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Text of Commissioner's Remarks

Thank you, Chairman Desmond, and thanks to all of you for being here today. Participants in this conference include presidents, trustees, academic officers and senior administrators, as well as faculty and staff from every one of our public colleges and universities. We are also joined by members of the Board of Higher education, by Education Secretary Paul Reville, and by several distinguished guests who will participate in our discussions and will be introduced in the course of the program. I am especially grateful to the presidents of the community colleges and state universities and President Jack Wilson of UMass for their steady support and collaboration as we have shaped the Vision Project and also to the staff of the Department of Higher Educaton who have worked hard for many months to organize today’s sessions. My thanks to you all.

Three weeks ago The Boston Globe ran a front-page story on UMass Amherst. The theme of that story was familiar to anyone who has worked in public higher education in Massachusetts: the university community has high aspirations, but those hopes and plans have been consistently thwarted by public apathy and governmental neglect. The story was clear about the source of the problem. Quoting a former governor the Globe evoked a deeply rooted doubt in the body politic as to whether Massachusetts needs excellence in public higher education. After all, we have Harvard and MIT, not to mention a distinguished additional array of private colleges and universities. So who needs a first-class public research university? And, as for our teaching-oriented state universities and community colleges—they don’t even get a mention.

How wrong, how utterly wrong is this perspective. The University community was outraged that the Globe failed to credit its many outstanding achievements. I join their dismay at the one-sidedness of the story. But frustration should not blind us to the painful truths the Globe story contained. Many in this state do doubt the importance as well as the quality of public higher education. Many do believe, deep down, that Massachusetts has done well enough for many years based on the excellence of our private institutions and that those institutions will enable us to flourish in the future. Those of us who have worked for years in public higher education have all encountered these attitudes in one form or another. We all share a deep frustration that these biases have historically limited the readiness of the state to support our institutions. But the question we must ask is this: given these challenges that we all know we face, how can we bring about change? What active steps can we take to help the citizens of the state understand the quality of our work and the importance of our colleges and universities.

Let’s start with a reality check. The comment of the former governor quoted by the Globe is not only wrong, it is dated—dated when he said it and even more dated today. Here’s a memo to Massachusetts. The world has changed. What may have been true historically is no longer true. Our state is the quintessential knowledge economy. New jobs are in fields that require a college education. Where is this workforce going to come from? The population is not growing. Domestic in-migration is non-existent. Bright young professionals trained in our private universities often leave the state after graduation. The college-educated workers, executives and entrepreneurs of the future will come from our public colleges, all of them—our community colleges, our state universities and UMass. These institutions educate two-thirds of the high school graduates who attend college within the state. They are doing a terrific job, but they can’t sustain quality and affordability forever while enrollments grow and support is reduced. So wake up, Massachusetts. This is the twenty-first century. End of memo. Sincerely, Richard M. Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education.

Governor Patrick, to his great credit, recognizes the need for change and has proposed increased state support. Some members of the Legislature also recognize the need for a new course. But the politics of change are difficult. Established patterns tend to persist. In the end, Massachusetts will have the system of public higher education that the people of the Commonwealth demand. That is what this conference is really about. The premise of the Vision Project is that to change the historic patterns that have held us back we need to change underlying attitudes, not berate leaders who are often doing their best in difficult circumstances. Years of complaints by many of us have not produced significant increases in investment. The Vision Project involves a different approach.

It is a call for aspiration, accountability and unity in public higher education. To appropriate the current cliché: we need to be the change we want to see.

I believe three things. First, we need to be about quality, even as we struggle with limited resources. As we demonstrate excellence students will flock to us—as indeed they are currently doing—and public support will follow. Second, we must hold ourselves accountable for excellence. Our graduates will be advertisements for us, but we must also set aspirational goals, measure our performance against other states, and let the public know how we are doing. And third, we need to do these things together, all of public higher education. Ultimately, changing attitudes about the importance and quality of public higher education as a whole is the challenge we need to address. We will not succeed by differentiating this or that institution from the system. Of course every college and university should celebrate its special strengths, but to most citizens our campuses are all part of public higher education. Attitudes towards every campus will be colored and ultimately circumscribed by attitudes towards the whole.

Those are the three general themes of the Vision Project and of this conference: aspiration, accountability, unity. Let me back up a bit now and describe the Vision Project in more concrete terms.

This effort has been a long time in the making. Throughout last year there were discussions involving the Board of Higher Education, the presidents of the state universities and community colleges, and the leadership of UMass about how we can most effectively respond to declining support at a time when our importance to the state is greater than ever. The Vision Project arose from the perception that we need a new approach to advancing our cause. That approach involves going back to first principles by reminding ourselves of our most important contributions to the state. So the first thing we did in shaping the Vision Project was articulate a Vision, a brief, foundational statement of what Massachusetts most needs us to accomplish. Here is the statement that we produced, vetted, critiqued and tweaked during months of discussion:

We will produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation.
We will lead the nation in research that drives economic development.

This statement is not a slogan to decorate a poster. It is something far more important. For one thing, it expresses something that thoughtful members of our civic leadership truly believe, that the primary assets of Massachusetts in the fierce competition among states for talent, investment and jobs are the educational level of our workforce and our capacity for innovation rooted in university-based research. Talk to anyone who works on economic development, and they will tell you the same thing: Massachusetts can’t compete on housing costs or labor costs or health care costs; we can’t compete on the quality of our transportation systems, or the efficiency of our permitting processes, or the level of our taxes. In all these comparisons the Commonwealth can’t hope to be much better than average. Where we can compete and must compete is the quality of our workforce and the strength of our research enterprise. This is something that people truly—and rightly—believe. The Vision Project is grounded in that reality. Our job is to help people connect the dots: if you want the nation’s best-educated citizenry and workforce, you need to invest in public higher education. You can’t have one without the other.

The second important thing the Vision statement does is provide the basis for a public agenda for public higher education. We asked ourselves the question: if the Vision statement defines what the state most needs us to accomplish, what must be true for us to claim that we are doing that job? How can we demonstrate that we are, in fact, producing the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation? How can we document that we are national leaders in research that drives economic development? This question led us to formulate the key outcomes that constitute the functional heart of the Vision Project: seven explicit, measurable goals to which we will aspire as a system.

Here they are, five educational goals and two research-oriented goals. The educational goals are very basic. We will send more of our high school graduates on to college than any other state. We will graduate students from our public campuses at higher rates than our peer institutions in other states. We will develop authentic assessments of learning to demonstrate that our students are achieving high levels of intellectual competence in comparison with students elsewhere. We will align our programs with the workforce needs of the state. And we will eliminate disparities among ethnic, racial and economic subpopulations with respect to all these educational outcomes. The research goals, which focus on the work of UMass, are also very straightforward. We will be a national leader in research related to economic development and in economic activity derived from that research.

There are two more key elements to the Vision Project: the metrics and the annual report. With the seven key outcomes defined, we spent considerable time last year understanding how we could measure our standing with respect to each. This work was led by the Office of Institutional Research in the Department of Higher Education, but it involved consultation with institutional research professionals around the system and repeated discussions with presidents and chancellors. Out of this work has come an agreed-upon set of metrics that we will use to tell ourselves how we compare with other states with respect to the outcomes on which we seek national leadership. Some of these metrics, I should stress, are works in progress. The Working Group on Student Learning Outcomes and Assessment is currently considering how best to measure student learning. Important discussions are occurring about how best to measure student success, especially in community colleges.

The final element of the Vision Project is the annual report. We plan to publish the data on our standing and progress with respect to each of the Vision Project goals in a well-produced annual report to the people of the Commonwealth. Data will be reported by segment, not by individual institution, to keep the focus on the overall achievements of the system. This is where the accountability part comes in. The message of the annual report will be: you know you need public higher education to do these important things. Well, we are doing them. In some areas we are national leaders. In other areas we have work to do. But we are doing that work. We are making progress, and on the whole, we are a much stronger educational enterprise than many of you think we are. So we are about aspiration. We are about excellence. We deserve your support, and we need that support to accomplish what you need us to accomplish for the Commonwealth.

The Vision Project was presented to the Board of Higher Education last May. At that meeting, representatives of the community colleges, state universities and UMass all spoke in favor of the effort, which the Board itself then strongly endorsed. With that vote the challenge shifted from designing the Project to implementing it, and it is that challenge that brings us to today’s conference. It also brings us to the third theme of the Vision Project, which is unity.

The Vision Project articulates goals that are shared by every one of our campuses. Indeed, I am confident that every public college and university has been engaged in efforts to achieve Vision Project outcomes for some time. UMass has focused for years on research the drives economic development. Our state universities are now in the top ten among their peers in graduation rates. Our community colleges have continued to serve all comers with a high-quality education despite crowded facilities and no support for additional faculty. So there is nothing new or exotic in the goals of the Vision Project. What is new is a focused, system-wide commitment to pursue these goals collaboratively, to pursue national leadership at the system level with regard to them, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable for results.

The question now becomes: how do we do this together? How can we work most effectively, across the system, to achieve even more robust results with respect to Vision Project goals than is currently the case? That is the question I hope we can begin to address this afternoon.

Each of the five working sessions after lunch will be devoted to one aspect of the Vision Project. Four will focus on the educational goals—improving college-going rates, achieving high graduation and student success rates, developing strong assessments of student learning, and aligning our programs with workforce needs. We are not devoting a separate workshop to the fifth goal—eliminating educational disparities among subpopulations—because that goal is embedded in each of the other four. The fifth workshop will be devoted to the metrics.

Planning for each of the working sessions has been led by a senior member of the Department of Higher Education in collaboration with representatives from the campuses. The goal of these sessions is dialogue between campus leaders involved in work related to Vision Project goals and those with parallel responsibilities at the system level. We hope to learn more about campus activities in each area and also to better understand how the Department of Higher Education can promote collaboration, coordination and mutual support to advance these efforts.

The ultimate purpose of the working sessions is to set in motion an array of activities across the system that will improve our results with respect to Vision Project outcomes. This is the real meaning of the unity theme. We are also hoping that each conference participant will return to your home campus with a broadened context for your work. We hope that trustees and presidents will take away a heightened sense of how to integrate Vision Project goals with campus priorities. We hope that those involved in admissions, or student support, or teaching and learning, or learning outcomes assessment, or workforce development, or institutional research, or collaboration with our K-12 colleagues will come away with a deepened sense of how their activities can be enriched by participation in system-wide efforts.

We need your help in communicating the purpose of the Vision Project to campus communities. We were able to include only a small percentage of our 11,000 faculty and staff in this event, so our request is that each of you, when you return to your campus communities, help your colleagues understand why the Vision Project is important, and how their work can help advance this effort. We will, of course, welcome comments from any of you about how we in Department of Higher Education can communicate effectively with the campuses about this effort.

Let me close with one additional thought. I have worked in higher education in Massachusetts for most of my adult life. Many of you have also been part of public higher education for many years. It is easy to be skeptical about change. How many efforts to persuade our leaders to place a higher priority on public higher education have members of this audience seen? How often have we set high goals only to be asked to achieve them with limited or even declining state support? How often have we said to ourselves: we know we are doing important work well, yet many seem not to understand that fact or appreciate it? It is tempting to be resigned in the face of entrenched patterns that have made it difficult for us to achieve what we want for the state, for our institutions, and for our students.

I urge us not to be discouraged. We are educators, but we work in a political context. As Max Weber once observed, “Politics is the slow boring of hard boards.” To make change, one needs to identify goals that are important to the body politic even if most people don’t yet understand them, and then to pursue those goals relentlessly, doing one’s job well in the present while also working toward a breakthrough moment when the public consciousness is altered, when the political dynamics shift, and when real change becomes possible. I believe that just such a breakthrough moment is taking shape. For years educational policy dicussions have focused on K-12 reform. There are many indications, beginning with the policies of President Obama and including the support of our Governor and comments from other governmental and business leaders, of a growing recognition that that K-12 reform is pointless unless the graduates of our high schools go on to quality colleges and universities and succeed in those institutions. The state does need us to be first rate. The goal of the Vision Project is to advance the developing consciousness of this fact and position us to take advantage of the change when it comes. I ask for your help and support.

I appreciate your participation in today’s event. Thank you.