Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chancellor's Message to the President-Elect

Dear Mr. President:

As America awakens this morning, you will already be taking on the heavy mantle of leadership. You will be looked upon to solve, among other things, the problems of our faltering economy, failing health care, increased global warming and an uncertain energy future, and the war in Iraq. In the midst of all this, I want to remind you of a precious resource that is ready to help and one that is outstandingly good America's higher education system.

Higher education in the United States, both private and public, is the envy of the world. We lead the world in education, research and innovation. We have a National Academy of Sciences formally charged with advising government. The National Academy of Sciences pointed out in a report that we must bolster science and engineering if we are to retain America's global leadership in innovation. The Department of Energy supports almost 50 percent of all federally funded research in the physical sciences and the National Institutes of Health is paramount for support of research in our health and life sciences. These investments are critically important for the nation not only to provide support to faculty to carry out basic and applied research but to attract and train graduate students who will be the next generation of discoverers and innovators. We must also broaden support for humanities and social sciences as part of a strong research ecosystem. Today's great global challenges cross many disciplines and require solutions that bring perspectives that are social and humanistic as well as scientific.

There is much incontrovertible evidence of the benefits of higher education both to individuals and to society. According to the US Census Bureau, the national median annual income of college graduates without advanced degrees is $51,700, while those with only a high school education earn just over $30,000 and those without a high school diploma earn less than $20,000 a year. Those with only a high school education are twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to require public assistance as college graduates. Better-educated people are more likely to vote and to participate in the civic life of their communities. Education helps with the development of the critical thinking skills that are necessary to succeed in a global society. To give every qualified student the opportunity for a college education, we must look at significantly increasing financial aid for those with need. This must be done through increasing grants, not loans. Students who are already financially disadvantaged as they enter college should not also graduate disadvantaged with high debts. Programs that offer loan forgiveness to encourage college graduates to go into public service positions, which are often low-paying, should be aggressively implemented.

There is one group of students in particular who need your immediate attention-undocumented students. Our failure to give these students a path to success and to citizenship is a terrible waste of young talent-talent that this country desperately needs. Each year across the nation, 50,000 to 60,000 undocumented students graduate from high school after having spent at least five years in this country. The Dream Act, which provided access to financial aid and a thoughtfully mapped-out path to citizenship, became entangled in the failed immigration bill. It is time to revive and pass the act on its own merits.

Finally, you should know that universities genuinely want to provide the best education possible to our students. We value our autonomy and understand that with that privilege comes responsibility to those who support us. We have always been and will continue to be fully accountable. Proposals to tax our endowments and to impose upon us highly bureaucratic measures of accountability will take us in the wrong direction. We should preserve the policies that have made it possible for our higher education system to be the envy of the world. In that way, we can pledge our help to you, Mr. President, to bring the power of our unparalleled system of research and education to work in support of a better America and a better world.

Robert Birgeneau is the chancellor of UC Berkeley


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