Robert Kennedy, former president of the University of Maine
Higher education must make tough decisions to
improve preparation of the workforce
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview January 23, 2015
John Adams, Dave Broden
(vice chair), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy
Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director), Robert Kennedy, Dan
Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder (associate director),
Clarence Shallbetter, Fred Zimmerman.
consultant Robert Kennedy is emphatic that visionary leadership and a
willingness to change and make tough decisions characterize the
universities and states leading in innovation and at the cutting edge
of economic development. Those factors are key to any attempts
to improve Minnesota's postsecondary system and refocus its efforts
toward maintaining and bettering the quality of the state's workforce.
He notes that land-grant universities were
created to focus on technology development, economic development and
job creation to help the middle class. They were to provide a liberal,
but practical, education to the members of the working classes. But,
Kennedy points out, over the past 20 years, in all colleges and
universities, and particularly in the community colleges, there has
been an emphasis on reducing technical education in favor of the
sciences and liberal arts.
He states that one of the biggest errors in
higher education is losing the distinction between the technical
colleges and the community colleges. He says it's not necessary to
undo the merger of community colleges and technical colleges in
Minnesota, but we must recognize that the pendulum has swung too far
away from technical education. He suggests that the schools would have
a more technically oriented curriculum if they were funded to do that.
He recommends putting someone in charge of recreating technical
education in Minnesota.
He calls on business and industry to reach
out to the leaders of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU)
system and the University of Minnesota. By doing that, he believes
business could have a great influence on shaping some of the state's
postsecondary training programs. He also calls for more emphasis on
improving the K-12 education system.
Robert Kennedy is a
postsecondary education consultant and former leader of postsecondary
institutions in several states. He was born and raised in west-central
Minnesota and currently lives in Baxter, Minn.
He was founding president of the Connecticut
Board of Regents for Higher Education and CEO of Connecticut State
Colleges and Universities (ConnSCU) from September 2011 to 2012. He
was president of the University of Maine from 2004 to June 30, 2011,
and currently is president emeritus. From 2000 to 2004, he was
executive vice president and provost of the University of Maine.
From 1992 to 2000, Kennedy was vice
president at Texas A&M University and from 1989 to 1992, he was vice
president at the University of Maryland. Previous positions included
the National Science Foundation, University of Iowa, Washington State
University and The Ohio State University.
He earned a bachelor's degree in plant
science in 1968 from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Botany
in 1974 from the University of California, Berkeley.
Background Since the Civic Caucus released
its statement on human capital
in September 2014, it has concentrated on learning more about the
challenges of maintaining a strong workforce in Minnesota in the
coming years. The Civic Caucus interviewed Robert Kennedy to get his
perspective on changes needed in postsecondary education to adequately
prepare and train students to fill the current and future jobs that
will keep Minnesota's economy competitive in the years to come.
Note: Kennedy clarified during the
discussion that he used the term "community colleges" to refer to both
traditionally more academically oriented junior colleges and more
practically oriented technical colleges.
Lincoln signed the law creating the land-grant university system in
1862. Higher education consultant Robert Kennedy called it a
"visionary moment" and pointed out that his own career experience has
been largely at land-grant universities. From the beginning, he said,
the land-grant universities were to focus on technology development,
economic development and job creation to help the middle class.
land-grant college or
is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or
Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.
The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first
Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics and the
mechanic arts, as well as classical studies, so members of the working
classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.
Under the 1862 act, each
eligible state received a total of 30,000 acres of federal land,
either within or contiguous to its boundaries, for each member of
Congress the state had as of the census of 1860. The land, or the
proceeds from its sale, was to be used toward establishing and funding
the land-grant institutions.
There is at least one land-grant institution
in every state and territory of the United States, as well as the
District of Columbia. Most land-grant universities are large public
institutions, but there are several private land-grant institutions,
as well, including MIT, Cornell University and the University of
Delaware. Under the original law, states were expected to contribute
to the maintenance of their land-grant institutions, as well as to
provide their buildings. In addition to the income from the original
land grants, as of 2012, the appropriations of federal funds to aid
the states in the maintenance of land-grant institutions amount to
more than $550 million annually. The institutions also receive
additional federal research funding.
Approximately eighty percent of all patents
given in the U.S. have their basis in land-grant university research.
"Those institutions do a great job of practical research," Kennedy
said. He noted that universities and colleges are often thought of as
economic engines. Citing MIT, a land-grant university, as an example,
he said the school's graduates have started 7,000 companies with
worldwide sales of $164 billion in Massachusetts alone and 4,100
companies with about $134 billion in worldwide sales in California.
"MIT is the gold standard for return on investment from an economic
and educational standpoint," he said.
As president of the University of Maine from
2004 to 2011, Kennedy said he tried to emphasize the job and economic
development potential of the University, in line with the land-grant
Over the past 20 years, in all colleges and
universities and particularly in the community colleges, there has
been an emphasis on a reduction in technical education in favor of the
sciences and liberal arts. Kennedy said this trend has resulted
from social pressure within the country as a whole, students' choices
of major and parental involvement. "There are a lot of things coming
together to de-emphasize technical training at colleges and
universities," he said. "Academics spend a lot of time debating
training versus education," he added. "Some are highly
offended if you refer to what they're doing as training."
Most students preparing for a career need
help choosing their educational and career paths at both the secondary
and postsecondary level, he said. However, at community colleges, some
guidance counselors have up to 1,000 students they're counseling. He
pointed out that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is stressing the need for
more guidance counselors. "They can be extremely important in terms of
a student's career," Kennedy said.
There is a lack of cooperation throughout
higher education at all levels and all institutions. "Essentially
colleges are in competition with one another," Kennedy said. "They
rarely cooperate or share resources. That lack of cooperation is the
biggest sin in higher education, because it drives up the cost. It's
just not taking advantage of the efficiencies and the expertise that
universities have. Everybody tries to do everything."
Funding has a lot to do with it, he said,
because the colleges are funded independently and each institution
wants the biggest share it can possibly get. "There's a perception
that if they're seen as cooperating, their funding will decrease," he
said. "It's very, very inefficient."
But, Kennedy said, funding agencies and
university systems like cooperation. They want to reward it. Executive
and board decisions made around university systems should stress
cooperation, he said.
One of the best trends in higher education
is a reduction in the redundancy in course offerings, although it
doesn't happen very often. When Kennedy was working at Texas A&M
University, it started accepting all credits from a nearby community
college. This reduced the course redundancy and helped speed students
through the system and out into the job market. But, he said, his
experience with community colleges in other places is that there still
is not much cooperation.
Another hopeful area of cooperation is
awarding high school students credit for college courses. Kennedy
said a study at the University of Maine showed that students who have
taken college courses in high school do better in college than those
who do not. Also, taking college courses in high school will speed
students to a degree and get them into the workforce sooner. "It's not
a four-year degree anymore," he said. "The average student takes 4.7
or 4.8 years to get a degree. Part of the delay is due to students'
indecision about what to major in." He said that speaks to the
importance of guidance counselors.
It's important to put students' creativity
to work. Kennedy said that as part of the University of Maine's
effort to stress innovation and economic development, it started a
Student Innovation Center. He said the center was very successful and
was responsible for starting four to six companies every year. He
noted that the University was consistently in the top 10 universities
nationally for the economic development impact of its research.
Effective in 1995, Minnesota consolidated
state universities, 34 technical colleges and 21 community colleges
to form the Minnesota State
Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.
Kennedy said that about three years ago,
Connecticut used the MnSCU model to create the Connecticut State
Colleges and Universities (ConnSCU) system. From 2011 to 2012, Kennedy
served as chancellor of ConnSCU, which includes the state's four
universities, 12 community colleges and Charter Oak State College.
ConnSCU developed an agreement that all courses would transfer within
the system. Then the University of Connecticut and the state's private
colleges all entered into the agreement, as well.
Kennedy pointed out that postsecondary
students, on average, will have four different colleges on their
transcript when they complete their degree. If a course doesn't
transfer from one school to another, the student and the parents have
lost time and money.
In response to an interviewer's question,
Kennedy said up to 83 percent of the students in Connecticut's
community colleges require remedial education. At the state
universities, probably 20 to 30 percent of the students need remedial
Visionary leadership and a willingness to
take a chance and make tough decisions characterize the universities
and states leading in innovation and at the cutting edge of economic
development. Kennedy said that visionary leadership is evident at
the level of the CEO, the board and/or the state's executive level.
One of the biggest errors in higher
education is losing the distinction between the technical colleges and
the community colleges.
said in 2004, Maine Gov. John Baldacci eliminated the technical
colleges and merged them into one community college system. "Once
they're community colleges," Kennedy said, "there's a tendency to move
toward more liberal arts courses."
Funding of community colleges/technical
schools should be more technically and practically oriented.
Kennedy said the schools would have a technically oriented curriculum
if they were funded that way. He believes strongly in the use of
industrial advisory boards or user groups to keep the institutions
more on task. "Business groups can have a big influence in making sure
that technical aspect is not overlooked," he said.
Land-grant universities have been
disproportionately successful in developing technology, but they are
ill equipped to deal with the educatonal achievement gap. A
disproportionate number of graduates in any state come from land-grant
universities, Kennedy said, but the schools don't deal successfully
with the achievement gap, which is one of the biggest issues facing us
as a country. Responding to a question about resolving income
inequality, Kennedy said that land-grant universities continue to
stress the technology and knowledge economy, which won't help bring
the two ends of the income spectrum together.
The sophisticated manufacturers in
Connecticut rely more on on-the-job training to train their employees
than on universities or technical schools. However, about four
years ago, the Connecticut Legislature provided $11 million to ConnSCU
to start four manufacturing centers across the state, Kennedy noted.
Those centers helped turn out lots of graduates in advanced
manufacturing. "Industry was clamoring for these people," he said. An
industry advisory council helped create the curriculum. "ConnSCU still
can't produce enough for the needs of the state, but the centers made
a big impact," he said.
There's a big disparity in the perception of
public education in the Midwest and the West Coast versus the East
Coast. An interviewer asked what impact the large private research
universities in the Northeast that get generous support from the
private sector have on the public higher education system. In
Minnesota, Kennedy said, the preeminent university is a public
institution, but in the East, no one wants to go to a public
university. "But the private universities in the East aren't
terribly applied, other than MIT," he said.
It's not necessary to undo the merger of
community colleges and technical colleges in Minnesota or Connecticut,
but the pendulum has certainly swung too far away from technical
education. "I'd go back to the funding," Kennedy said. "By
providing funding in certain areas, it could really sway the direction
students and colleges take. I would hope businesses and industries
could have a big influence in suggesting ways that money could be
spent. There definitely needs to be more of a practical orientation."
The most important factor is visionary
leadership and a willingness to make tough decisions. "I don't see
that happening," Kennedy said. "The chancellor of MnSCU, through the
board, could be influenced enormously on what the proper balance is
between practical or applied education and a liberal arts curriculum
in the technical and community colleges."
There's a crisis right now in having people
properly trained for the jobs that are available. "I would put
somebody in charge of technical education," Kennedy said, "who is
specifically charged with recreating technical education in
Minnesota." He said a mechanism could be created to bring people
together to meet businesses' needs.
"I'm a little bit critical of the University
of Minnesota (U of M) for not stressing practical or technical
education," he added. "They've got to do that. We can't let them off
the hook." But an interviewer asked why the University should do what
technical colleges are mandated to do.
Looking back at the decision to merge the
state universities, the community colleges and the technical colleges
to create MnSCU, a different decision would probably have been better.
An interviewer pointed out that we could have just merged the
state universities and the community colleges and left the technical
colleges separate. Or, he said, we could have made the state
universities part of the University of Minnesota system.
Interviewer: Only 15 percent of U.S. college
graduates earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and
math (STEM) fields. In comparison, the interviewer said, STEM
graduates make up 28 percent of college graduates in Germany, 22
percent in England and 38 percent in Korea. And the school year in
Korea is 240 days per year, he added. He noted that probably the best
manufacturing school in the world is Nanyang Technological University
in Singapore. "Will people continue to come to the U.S. for higher
education when costs escalate?" he asked. "There are lots of smart
people in other places."
Kennedy responded there is a big expansion
of engineering schools in China. He lamented the fact that there are
lots of students coming out of the K-12 system in the U.S. who are
ill-prepared for postsecondary engineering programs.
Universities are the most "siloed"
institutions that have ever existed. An interviewer commented that
the major rewards for university professors are found in the silos of
the field in which they're teaching and researching. Kennedy responded
that Texas A&M University offered interdisciplinary research grants to
get different people to work together. "It takes very little money to
lead faculty members someplace," he said. It's important to get
faculty to work across institutions.
If business groups would meet with the
leaders of the U of M or MnSCU, they could have a great influence on
shaping some of the postsecondary training programs. "Business is
not active enough in doing that," Kennedy said. "And that's how
decisions are made." He said business should do the reaching out,
since the institutions themselves won't necessarily do that. "There's
an opportunity for so much more," he said. "There's an enormous gap
and an opportunity to collaborate much more."
Interviewer: Making change in the
postsecondary system requires someone with the political authority to
lead people. The interviewer believes there must be an overarching
authority to hold the system accountable and asked Kennedy whether he
agrees that we need a structure that allows political leaders to take
Kennedy responded that most states have a
Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), but the boards haven't
worked, perhaps because they haven't had enough authority. (According
to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Minnesota's HECB became
the Higher Education Services Office in 1995. The current state Office
of Higher Education replaced that agency in 2005.)
Interviewer: Business seems far more risk
averse than ever and because of that, does not want to invest in the
development of its human capital. The interviewer stated that
business is asking the public to take the risk of investing in the
training of its workers, while also saying business taxes are too
high. "There is a disconnect there," she said. She also worries that
business wants students to be narrowly trained to be workers suited to
their particular business operations, rather than to receive a broader
education which would offer more opportunities.
Another interviewer commented that there is
a huge variance in companies and that some are willing to make the
investment in training. He stated that across-the-board policy
initiatives treating all companies the same might not produce the same
Kennedy responded that MIT, for example, is
enormously successful in generating entrepreneurship and technical
expertise, but also requires all students to pursue a
well-rounded education. "You really need that combination," he said.
Interviewer: We have several intersecting
things all happening at the same time: what kids want to do and what
they're encouraged to do, what the state needs, what schools are
willing to do and what companies want. "We have institutions in
place that prohibit or encourage different things," the interviewer
continued. "Culture is very important here. We don't value your kid
becoming a $100,000-a-year plumber. We value them majoring in
psychology and becoming a taxi driver and living in the basement.
What's wrong with this picture? We don't expect much of our kids in
high school and then we complain about kids not being prepared as
citizens, employees or healthy adults. We never taught them how to
grow up and how to think."
Kennedy responded that a lot of emphasis
must be put on K-12 education. To help improve the K-12 system, he
believes we need to look at the curriculum very carefully. "That's
part of the basis for the inadequacies," Kennedy said. "For example,
it's a shame students are coming out of high school and college not
literate in computer skills."
The state needs visionary leadership and a willingness to change.
"Visionary leadership may be more common than the willingness to
change," Kennedy said. "But we have to change."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman