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Emory hosts 'Conversation Among Presidents'

It isn't often that the presidents of five Atlanta-area colleges and universities sit down together to talk shop in a public forum.

But when they do, the conversation takes interesting turns:

The social contract between society and higher education … how to cope with both continuity and change … questions of who has access to higher education and how to extend that opportunity to a more racially and economically diverse pool

All of those topics — and more — were up for discussion, as Emory President James W. Wagner met with top administrators from some of Atlanta's leading institutions for the second annual "Conversation Among Presidents" on Wednesday, April 2, in Emory University's Cannon Chapel.

Joining Wagner in the discussion were:

  • Mark P. Becker, president of Georgia State University
  • Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College
  • G.P. "Bud" Peterson, president of Georgia Institute of Technology
  • John Silvanus Wilson Jr., president of Morehouse College

The idea of convening the presidents for a public conversation arose from the awarding of the 2012 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage to William Foege and Georgia Tech's year-long conversation about science, race and ethics. Foege is professor emeritus in the Rollins School of Public Health and winner of the Medal of Freedom award.  

The first conversation began last year at Georgia Tech with a focus on the importance of compassion in higher education. This year's topic addressed "Higher Education and the Evolving Social Contract."

The second conversation, hosted by Emory's Office of Religious Life and the Office of the President, addressed how higher education's role in society has evolved over time, changing public expectations and demands, and the role of education in shaping character, concluding with a question-and-answer session.

Here are some highlights:

Continuity and change in higher education

Becker: "We have to change who's getting educated in America and how we're educating them … Economically, the country cannot continue to prosper and thrive, we cannot maintain our standard of living as long as the bottom half of the population barely participates in education."

Wagner: “I liked (Becker’s) phrase, that we must ‘change who and how’ we are educating, which is certainly the topic of the day. I think the contract as you’ve defined it has evolved to a point where actually I’m afraid society has a smaller expectation for universities and we need to remind them of the larger expectations, not only of teaching, but to create, preserve and apply knowledge."

Peterson: "When you think about the changes in this country that changed higher education — the Morill (Land-grant) Act, the GI Bill and Sputnik, which moved people into science, engineering, computer education programs — all resulted from the recognition that higher education was for the public good. I think we've seen a shift in the past several years away from that philosophy."

Are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and women's colleges still relevant?

Wilson: "America is no longer Number One in the world in terms of having the most educated, competitive and diverse workforce. We haven't been Number One since 1995 … we're Number 16. In order to be Number One again, we need about 8.5 million more graduates by 2020 or 2025. We need HBCUs to move from graduating about 35,000 (students) a year to 50,000 a year … The question of whether they should exist is off the table; they need to do more of their work in order to help us be Number One."

Kiss:  "Women's colleges disproportionately educate women who go on to earn graduate degrees and go on into leadership roles. I continue to believe these institutions play a profoundly important role as incubators of leadership and achievement."

Universities as job creators

Peterson: "Another change we've seen in higher education … is the expectation that universities will take the intellectual ideas that they have and somehow create jobs. Fifteen years ago, nobody talked about how many jobs universities were creating, but it's probably the most common question I get down at the Capitol with the [University System of Georgia Board of] Regents."

Wagner: "You ask people and they say it's about jobs, jobs, jobs. And we say, 'Is it really? Or is it about quality of life?' … If we don't insist on something that expands the human experience, even as we expand the job potential, I think we've failed."

Kiss: "There is a public good that gets lost in too narrow a focus on jobs and salaries a year out from graduation. If we're going to solve or at least start to solve some of the great problems facing humanity — whether it's climate change, problems around public health, environmental degradation — we are going to need people who are broadly educated."

The liberal arts:

Wilson: "At Morehouse, we believe that a liberal arts education is uniquely able to answer the most important question that needs to be asked in the context of education and beyond: 'Who am I?' … We have a lot of people in this country leaving college understanding 'how' but we don't have enough understanding 'why.' I was able to leave Morehouse with a competence and confidence about myself and willing and able and aiming to do extraordinary things with my life … that, to me, is the value of a liberal arts education."

Kiss: "At Agnes Scott, our key question is 'Who will I become? What are the needs of the world and how can my talents and skills address those needs and make a difference?' That notion of the liberal arts, where you're learning modes of inquiry … posing questions, creating solutions, it's what people need to address the most urgent issues of the day. I think it is what leads to a meaningful life, but it's also the ways in which people are best prepared to make a difference."

Ethics and education:

Peterson: "What else do we do in terms of building character and good people, with successful, happy and valued lives? I think one of the big things is that we can make people more globally aware."

Kiss: "Taking seriously the ethical mission of colleges and universities is one way in which we can fulfill our social contract."

Are universities too liberal?

Wagner: "(Universities) need to be proving to everybody we're one of the last remaining forums where people with violently opposed views can engage non-violently. And if we don't… invite that sort of thing, then shame on us."

Access to higher education for Georgia's undocumented students

Peterson: "We ought to be, as a state, able and willing to provide you with an education … In terms of what can we do about it, I know Dr. Becker and I have both spoken with the Board of Regents, and we are employed by the state. We've expressed our opinions about this particular policy, but it is a policy of the regents. I think the regents addressed that policy because … if the regents didn't address this policy in one way or the other, then the Legislature would."

Wagner: "Georgia Tech and Emory are both part of a group called the Association of American Universities (AAU), which has a clear position to take any limitations off (restricting the admissions of) children of undocumented citizens … We have advocated that it would be very positive for our country if when we graduate particularly PhD-level students, we could hand them both a diploma and a green card."

Kiss: "We are very proud of the undocumented students at Agnes Scott and have featured them on the cover of our alumni magazine and have publicly come out in favor of the Dream Act. This is a very, very important human rights issue; it's also one that is very difficult in the State of Georgia … This is going to be a long struggle but I think it is a really important struggle."

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