Five Atlanta college presidents took their seats in black wooden chairs and discussed issues facing modern higher education before an audience of about 100 students, faculty and Atlanta-area residents on Thursday evening.
Held under the spotlights and organ pipes of Emory’s Cannon Chapel, the second annual “Conversation Among Presidents” panel event, a discussion between Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss, Emory University President James W. Wagner, Georgia State University President Mark Becker, Georgia Institute of Technology President G. P. “Bud” Peterson and Morehouse College President John Wilson Jr., addressed the state of higher education in America.
Moderated by Emory-Tibet Partnership Research Fellow and Associate Director for Buddhist Studies Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, the discussion focused predominantly on the changes needed to maintain America’s global competitiveness, the financial and political obstacles the institution leaders face and the dual public and private roles of a college education.
Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life Lisa Garvin introduced the five presidents and Ozawa-de Silva. Ozawa-de Silva began by asking Georgia State University President Mark Becker what he considered to be the most important changes in American colleges and universities today.
Becker, who became Georgia State’s seventh president in January 2009, stressed the fact that the “bottom half” of American society lives without the opportunity to attend a higher education institution and warned of the economic repercussions of this disparity.
“We will not maintain our standard of living if the bottom half of the population is not receiving a proper education,” Becker, a first-generation college student, said. “We have to change who we’re educating in America and how we’re educating them.”
Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss (pronounced “quiche,” not “kiss,” as Ozawa-de Silva noted) added that though a lack of representation by minorities in higher education institutions has improved, there remains work to be done.
“There was a time when it was controversial for women to be educated and to be leaders – it’s still controversial for women to be educated and to be leaders,” the eighth president of the women’s college said, adding that women are “a slight majority” in American colleges and universities today.
Morehouse College President John Wilson, Jr. chimed in, saying that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse and other liberal arts universities “need to be in ‘change or die’ mode” for the U.S. to remain globally competitive. President Barack Obama appointed Wilson as executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs in 2009. Wilson left this position when he became Morehouse’s 11th president in January 2013.
In response to Ozawa-de Silva’s question on the obligation of a college or university to a Jean-Jacques Rousseau-like “social contract,” Wagner responded that though serving the community is a priority for higher education institutions, society has “larger expectations” for such institutions.
“There has been a constant drumbeat of ‘access and affordability’ – we mustn’t walk away from other important aspects of education, like creativity,” Emory’s 19th president of nearly 11 years said of the social contract. “People always ask us [presidents], it’s all about the jobs, jobs, jobs – what about the quality of life?”
Ozawa-de Silva then inquired whether the interests of market or core values of education seemed to garner more power over modern higher education. Eleventh Georgia Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson, elected in April 2009, said he felt that in the last five years, “we’ve seen a shift away” from the more commercial aspects of higher education. Still, the measurement of an institution’s quality, he said, has moved in the opposite direction.
“In an effort to justify our existence, we quantify and use dollar figures to measure the values of our universities,” Peterson, a former NASA employee, said. “Ten years ago, you’d never hear the term ‘ROI’ [return on investment].”
Becker, however, said a school’s commercial interests would inevitably remain significant.
“Let’s be realistic – there have always been market forces,” he said. “There’s never been free education for everyone.”
He added that jobs available for non-college-educated workers that existed five to 10 years ago have disappeared and that the U.S. “needs a more educated population to compete.”
Still, all five said they believed the personal experience of a liberal arts education to be of great importance. Peterson noted that 46 percent of Georgia Tech students study abroad, while Kiss emphasized the need for graduates to become “global citizens.”
Wagner described the necessity of a liberal arts school’s position as “the last living forum” for people of opposing political and ideological views to collaborate and openly discuss their differences. He cited Emory’s Tibetan program and the University’s large number of Chinese students as an example. Wilson joined in, offering an example of Morehouse’s political diversity.
“I just want to say that we have graduated Martin Luther King, Jr. and Herman Cain,” Wilson added. The Chapel roared with laughter as Ozawa-de Silva called for audience members to approach the stage with questions.
Students and graduates from Emory, Georgia State and nearby schools asked the presidents to define a “liberal arts education” and explain their take on the state of K-12 education in the city, among other issues.
One student at Freedom University in Athens, Ga. told the panel that he was ineligible to become accepted at Georgia State, despite his 3.99 GPA and other positive credentials, due to his undocumented immigrant status.
“Because I did not have a nine-digit number, I was not eligible to attend this institution,” he said. “It just hurts when you talk about progress, when you bring up [King] – we are still waiting.”
Peterson and Becker both informed him that they had broached the immigration policy with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, who they said retained control over the policy rather than handing it to the state legislature. Kiss, a daughter of refugees, called the issue “un-American.”
“This issue is very difficult in the state of Georgia,” she told the student. “This is going to be a long struggle, but it’s a very important struggle.” She added that one of her students at Agnes Scott had told her about an undocumented immigrant friend with a perfect GPA who worked in landscaping due to her ineligibility to attend any in-state colleges.
During the post-discussion reception, Becker mentioned that the five presidents, excluding Wilson, who had been elected last year – had gotten to know each other through biannual meetings over the past five years.
Wagner said he was “proud to serve” with his fellow presidents and expressed his overall satisfaction with the event.
“Don’t you think nights like this show that we do what we do for a good reason and that there is creativity and enthusiasm for getting over these obstacles, these hurdles?” he asked.
Kiss said she thought the panel exhibited a “very real conversation” and succeeded in engaging its audience.
Second-year Emory Theology student Christy Oxendine, however, said she thought the discussion merely “scratched the surface” of higher education involvement in surrounding communities, citing the struggles of many high school students to earn their diplomas.
Georgia State graduate Kelvina Burrell said she wished one of the presidents had addressed the issue of student debt.
College sophomore Nicholas Singletary said he felt that his question on the definition of a liberal arts school had been left unanswered.
“The answer is that there are intrinsic benefits [to attending a liberal arts school], but what are these benefits?” Singletary said. “I’m not against it, but we should be able to define what it is – how does a liberal arts education help you find yourself?”
–By Lydia O’Neal
The Emory Wheel was founded in 1919 and is currently the only independent, student-run newspaper of Emory University. The Wheel publishes weekly on Wednesdays during the academic year, except during University holidays and scheduled publication intermissions.
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