Barbara Lawton

Remarks to the UW Board of Regents - Aug. 17, 2006

Barbara Lawton
August 17, 2006— Madison, Wisconsin
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Thank you, President Reilly, for your gracious welcome and for the opportunity to enrich the Board of Regents’ understanding of this exciting initiative and its potential impact on the UW System.

You set it all in motion when you accepted the invitation for Wisconsin to become the first official pilot state for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). And then SAGLA members emerged as the Muses and Scribes who would imagine and author the first iterations of the project here. I was honored to “leap” in midstream when asked to join the AAC&U’s National Leadership Council, working with such deeply committed intellectual leaders as Harvard’s Derek Bok, Rockefeller Foundation President Jim Orr, U of M President Mary Sue Coleman, Raytheon’s Keith Peden and founder of the Philanthropic Initiative, Peter Karoff.

Today, the vast majority of family-supporting jobs require post-secondary training and education, and Wisconsin’s children’s aspirations for college are nearly universal. Low-income and minority students are likely, though, to fall into yawning achievement gaps, or stumble over tuition costs, or bump up against parents’ anachronistic attitudes toward college and confusing protocols that keep them from matriculating – or convert them into attrition statistics.

That happens at no small expense to all of us. Undeveloped talent and a workforce crisis owing to Wisconsin’s higher than average percentage of baby boomers, smaller young generation, declining birth rate and disturbingly high net out-migration of bright college graduates add up to an economic challenge that is, in some sense, laid at the feet of our university and technical college system. We have a profound responsibility to the public to find more ways to articulate the return on education to our nation’s overall wealth, to assert the public value of a liberal education in an era of global competition so as to renew the state’s commitment to higher education.

LEAP is a brilliant intervention at this critical moment. LEAP forces our conversation about affordability, access, graduation rates and accountability to merge with an examination of the kinds of learning today’s college graduates need. I laid out our vision for LEAP to a receptive audience at the Business Higher Education Forum meeting last winter. The nation’s top CEOs told me they want the “360 degree person” who knows how to circle a problem, not the single axis student with deep but narrow learning. The engineering community already calls for T-shaped students, the vertical part representing traditional elements of an engineering degree and the cross bar underlining broader learning like ethics, global knowledge and intercultural literacy and strong communication and collaborative skills.

MIT’s Sloan School has become a leader in the interdisciplinary approach with a deep connection to the university; Harvard’s new Business School dean announced a focus on globalization and research integrated with the other schools, as has Columbia Business School Dean, Glen Hubbard, who declares, “You can’t have a strong business school without a strong arts and science department.”

We need, then, more precise definition of the essential outcomes of a liberal education for a student, state and nation. Thus LEAP. LEAP is an ambitious national campaign to champion the value of a liberal education –for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.

When we speak of a liberal education, we do not refer to a discrete set of disciplines, as limited by the traditional definition of the liberal arts and sciences, but rather we speak of what today’s college graduates need to know and be able to do to function successfully. Liberal education draws on the strengths of both the liberal arts and sciences and the professional fields.

Encompassed in the notion of liberal education is a comprehensive set of goals and outcomes that are essential both for a globally engaged democracy and for a dynamic, innovation-fueled economy (see circular chart in folder):

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the natural and physical world
  • Intellectual and practical skills
  • Individual and social responsibilities
  • Integrative learning

From our front row seats for this seismic shift from an industrial to knowledge economy, we see clearly that a liberal education is quickly becoming the price of admission to that twenty-first century knowledge economy. As former Xerox CEO David Kearns asserts (on the cover of your folder), “the only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education.” A liberal education prepares students for the reality they will encounter and meets the needs of employers and, with its grounding in ethics and social responsibility, prepares them for the world we want and deepens the nation’s talent pool for innovation.

With broad commitment and bold leadership, this initiative can help inform how government and educational institutions evolve to support citizens’ success in this time of flux, drive development of appropriate metrics to measure their effectiveness and assign responsibility for meeting those goals, and invite unprecedented partnerships to sustain it. LEAP addresses the need to 1) change practices within the academy, 2) to change public expectations of higher education, and 3) the need for research to underwrite smart change and accountability and measure progress.

The National Leadership Council’s design of the LEAP agenda starts within the academy. We are about to publish the principles of excellence for student learning in college as the compass for students planning a course of study, and as the base from which to define the metrics for accountability. Related to necessary changes in practices, the Council asserts:

  • Higher education institutions need to be loud and clear in stating the obvious: a twenty-first century student needs more math, science, global and cross-cultural knowledge – intellectual agility, the essential learning outcome of a liberal education regardless of major or school.
  • Higher education also needs to underline that the new liberal education draws on both the strengths of the liberal arts/sciences and the professional fields;
  • The academy needs to first articulate its re-conceptualized liberal education from within; then more must be done to identify/clarify these learning outcomes for the public.
  • The academy is best positioned to “take leadership” on the kind of learning students need today. AAC&U research indicates that the academy’s understanding of those goals jibes with the views and values of employers.
  • Leadership will involve working first internally with faculty governance, and then externally with trustees/regents and other community and statewide leaders. That is where I join you.
  • Our success will be guaranteed when campus action makes the teaching and learning of liberal education outcomes intentional and a visible part of every student’s educational success.

LEAP creates the framework for public education and advocacy:

  • It sidelines partisan rhetoric to center our focus for public policy on the real engine for smart growth and development – an intellectually agile workforce functioning as an ethical, engaged citizenry.
  • It responds to prevailing wisdom that business performance and national prosperity today depend on the creation and application of new knowledge, on our ability to innovate.
  • It reestablishes the value of the work of the academy in mining, maintaining and building knowledge.
  • It calls on the archetypal attributes of our nation’s founders: creativity, innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurship.
  • It should trigger better understanding of how education policy from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 must be aligned in a continuum to support these goals, resulting in more cost-effective public investments. Think of LEAP as a powerful centrifugal force for necessary change.

Research underlines the challenges that lay ahead, notably the surprising lack of familiarity with the idea of a liberal education of so many students and their families. A generalized distrust of all that is modified as “liberal.” Too many students headed this way think of their college education as a private rather than public good, ignorant to the fact that the public and private sectors already underwrite a significant portion of the cost.

At a recent panel on higher education and the state’s economy, former Blue Cross & Blue Shield CEO Tom Hefty repeatedly asserted that the UW had fallen behind other schools when it comes to working with businesses, contending that the entire system must better cater to business needs: “I don’t think at this stage business is ready for a partnership with the university, with the level of trust that’s there to have a partnership. It’s a supplier relationship and a customer relationship…The business sector wants to see a rate of return.”

Let’s see Mr. Hefty as a canary in the mine. Business leaders aren’t confident in their “fluency” in matters of higher education, and they do not fully understand the fragility bred into this mighty economic engine by too many years of declining state support. And alumni have been better developed as donors than as advocates. We can’t build public confidence in higher education without giving the public a sense of fluency when speaking about it, without giving them a way to think about it and the words to support it.

The University of Wisconsin is an ideal selection to pilot LEAP for many reasons that play to our state’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • Wisconsin boasts 20 liberal arts colleges, and a network of 47 Technical College and 26 UW campuses, with recently improved articulation between the latter two, for a total of well over half a million students pursuing some level of post-secondary studies.
  • But we have done a rather miserable job of enrolling and graduating low-income and minority students.
  • UW-Madison was recently named the nation’s #1 research university, but it is the flagship for a state that ranks 35th 0f 50 in terms of the percentage of workers age 25 and over who carry the credential of a baccalaureate.
  • We are a low wage state; we know we need to increase the number of citizens carrying a baccalaureate degree.
  • It is only fair to mention at this point that UW administrators themselves have generated what seems like an endless series of public relations gaffes this past year.

None of that is insurmountable in a state that built a magnificent infrastructure for higher education. We issue from citizens who valued education and made genuine sacrifices to ensure that children everywhere in the state lived within reach of a university campus; we hail from a state that claims the nation’s first kindergarten, where the idea for Social Security was hatched and disability insurance premiered. We speak with nostalgic pride of the Wisconsin Idea, that notion that the university should serve as a laboratory of ideas to inform public policy, that the boundaries of the university were the boundaries of the state.

I am confident we can and will recapture the public’s imagination and re-center liberal education in our plans for Wisconsin’s future. Much is already in motion with LEAP, noted in the sheet headed “LEAP Forward Wisconsin.” I would add that UW-Oshkosh has already been recognized as a national model by both ACE and the AAC&U for their commitment to LEAP initiatives.

LEAP gives us a powerful controlling metaphor to turn all public discourse related to the university into a conversation about how our investment in education connects to our economic outlook. What would success look like?

  • Institutions of higher education will collaborate with the state to define and collect the data necessary to drive effective advocacy with vivid, convincing narratives.
  • The argument for a state and nation’s investment to make a liberal education broadly accessible and affordable will be data-driven and advanced in economic terms. And the metrics to gauge return on that investment will measure progress of both students and of the community and state, and will be checked annually to engage debate should we need to correct our course.
  • That argument for investment in a liberal education will emphasize the importance of preserving the independence of our great universities if they are to both rise above and serve the competing interests of those in the private sector.
  • There will be a statewide echo of public testimony as to the value of a liberal education, led by the business community, recorded by the media, and repeated in a wide variety of settings by unexpected voices.
  • The media will provide ongoing coverage of the campaign as a project of civic journalism.
  • We will be strategic: instead of just lobbying legislative leaders, we will create for them a constituency for reinvestment in liberal education, one characterized by a sense of joint ownership, across sectors, for success.
  • Lawmakers will respond by committing to maintaining a system of higher education that balances the twin demands of excellence and mass access.
  • LEAP will require/foster bold, collaborative leadership, with participation from the academy, the state house and the private sector.

The final Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education was recently released, signed by all but one member: ACE President David Ward refused. The report has many important findings, and calls for standardized tests and federal monitoring of quality with a primary focus on “meaningful student learning outcomes” – an echo of the call of LEAP to define what students today need to know and be able to do. But where LEAP and the National Leadership Council have labored to provide that definition, the Spellings Commission does not even enter into the discussion, essentially leaving the definition of learning outcomes to testing agencies.

We are poised to answer the challenge to improved outcomes with high, clearly articulated standards and research already done and in motion by LEAP. I am here to invite you to imagine a bold vision for Wisconsin’s pilot design. Great pieces to this vision are in place, but vulnerable when done in a piecemeal fashion. A clearly articulated vision for higher education in this state will help campus-specific growth plans adhere, as engaged partnerships across the state, speaking in unison in a new language accessible to all, lay the structural support for a growing system. We simply need concerted coordination of all the moving parts and ongoing data collection to keep the argument strong and accountability credible.

When properly framed, we can make stunning stories of exciting work already being done, those islands of innovation, visible. The AAC&U provides us well-wrought tools to build a framework for Wisconsin’s future. We have a profound responsibility to the public to find more ways to articulate the return on education to our nation’s overall wealth, to assert the public value of a liberal education in an era of global competition so as to renew the state’s commitment to higher education.

Lawton, Barbara. 2006. "Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton’s remarks to the UW Board of Regents." University of Wisconsin System. Aug. 17, 2006.