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The Lincoln Project: New England Regional Meeting

On April 20th, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed policymakers and leaders from universities in New England to a meeting at the House of the Academy to discuss the recommendations from the newly released final report of The Lincoln Project, a three-year initiative dedicated to sustaining and strengthening the nation’s public research universities.

As the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it is my pleasure to welcome you to this discussion of our new report, Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century. We are delighted to have with us such a distinguished group of leaders from the New England region.

The American Academy was founded in 1780, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the new nation. In the midst of the Revolution, they believed that the key to America’s long-term strength and survival was the cultivation of the arts and sciences, which are, according to our Charter, “the foundation and support of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce” and “necessary to the wealth, peace, independence, and happiness of a people.” Since our founding, groups of Fellows have come together, through the Academy, to examine some of the most pressing challenges of their times.

The early Academy encouraged basic fact-finding about the North American continent—its geography, soils, climate. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it hosted the first American discussions about Darwin’s theories of evolution, as well as the Alexander Graham Bell’s first public lecture introducing the telephone. More recently, it has helped establish the field of arms control in international relations, provided early advice about the looming crisis of religious fundamentalism, and published several influential reports on the future of discovery-driven scientific research.

Given its membership, which includes so many of the nation’s most distinguished scholars, it has also engaged in several projects focusing on the future of higher education. Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision is the final publication of one such project: The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education.

Both the name of the project and the name of the report refer to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act in 1862. The Morrill Act provided federal lands to establish “colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the Mechanic arts” as well as “scientific and classical studies.” Its goal was to provide the technical training and the liberal education that were so important for an increasingly industrialized nation.

The Morrill Act created a set of institutions that would educate Americans in every state and it created a precedent for public support of higher education. Indeed the Morrill Act was an expression of a new vision of higher education as a public good—as fundamental to the strength and growth of the nation as primary education. One hundred and fifty years later, we are still realizing the wisdom of that vision.

The Lincoln Project focuses on a subset of public higher education: public research universities. It does so because of the distinct role that these institutions play in our nation. They educate millions of students—including large numbers of students from underprivileged and immigrant communities. They support the cultural and economic vitality of their states and surrounding communities—as hubs of innovation and centers of intellectual and artistic activity . . . at least one in every state. And they generate research that creates new knowledge and technology, discoveries from which we all benefit—in laboratories, libraries, and archives.

Clearly all of public higher education, including the community colleges and the comprehensive four-year institutions, have struggled as a result of recent declines in state funding. But public research universities have been particularly hard-hit by the cuts. I think we all agree that the states are no longer the principal funders of public research universities, and that we need to identify new ways to sustain these institutions—new savings and efficiencies, certainly, but also new partnerships and sources of revenue. Raising tuition and recruiting out-of-state and foreign students has its limits, so we need new ideas. As our committee suggests, a recommitment to Lincoln’s vision entails a new “compact” among state and federal governments, university leaders, businesses and philanthropies—all of which can play a role in the development of a new and sustainable financial model.

We see Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision as an important new addition in an emerging tradition of effective Academy commission reports, a tradition that includes the influential report of our humanities commission, The Heart of the Matter, as well as Restoring the Foundation, our more recent report supporting basic scientific research. We are just now undertaking a new commission supported by the Carnegie Foundation to study how Americans are receiving their post-secondary education, with an emphasis on cost, how families pay, and fairness of access. All of these projects share a common goal that is consistent with the founding mission of the American Academy: to sustain and enhance what the Lincoln committee has called our nation’s “intellectual infrastructure.”

We released Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision in Washington earlier this month and have had meetings similar to this one in Tennessee, Michigan, and Texas, as we seek to start a vigorous discussion of our recommendations.

During the next few hours, we would like to discuss with you the recommendations of our project, talk about the follow-up plans, and hear your suggestions. We would like to hear from you—university leaders and policy makers alike. What challenges do you face and what opportunities do you identify in your states and regions? Finally, we will all think together about possible collaborations. We want to hear your ideas about how to bring the recommendations of the Lincoln Project to university leaders, policy makers, and other interested people around the country. The American Academy is committed to support a public phase of the project’s work, but we would be far more effective if we had opportunities to work with and, in some instances, through the institutions and organizations that each of you represent. We invite everyone in this room to help us advance this important mission.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the meeting over to Lincoln Project co-chair Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley.

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