Friday, March 28, 2008

Memo to the Next President on Education Reform

Lawrence Summers on education reform;

Q: ...As I told you I’m writing an essay for the next president of the United States with recommendations for federal higher education policy. Would you give me three major recommendations you would like to have in the book to be presented to her?

LS: I’ll make you a deal. You tell me for sure who is going to read it and I’ll give you three very good recommendations. First, there needs to be a substantial increase in reform in the availability of financial aid. It’s great that Harvard is able to do the kinds of thing that it is able to do with its $38 billion endowment, but it is really a tragedy that if you look in the United States today, as somebody put it very directly, rich dumb kids are much more likely to go to good universities than poor smart kids. You can just see it in the statistics and it’s wrong and it’s about financial aid and effort. That is the first thing I would say. The second I would say is that, much as my colleagues in higher education don’t like these ideas, it wouldn’t hurt to start thinking about ways of, at least on an informal basis, evaluating what happens in universities and trying to come to judgments about the effectiveness in education and research of different universities. I’m going to give you four. Third, to take one that will be sort of universally popular but difficult, it is nuts that at the beginning of the century, the beginning of the life science century, we are cutting the NIH for the first time in history, and people under 40 basically can’t get grants. It is just crazy, with all the progress that is possible. Last and not unimportant, there are few things that are crazier than the combination of tenure and mandatory retirement. It is sort of beyond belief that you have science departments in great universities where the decisions as to who the next generation is going to be made are being made by people in their 70s. Not only are they occupying larger amounts of laboratory space, filling slots that could be given to other people, they are also the decision makers with veto power as to who the scholars of the next generation are going to be, and it is just crazy. It would make a very substantial contribution to at least the leading institutions of higher education if an exemption were crafted for mandatory retirement. It should say something about how weird this is in a way that the professors who are least likely to retire are in the sciences. Something should be done.

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