but it needs continuous improvement to stay that way.  We’re being asked to do more than we’ve ever done before, serve more students than we’ve ever served before, and do it all in an era of constrained resources and intense public concern.

That’s great news, in that it means people recognize the value of higher education and want to see it extended to more Americans. But it also means some of the old ways of operating won’t be enough.

The country’s unique and decentralized approach to higher learning produces great benefits in terms of specialization and breadth — but it also creates confusion and barriers to access. We have one of the most democratic and diversified higher education sectors in the world — but marred by huge achievement gaps in race, income, and geography.

Recognizing these truths is an act of care. And focusing on these core concerns is how we build consensus, how we strengthen higher education to broaden opportunity for all Americans. Sometimes that may require a fundamental rethinking of how we do things, but more often it takes steady, incremental reform, driven by people of goodwill and supported by a broad coalition of policymakers and civic leaders.

And those changes have to be driven by high-quality data and solid research. We have to apply the methods of higher education — analytical thinking, rigorous experimentation, relentless pursuit of new knowledge — to the challenges of higher education.

A decade on from the Commission report, we still know very little about whether our institutions of higher learning are succeeding at their core mission. We don’t know whether they are effectively teaching critical reasoning, fundamental mastery of science and mathematics, or advanced reading, writing, and communications skills.

We still have a system that largely measures success and reputation by the resources committed, instead of the results achieved. Put simply — we still don’t know how well most of our students are learning.

Pointing this out doesn’t mean questioning the fundamental worth of higher education. Far from it. I am a firm believer in the capacity of higher education to transform individual lives and lift up our country and our economy. That’s why I’ve devoted much of my life to serving these proud institutions, and crafting public policy to strengthen them.

And as a lifelong policymaker, I can tell you in no uncertain terms: our aversion to meaningful, reasonable accountability in student outcomes has hurt us.

Our collective reluctance to define measurable learning — to come up with a transparent way of owning our successes and shortcoming — has undermined public confidence and emboldened a less effective, more ideological attitude of disruption.

I know there’s no such thing as a flawless method of measurement. I know that something as rich and diverse as American higher education can’t be stripped down to a simple test of student proficiency. And I know there are all sorts of complications and unintended consequences that might flow from trying to define learning outcomes across disciplines, across institutions, across different kinds of students pursuing different kinds of goals. No argument on any of that.

But we’re not weighing the idea of flawed accountability against some perfect system for measuring institutional value. We’re weighing it against the current reality in which our national conversation about higher education is too often driven by a flawed numerical ranking published by a defunct newsmagazine.

Every year, college presidents across the country lament the US News rankings and their perverse effect on the industry — the way they drive wasteful investment in student amenities, promote an unwinnable recruiting arms race, and discourage the country’s richest institutions from serving the very students who would benefit most from their resources. I hear those complaints from chancellors all the time, and that’s in a state where our institutions do exceedingly well in US News rankings.

And yet every time there’s a meaningful effort to push for alternative measures of institutional quality, they meet entrenched roadblocks. I don’t think it’s any secret that I wanted the Commission to lead to more substantive reform in accreditation, placing a greater emphasis on student performance as an indicator of institutional effectiveness — an area where we’ve made some progress, but not enough.

I think the scale of national investment in higher education warrants transparency that lets us see outcomes over time and across different institutions.

We didn’t get there. But we did accelerate the conversation, and the past ten years have seen a much-welcome expansion in the kind and quality of data being used to guide our colleges and universities.

You can now more easily compare costs, graduation rates, and earnings between institutions. You can see a national ranking of how well colleges are serving low-income students. And thanks to pathbreaking work by people like Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equal Opportunity Project, we’re beginning to see which institutions do the tough and vital work of creating real economic mobility, giving students a pathway into the middle class and the chance to create a better future for themselves and their families.

And we’re starting to give our own institutions the same rigorous study we’ve long devoted to other disciplines. Changes in instructional technology — things like online coursework, flipped classrooms, and advanced data analytics — those tools are allowing us to discover what works in helping students.

From better advising to better-researched teaching methods, the last ten years have brought an expansion of knowledge about student success. And most of that research has taken place at public institutions, driven by the need to serve a changing student body and be more effective with taxpayer dollars.

These are welcome shifts in the higher education landscape. For decades, far too much of our national attention has been dominated by far too few of our institutions. I personally think it’s interesting to discuss Ivy League admissions policies. I find it fascinating to explore campus controversies at Yale, or parse the faculty politics at Harvard. And you see these stories all the time in the national media.

But when it comes to making a real difference on access and outcomes, the story has to take place at the public campuses that serve the vast majority of America’s college students.

Nearly 70% of the nation’s students are enrolled at two-year or four-year public institutions, and they are often given short shrift in our national discussion about higher education.

In an era defined by anxiety over economic security and shared prosperity, that must change.

The community colleges, the fast-growing regional institutions, the HBCU’s and rural campuses — these places do the heavy lifting when it comes to broadening opportunity and promoting economic mobility. The fate of the American economy and American civic life hinges less on Princeton dining halls than it does on commuter lots and academic advising offices at places like Wake Tech, UNC Charlotte, and NC A&T.

And it will depend on major progress in containing college costs, from fixing our fractured system of financial aid to promoting innovations and efficiencies that our institutions have been too slow to adopt.

For most families in the United States, the single most important fact about higher education is that it’s simply not affordable. Even at public institutions — and even in states with a deep commitment to affordability, like ours — most families can’t pay out-of-pocket for a year of higher education.

Most families don’t have anywhere near the savings to support a child though two or four — or often five, or six — years of study.

We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market.

It’s striking that some of our fastest-growing, most dynamic communities — places like Raleigh and Charlotte — also have some of the lowest rates of social mobility in the country. The loss of solid employment that required only a high school diploma has been particularly sharp in states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Michigan, places that relied on steady manufacturing jobs to support a strong middle class.

With a more competitive world demanding higher levels of education, we can’t let inequities in access harden into an unbridgeable economic divide. And that’s what we’re doing when so many families look at the cost of college and see a closed door.

Is it any wonder that there’s a growing divide in perceptions of higher education? Growing questions about whether the country’s colleges and universities are fulfilling their role as engines of upward mobility? Growing resentment from those who feel shut out of our institutions?

Americans still believe strongly in the value of education. What they’re questioning — and reasonably so — is whether higher education remains within reach.

Those are the priorities the Commission sought to address. And those are the concerns that ought to keep our policymakers up at night.

As many of our panelists noted earlier, the Commission’s final report was titled, “A Test of Leadership.” And I’ve increasingly come to believe that the true test of leadership in higher education is avoiding the tyranny of the urgent, resisting the endless stream of high-profile distractions that take us away from the core business of creating smarter citizens and building the knowledge and innovation our economy needs.

That’s especially true now that higher education has become the preferred venue for some of the sharpest partisans and some of the most strident culture warriors in the public square. We’ve always been an arena for debate and controversy, but we’re now a regular actor in political dramas we didn’t seek and don’t control. And that takes a toll, both in terms of public perception and in our day-to-day ability to get things done.

One of the proudest accomplishments of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education is that it remained stubbornly focused on higher education. Thoughtful people from across the political spectrum came together and came to agreement about a core slate of challenges confronting our colleges and universities.

We need civic leaders who are interested in serving these institutions, not using them.  Critical partners, in the best sense of the term. People who share a deep interest in making us stronger.

That means state and federal lawmakers who choose to invest in the long-range prosperity that flows from a better-educated citizenry. It means business leaders willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the civic institutions that underpin our economic strength.

The most striking thing, looking back a decade on, is that we brought those voices together at the very highest levels — and found overwhelming goodwill and agreement. Not about every detail, but about the overall direction we must travel.

I believe that same consensus holds today. You see it in the strategic plan our Board of Governors unanimously adopted earlier this year; you see it in the bipartisan agreement that everyone should have a fair opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

The source of our strength has always been a vision of education that includes everyone — that reflects the country it serves. Making that a reality is our most urgent task, today’s test of leadership.

Thank you.