National University

Transcript of Dr. Donald Kennedy's Speech at the National University 40th Anniversary Luncheon

Ladies and Gentlemen: Chancellor Lee, President Potter, Members of the Board, my faculty colleagues here, and my friend Bob Freelen. 

This is my second visit to National University. The first was in September of 2000 --- just more than a decade ago. I talked then on the special mission National was undertaking: although we might disagree that education is “wasted on the young”, we would agree that it should not be withheld from their older and more experienced fellow citizens by default! I argued against that state of affairs, in praising the efforts being made here. That was then, when those efforts were in what a biologist would call the ‘logarithmic phase’ of growth. But this is now, when the success story at National University is reaching a kind of crescendo.

In the past you have played a significant role -- not only in leading other non-profit, private institutions along the same path, but also in delivering a sound and successful alternative to the several for-profit alternatives out there. I will first talk about the remarkable progress National University has been made in the following dimensions: first, your standing among the other leading institutions in California; second, your record – outstanding, particularly in comparison with national averages – in recruiting good students and helping them economically; and third, in the breadth and excitement of the new initiatives that have been added over the past decade.

Now I will advance the tape to note the dramatic events that have made the future infinitely more challenging and complex than the environment in which we’ve all been living. Times change, and the world of events, ideas, and the communication media that cover them could not possibly differ more from those prevailing when I first visited here. We weren’t yet an Internet and socially networked society. Information, once comprising targeted and directed streams, has become an overwhelming cascade. Blogs and Internet sites have transformed the communication of actions, events and circumstances from “the journalism of verification to the journalism of announcement.”

So how are learners, whether grown-ups or traditional college students, to make choices about quality and reliability amidst this welter of confident judgments by self-declared experts? These new times surely reconfigure what we all need to do for our students -- whether one of them is a 20-year old Stanford undergraduate, or a 32-year-old National University student. They will need to sort through an information universe of variable content and often dubious authority. Clear thinking and sound habits of mind, will support the “intellectual tastes” needed to sort the verifiable new knowledge from the earnest advertisements of opinion.

Before turning back to that, it’s a good time to review some new accomplishments by National University I mentioned earlier – gains that fulfilled so many of the hopes I gained at my earlier visit. By 2009, you had enrolled almost as many graduate students as NYU and Harvard, and more than Johns Hopkins and most of the other Eastern institutions you could name. Here I cite only data from private, non-profit institutions). In the state of California, National led both USC and Stanford in graduate enrollment – and in total numbers of students, it ranked sixteenth nationally.

It is surprising to me how little attention has been paid in the education media to these numbers. Were we to search the New York Times or on the Chronicle of Higher Education for enrollment data for private, not-for-profit universities, we’d find references to Harvard, Columbia and NYU. But National will be absent. Of course, often Stanford will be missing, too – and that used to annoy me in my old job. But of course we understand that we share the provincial consequence of being out here on the Wrong Coast! When my predecessor in the Stanford presidency became the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Times headlined it on some interior page: “Rockefeller Post to Head of Coast School.” That really hurt.

Here is another metric. The education of students at universities is partially supported by tuition revenue it receives from them or their parents. Universities set aside some tuition revenue, or gifts, to support able students with demonstrated financial need, as National does. Other help comes directly to students from foundations or from the government. But loans are a significant part of all support packages. These loans are made directly by the federal government, or indirectly from third-party lenders who are federally regulated. Statistics are regularly kept by the Department of Education, and occasionally reported in media outlets like the Washington Post and International Business Times. The critical information here involves the proportion of students who, either during or after they have finished their higher education, default on their loans instead of repaying them. Data completed in 2008 showed that over the preceding five years National University’s default rate on student loans was less than half the national average – a little over 2 percent compared to an annual national average of around 5 percent.

In data recently reported by the Washington Post for the year 2010, those national averages showed very slight increases for default rates in the public institutions and reaching about 6 percent. The private non-profits rose from about 3.7 to 4 percent. But on average the for-profit institutions default rates rose from 11 to 11.6 percent. It should be clear that this is a central element of the growing interest in Congress to ask hard questions about just what is going on in that sector. It is no surprise that Congressional investigations have been pushed by Representative Harkin (D, IA) in order to secure more accountability for tax monies delivered to these institutions on behalf of their students. There is some reason for all of us, including National and Stanford universities, to be troubled about this. Concerns of this kind have a way of leaking out to damage more distantly related institutions – thus this fuss could broaden to include us, despite robust voluntary accreditation processes (like the one recently concluded here) that apply to ALL non-profits under the same standards.

Having noted that progress, I now return to an issue that particularly impressed me on my earlier visit. A few of us in what I will call the “youth sector” of higher education have experienced interesting but unexpected accidents when a mature student returns to join a curriculum filled with his or her juniors. When I was in charge of the Human Biology program at Stanford, a woman approached me – I would guess in her late thirties, though I would not have risked asking. She’d had a career as an operating room nurse in Canada following a two-year degree in nursing college. She was curious, interesting, and determined. She gained admission, began the program, and in the three-quarter “core” of the program, she flew circles around everyone else, set the curve – and afterward began a PhD in health policy.

Well, those were the days of rare exceptions; we were glad to have them, but it required a national awakening to see that university experiences for grown-ups represented a great opportunity for them and for the nation. That case is most often made in terms of our society’s new needs for what is often called “workforce development” – how to fill growing gaps in the increasingly trade-conscious world by supplying more engineers, skilled mechanics, computer scientists, managers, and even chefs.

There clearly is a role here, and it deserves the national attention it has gotten. Like other new opportunities, this one has attracted entrepreneurs, and the best non-profits, like National University, have chosen to operate in the way other traditional universities have. That has made them especially attractive to a broad audience of prospective students. They bring us a kind of wisdom that grows out of years of practice and experiences. That suggests some other dimensions National University can add to the lives of these students. We are, after all, not a nation merely of gap-filling specialists – and institutions of this kind can also deliver another and even more important societal value: fulfilling the obligations of thoughtful citizenship in this modern, ever-changing society.

So the new challenges we face in educating older, non-traditional students are NOT limited to those occupational or workforce requirements sometimes lumped under the category of “societal needs.” In this age, a central need is for citizens who can, for example, test the value of a proposal or a claim by recognizing and if necessary discounting the special interests of the proposer. That ability belongs among the attributes of what I earlier called “intellectual taste”. I believe there are criteria through which we can evaluate how well we are doing in the task of creating educated citizenship. What kinds of questions should be asked of those who announce their authority on some subject? If an opinion is said to have an evidentiary basis, what is the nature of the evidence? Who designed the test, and was it observed by others -- or better yet, confirmed by others? What other attempts at verification have been done? If the result or opinion is agreed to by a majority of others in the community, is that a kind of verification? I would hope for some doubt there.

Such questions, ones that involve testing for the validity of claims, result from learned habits of mind, and we can help people learn them. But the actions we must take as teachers entail undertaking real issues, many of them controversial. Sometimes teachers or their institutions back away from that kind of engagement, fearing that assumptions about the social order may be challenged, or that the passion associated with positions on a matter run so high that discourse may be alienating.

In his critique of the case of the conservative, Dewey pointed out that “if we once start thinking, no one can guarantee where we shall come out, except that many objects, ends and institutions are doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” That is a caution we cannot accept, because it rules out the most difficult questions and allows comfort to displace the kind of hard thinking that builds minds -- and in the end promotes self-confidence.

That end is important with respect to all the sectors of human study: economics, the organization of social systems, human behavior, and history. The great dilemmas of societies have entailed struggles over competing ideas: communitarianism vs. individualism; authoritarian vs. democratic organization; federalism vs. regionalism. Confronting such differences is one of the ways we as individuals evolve the principles that we’ll choose to guide our lives. There isn’t an easy alternative.

Having said that, I want to take science, a personal commitment of mine for the past 50 years, to make some additional points about how we prepare students for the task of enlightened citizenship. I begin with an argument for the proposition that a broadly spread understanding of science and technology is a public good, and that we really can’t have too much of it. First, we are a curious people, equipped with a lively sense of wonder. Knowledge about the natural world is a mainstream of our culture – absolutely on a par with the arts and humanities, though unaccountably often given second place on the liberal arts menu. Second, our democracy has to decide, in any given year, on a host of issues that have important scientific and technological content: what to do about climate change, how to organize human or robotic exploration of space, how to develop a sustainable national energy policy, how to treat the health potential offered by embryonic stem cells, and the like. To vote intelligently, citizens will increasingly require a level of scientific literacy.

Think for a moment about the political poster-children of contemporary scientific and technical controversy. Is global warming a phenomenon with a scientific explanation and a human handprint, or is it an invention made up by those who wish to restructure our economy? You can hear authoritative-sounding arguments for either position, especially in this blog and Internet era. It’s all out there. But in order to decide, every citizen will need a certain healthy skepticism about claimed authority, a willingness to examine credentials, and some comfort about challenging claims. I hope that part of our shared mission is to prepare minds able to work like that.

Let me close taking advantage of a memorable article by David Brooks, the op-ed writer for the New York Times and a frequent contributor to the PBS NewsHour. In the January 17 New Yorker, he explores the way we, as “social animals,” achieve status – and how that may or may not be associated with fulfillment, confidence, and composure. Good parenting, good grades in school, and promising professional growth are starting materials for the status portion. But Brooks also describes the lack of personal fulfillment in many of these apparently successful people, in these terms: “The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood and can’t be taught in a classroom: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationship; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures.”

Exploring and releasing these missing elements is a way in which we can build a sense of national participation and fulfillment in adult learners – who already have a head-start in the race toward wisdom. I think Brooks may be wrong that these qualities can’t be taught in a classroom -- perhaps not “taught”, exactly, but acquired through interactions among groups in a classroom exercise or in an on-line commons. This task can be a natural part of what you do here. We are, after all, in a new age – and for this still young and promising institution, it should be part of the educational agenda.

I wish National University a happy and rewarding fortieth birthday – and, as should be said at any such party, many more!