Hunter R. Rawlings III GS ’70 commented on the challenges that universities face in providing undergraduate education in the “data age” in an Alumni Day speech. The speech was an acceptance speech for the James Madison Medal awarded him by the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni in 2013 for his distinguished career in public service.
Rawlings is currently President of the Association of American Universities, where he works on contemporary university issues such as funding for research initiatives, undergraduate and graduate education and education policy. Rawlings formerly served as the President of both Cornell University and the University of Iowa. He has also served as chair of the AAU and Council of Ivy Group Presidents.
The larger context of Rawlings’ argument centered on the assertion that despite economic struggles in the recent recession, cuts in state funding to universities and the negative national press coverage that universities are exposed to, colleges remain bastions of research and learning that should be protected.
“Higher education bashing has become a popular bloodsport in the United States,” Rawlings argued. “[But] U.S. colleges and universities have never been in so much demand and have never been ranked more highly internationally.”
American universities remain leaders in the field of higher education, Rawlings said, because of academic freedom, the diversity of university types and offerings to students, great research programs and an old-fashioned passion for inquiry and original thought.
The superiority of U.S. institutions is exhibited by the fact that international students continue to come and study abroad in the US, he noted.
Yet in recent years, there has been a shift in attitude, Rawlings said, explaining that education is now regarded as a private interest rather than a public responsibility.
Universities have grown into multibillion-dollar research institutions with a variety of business commitments. As a result, undergraduate education has been devalued, because it is only a fraction of what universities now accomplish, he stated.
But in Rawlings’ estimation the “real threat” to higher education is an ideological challenge.
He argued that the “data mindset” of today’s public servants — from legislatures to governors to judges — results in the need to quantitatively qualify all strides made in education.
Rawlings explained that this is evident in new measures to calculate how many grant dollars a professor brings to an institution, or studies that measure student success only 18 months after graduation.
Universities are being forced to quantify the utility of education, particularly in the humanities, Rawlings said. He noted that his graduate study in Classics at the University was funded by a National Defense of Education Act fellowship, a law which he believes would not be passed by our modern Congress.
Addressing the issues that the higher-educational system faces requires confronting economic issues facing the middle class, improving transparency and advocating simplicity with regards to tuition and facing the “monster” of collegiate athletics, he argued.
However, Rawlings also said that despite the challenges that must be faced, he remains optimistic about the quality and necessity of the education that U.S. universities provide, particularly in their goal to educate the “whole person for citizenship in a culture.”
“I am no pessimist about the future of our universities,” Rawlings said. “American education is global and exciting.”
Rawlings spoke on Saturday at 9 a.m. in Richardson Auditorium as part of the Alumni Day activities.