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Bill Tierney

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Reviewing the Year

When I look back on the events of education in general and higher education in particular this year I am struck by how much my view of these events depends on how far I look forward.

If I am only concerned about the immediate present then the year turned out pretty okay. President Obama was reelected which suggests better policies next year than if the other guy had won. In California we passed Proposition 30 and avoided having to cut a billion dollars out of the higher education budget and jettisoning about a month of the school year in our schools. At USC we are going to start a new school of dance, which I find startling. Over at AERA we submitted an amicus brief in support of affirmative action in college admissions. Education also has come on people’s radar screen again in a manner that supports notions of the public good. Even though tuition continues to increase, it is increasing a touch more slowly. More students are graduating from postsecondary institutions.

The disquiet occurs when I think beyond our immediate needs. I continue to think we are not very well positioned to deal with the future. The cuts in California are a perfect example. Nothing good happened when we passed Proposition 30. What happened is that we avoided very bad things from happening.

Perhaps a wilderness analogy will help. Barry and I have been members of the Sierra Club for over 20 years. We have spent a great deal of time trying to preserve and protect the wilderness from destruction. But preserving a wilderness area doesn’t mean the earth is better than it was yesterday; it simply means that it’s not worse tomorrow than it was today. The Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, however, actually started to purify our waters—the lakes and rivers weren’t simply maintained as polluted waters; they got better. Air pollution also has lessened in Los Angeles since the 1950s.

I have no qualms with fighting fights to prevent bad things from happening. I also recognize that we need to fight fights to enable good things to happen. And I’m not sure we have done that very much this year with regard to education. Our schools certainly are not demonstrably better because of one or another action or policy. We are defending affirmative action in the Supreme Court, not trying to devise ways to increase college-going for students of color. We still need significantly more students to graduate from high school, and go to college. We need more students ready for college. We need more students graduating from college. And our colleges and universities also could be arguably worse this year than last.

Most importantly, we seem no better prepared to deal with the changes that advances in technology suggest. Many of my colleagues do not see the future as significantly different from today. The portrait of the future is largely a change here or there from what we have now. As I’ve written before, I don’t think that’s a sustainable picture.

The result is that if we look at our actions this past year I don’t think we have taken many significant steps to think about how to deal with these changes—or even understand them.

My hope for next year is that we more forthrightly deal with the forces of change and consider how to maintain our core principles while embracing change. One can always hope.

Best wishes for the new year.

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