The Case for Public Higher Education

A nationwide project spotlights affordable advanced learning throughout U.S. history, and its vital role in maintaining a competitive edge in today's knowledge-driven global economy.

calendar cover CUNY's 2010 Investing in Futures calendar spotlights the growth of
public higher education and its vital role in a free society.

With the economy in turmoil, unemployment at recent highs and Americans surging into public colleges and universities, CUNY has partnered with The New York Times Knowledge Network to highlight the history, scope and diversity of public higher education across the country.

Their medium is a 2010 calendar, website and curriculum with national perspective and participation. Called "Investing in Futures: Public Higher Education in America," it is being unveiled this fall.

"The availability of high-quality, affordable higher education is one of our country's best assets and demonstrates the great value that Americans have always placed on advanced learning," said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. "The calendar illustrates how, over time, public colleges and universities have become centers of intellectual thought and intense dialogue, groundbreaking scientific research, and artistic expression and performance, all while welcoming a widening cross-section of students and serving as engines of local and national economic development."

"This vital site will offer educators and students alike the information they need to reach their goals," said Yasmin Namini, senior vice president of marketing and circulation for The New York Times. "The Times is very pleased to be a part of the team."

Founding sponsors include TIAA CREF and JP Morgan Chase.

This is a perilous time for public higher education. The National Conference of State Legislatures said in July that states were likely to reduce spending on higher education by at least $145 billion in the 2010 fiscal year. California cut deepest, slashing aid to 17 percent less than it was two years ago. Florida reduced aid by 15 percent. Michigan eliminated a $140 million program that provided up to $4,000 to students in their first two years of college, along with $60 million in scholarships.

But higher education has prominent advocates. President Obama proposed pumping $12 billion into community colleges over the next decade in hopes of increasing the number of associate-degree graduates by 5 million by 2020. "Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience," he said last summer. "We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges."

Other countries are also outpacing the United States in the production of mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Encouraging more students to seek masters and doctoral degrees in those fields will take greater governmental support.

The CUNY calendar project became a way for the nation's public colleges and universities to make their history, mission and presence known. More than 200 individuals from 108 colleges and universities contributed their information, documents, photos and history to the calendar.

"We reached into every state, opening a conversation among historians and advocates for public higher education who hadn't necessarily been talking to one another before," said Jay Hershenson, CUNY senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the Board of Trustees. "As we roll out the website and, next year, a curriculum for high school and college courses, we're involving faculty from across the nation. Already, some of them have seen that the challenges and successes they've faced as public institutions are not unique, and that they're not alone."

The two people most intimately involved in this project both cited the same example to prove that point.

Richard Lieberman, who as director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College spearheaded the calendar project for CUNY, said that as a representative from a community college, he had trouble getting through to people who could help at distant schools, like East Kentucky University. "But when Craig Dunn of The New York Times sends an e-mail to their president, it opens doors."

Dunn, the Times' manager of corporate partnerships-education, who also cited East Kentucky University, recalled the resulting conversation that he and Lieberman had with university president Doug Whitlock, who "said that 39 percent of their students are first-generation college from the hills of Kentucky. And Richard said that 39 percent of CUNY students are probably first-generation from the immigrant community, so that shifted his paradigm. Is 39 percent the national average? This shapes a very different discussion, because you tend to think that what you know is only in your backyard."

Lieberman described a frenzied six-month drive to put together the calendar with the help of colleagues Steven A. Levine, Stephen Weinstein and Tara Jean Hickman. The Times Photo Archives also contributed images, historical documents and period material. Several foundations lent their archival support, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, which has particularly been involved in tribal and community colleges.

The calendar took top priority, but the team's efforts now shift to the Web. A basic website with the calendar "and the 90 percent of everything we found out that could not make it into the calendar," Lieberman said, will be unveiled in stages in the coming months. The curriculum is still being developed and, he said, as it goes online, probably starting in January or February, educators around the country will comment upon it and add to it.

"This is a non-print curriculum that's designed to show teachers how to work our research into the history of public higher education into courses like American history, urban issues, sociology, art and more," Lieberman said. "It will be a dynamic website and we will involve as many faculty as we can. The most important thing we now have is the network, which includes historical societies, state libraries, national associations and foundations."

A Nov. 4 launch is planned for the calendar project website: www.cuny.edu/publichighered.