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The Vision Project: A Public Agenda for Higher Education in Massachusetts: Aspiration, Accountability, Unity

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Commissioner's Remarks at "Time to Lead" Launch

Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education

Delivered by Commissioner Richard M. Freeland on September 20, 2012, at the Massachusetts State House.

We have invited all of you here for one simple purpose: to focus attention on the role that our public colleges and universities play in ensuring the prosperity of this state and its citizens. We think it is time for a fresh look at this matter. 

We think that public higher education is vastly more important to the state today than it has been historically. And so we seek your collective support, as leaders of this Commonwealth in a variety of realms, in promoting the cause of excellence at our state-supported academic institutions.

And so this report asks the people of Massachusetts some basic questions: Is excellence in public higher education important to us? Do we aspire to national leadership in this field? And if we answer these questions in the affirmative, what will it take for Massachusetts to have one of the top-performing public systems in the nation? 

When I began working at the University of Massachusetts over forty years ago, the landscape of higher education looked very different than it does today. In the early 1970s higher education in Massachusetts was first and foremost about private colleges and universities. We had at that time as many public campuses as we have today, but by almost every measure, public higher education was the junior partner in the state’s academic enterprise. Private colleges and universities were the ones that brought our state acclaim as an educational leader. And private colleges and universities still educated a majority of our state’s high school graduates.  

But Massachusetts today, as our report makes clear, is not the state it was forty years ago. We still have a mixed public/private economy of higher education. But public campuses have come to play an increasingly important role in providing educational opportunities for our people as well as in contributing to the scholarly strength to the commonwealth. Today, two thirds of the graduates of Massachusetts high schools who attend college within the state are attending one of our public colleges or universities. Today, when it comes to the education of our young people as well as our adults who return to college, public higher education is playing the leading role.

Along with these changes in higher education, our state’s economy has been evolving. In the early 1970s Massachusetts still had a robust manufacturing sector. In those years only 28 percent of the jobs in the United States required a college degree, and the picture in Massachusetts was not radically different. But in recent times our state’s economy has been driven by knowledge-based enterprises with very different workforce needs. Recent studies predict that by 2018, 63 percent of the jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education—more than double the percentage of forty years ago. And Massachusetts will lead the country in this respect, with 70 percent of our jobs requiring college education.

These twin transformations of our economy and our educational landscape provided the impetus for an initiative of the Board of Higher Education called the Vision Project, which is described in the report we are releasing today. This strategic agenda represents the Board’s recognition that, whatever may have been true in the past, Massachusetts cannot have the future we all want without excellence in public higher education. And let me be clear that excellence in this context we mean excellence framed by the missions of our segments: excellent community colleges dedicated to serving their regions; excellent state universities where the teaching mission is paramount; and an excellent University of Massachusetts as the state’s research university.

The Vision Project is built on the premise that Massachusetts needs the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation and needs to be a national leader in research the drives economic development, and that it is the job of public higher education to make sure these two things are true. Over the past two years all three parts of our system have come together to craft a plan to achieve these outcomes for the state. That plan is based on achieving national leadership in the seven key outcomes in education and research that were identified in the video you saw a few moments ago.

The report we release today, in comparing our current standing in these areas with other states around the country, establishes a baseline that we will use to track our progress and report that progress to the people of the state. This baseline data tells us two fundamental things: first, that good work is occurring all across our public campuses; and second, that we have work to do to achieve our aspirations.  For example,

So the report tells a story of solid achievement, of a system that is in some areas delivering above average results despite per-student funding that falls below the national average. The report is clear we are committed to pursuing our goal of national leadership aggressively and summarizes a rich array of strategies and programmatic initiatives through which we are currently working to improve our performance. I am proud of this work, and I think you will be also as you review the pages of this document.

Time to Lead also stresses the importance of partnerships. We in public higher education know we can’t achieve national leadership by ourselves. We need to work closely with our K-12 colleagues to provide our students with an integrated system of educational opportunities. We need active collaboration with the business and employer communities. We need continuing and even enhanced assistance from the philanthropic community. And, of course, we need an active partnership with our colleagues in state government, in the Administration and the Legislature; we are grateful for the support we have received, and seek your help in pursuing national leadership.

One final word. The work of higher education is hard, and that work is done by faculty and staff across all our public colleges and universities. I would be remiss if I did not salute the women and women who do this work every day of the week. I know they put their hearts and souls into their efforts, frequently doing so with limited resources in the face of daunting educational challenges. This work is difficult but it is also glorious. We feel privileged to be serving the people of Massachusetts in this way. Together we aspire to produce the best educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. With your help, I am confident we can achieve that goal.

Thank you.