In Annapolis with Martha Kanter

June 29, 2010

A week ago at the annual gathering of the Annapolis Group*, I had occasion to hear Martha Kanter, the Under Secretary for Higher Education in the U.S. Department of Education.  I’ve been carrying her remarks around with me, turning them over in my mind, asking myself what I’d learned.

*For those of you who may not know, the Annapolis Group is a loose organization of about 130 selective, residential liberal arts colleges.  The Presidents and Chief Academic Officers meet once a year in Annapolis, Maryland for a few days to talk about common concerns.  The organization has just one part-time secretary so carries out no projects or initiatives.

I found the Under Secretary someone who is fresh, passionate and knowledgeable.  That sense of her is stronger and more memorable than anything in particular she said.  I felt myself in the presence of someone who was constantly thinking, and relentlessly energetic and optimistic.  I didn’t agree with everything she said, but I came away believing that she cares about the right things and is trying to do her best by them.  That’s refreshing.

She opened by talking appreciatively about liberal arts colleges.  While that is to be expected in speaking to a gathering like Annapolis, the strengths she named were real ones and it was clear she had thought our colleges even though her background is in community colleges.  She said, for example, that liberal arts colleges excel at cross-disciplinary learning, and she believes that capability will be increasingly important in the future.  Asked what liberal arts colleges can do to improve education in the United States, her immediate response was ‘take more students’ – that is, do what you do well with more students.

She talked about the current polarization and incivility of American politics, and about the pressing need to “put democracy back in the center of the public conversation.”  Higher education institutions have both an opportunity and a responsibility to contribute to that.

I hoped she would talk about the problems of access to higher education, and she did. She celebrated the Obama administration’s success at putting much more money into Pell grants, but also worried with us about how much more needs to be done.  She noted that for-profit institutions now have about 10% of the market for higher education in the U.S., but that they were claiming about 20% of the Pell grants.  There was a good deal of muttering about that among the Presidents after she finished speaking.

And she talked about the Obama administration’s wider education strategy embracing both K-12 and higher education.  The thread that ran through that, especially, was the federal government’s role in investing in innovation, helping to fund the research that discovers what works.

She stayed around to talk after her remarks and the whole group Q&A, urging all she talked with to come visit, and to send her ideas.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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