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Chancellor's Speeches

Remarks of USM Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan
Finding a Secure Path to a Global Workforce
NASFA Conference
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
World Trade Center, Baltimore

 

During the past decade, the global economylong envisionedhas begun to fully assert itself. The spread of democracy into Eastern Europe, the rise of market economies in China and Russia, the strength of the economies across Asia, and the lowering of trade barriers through governmental agreements such as NAFTA, have created a global economic environment that demands a freer flow of capital, information, ideas, and workers.

In addition, advances in technology and telecommunication that were almost unimaginable a few decades ago have become common place today. This technological revolution has served to hasten the creation of a global economy, pushing its development along at continually accelerating pace. The world has shrunk, communication is unfettered, news reports are instantaneous, and information is omnipresent.

Barring some cataclysmic event, the globalization of the world's economy is clearly an irreversible force. This offers both great opportunities and considerable risks for the U.S. economy and security. Finding the right path through the minefield of challenges that globalization presents to the United States will require substantial collaboration and leadership between and among our federal and state governments, higher education, and the private sector.

There are three main challenges that I feel are especially important for government, higher education, and businesses to address if the United States is to maintain its position as the world's dominant economic superpower.

Baby Boom Echo

Globalization has fundamentally altered the requirements for the U.S. workforce. Gone are the days when a person with a high school diploma and a strong back could count on a good job and a high quality of life. Economic realities require that unskilled and production line labor willfor the most partbe done offshore. The U.S. economy has been transformed from one dependent upon muscle power to one requiring brain power; its future lies in a workforce that adds value through its collective intellect. Knowledge, innovation, creativity...these are the ingredients for a successful life and a successful economy now and even more so in the years ahead.

This leads me to the first challenge. As a nation, will the United States make the investments of human and economic capital necessary to produce the educated workforce the knowledge-based economy will demand? History would suggest yes.

The expansion of access to higher education is one of the greatest achievements of the post-WWII United States. In the first half of the twentieth century, college was considered the private domain of an elite minority. Since then, with financial aid and greater public support, the doors of higher education have been opened to larger and larger numbers of people. The United States became the first nation in the world to "democratize" higher education. In doing so, it created a workforce that enabled the nation to become the world's dominant economic power.

But now a new test of U.S. commitment to a highly educated citizenry is before us. It's a generation called the "Baby Boom Echo." It's large, diverse, and disproportionately low income. Many of its members would be the first in their families to attend college. In Maryland, for example, the "Baby Boom Echo" will produce a 30 percent increase in the size of high school graduating classes over the next decade, and a record fraction of these graduates will be African American or Latino.

Imagine living in a United States where large numbers of this generation are not prepared for college, or if they are prepared, not having the opportunity for a four-year degree because the nation has not built the higher education capacity to accommodate them. That's challenge number one. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking and time is running out. It was about a quarter of a century ago when the celebrated report, A Nation at Risk, documented the United States' crisis in the quality of K-12 education. It was that report that spurred the K-12 reform movement. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say too little progress has been made in improving the quality of K-12 education over the past 25 years.

A second troubling sign is the disinvestment of public funds in higher education, which threatens our ability to serve the Baby Boom Echo generation. Higher education is increasingly seen by the body politic as a private benefit, not a public good.

California is often a bellwether for the nation. A recent announcement from that state illustrates this point and is very alarming. Because of budget cuts, 20,000 qualified students will be denied admission to California State University and another 5,000 will be denied admission to the University of California this fall. For decades, California guaranteed high school graduates in the top third of their classes admission to a California State University, and graduates in the top 12.5 percent of their high school classes admission to a University of California institution. This is no longer the case.

Unfortunately, there are indications that similar actions will occur in other states. Indeed, I understand that in some states even community colleges are denying admission to some applicants because of a lack of capacity. If the ladder of opportunity is out of reach for substantial numbers of the Baby Boom Echo generation, can the United States sustain a knowledge-based economy? Will the nation have an adequate work force to drive such an economy? Would a widening achievement and success gap threaten U.S. social stability?

International Opportunities Must Grow

My second challenge is for higher education to offer an educational experience to students that will equip them with the knowledge and global perspectives required for success in the twenty-first century workplace. Meeting this responsibility will depend upon a strong partnership with the K-12 sector to insure that high school graduates have the basic skills and knowledge for success in a rigorous four year curriculum and that they come to college with a foundation in foreign languages and an appreciation of other cultures that make up our global village. It will also require U.S. universities to significantly increase students' international perspectives and expertise while they are in college. At present, most universities require a couple of courses in nonwestern cultures and they support education abroad experiences. But too few students take real advantage of the international opportunities that U.S. universities offer. To a large extent it is higher education's fault. I read the other day that less than 15 percent of college graduates have an education abroad experience during their college years. That is abysmally low. That percentage needs to double or triple. Even if some overseas experiences are shorter, perhaps taken in the summer, I don't think educators should feel that they have done right by their students if those students do not have substantial international exposure and course work before they graduate.

Security Through Openness

This brings me to my third and final challenge. In this era of international terrorism and with the consequentand appropriateconcerns about homeland security, the United States must find a way to accommodate a steady flow of foreign students to U.S. colleges and universities.

Clearly, the safety and security of the people of the United States is of paramount importance. But it would be a terrible mistake to push U.S. security efforts to illogical extremes. We will never be "Fortress America," nor should we strive to be.

To truly secure the future for the United States, higher education must prepare our growing student population for a global workplace and welcome foreign students and scholars. The institutions of higher education in the United States offer a tremendous opportunity. They provide knowledge, insight, and research opportunities that are unmatched anywhere else in the world. By reaching out to the world and keeping U.S. institutions open, the free-flow of ideas, interaction, and understanding can continue. In the long run, very few things will serve the nation's international interests better. In fact, by educating the future leaders of developing nations, the United States has its best chance for establishing long-term constructive international relations and for reversing the disturbing trends toward isolation of the United States and confusion about U.S. geo-political intentions.