Responding to President Obama's Challenge: Campus Compact Keynote Address

Georgetown University
October 12, 2010


Good evening again everyone. I hope you are enjoying your dinner. It’s a pleasure again to welcome you all to Georgetown for this President’s Summit.

We are here to respond to a challenge, and it’s a challenge laid down by our President. I believe this is an American challenge, a challenge that requires a distinctively American response. We will spend our time together during this meeting considering the dimensions of this challenge and the possibilities for constructing our response.

Through a series of speeches beginning with his first State of the Union in February 2009, President Obama has set our goal. In his Address to a Joint Session of Congress just weeks after his inauguration, President Obama made our challenge clear, saying – in a passage that was intended for many different audiences:

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work.  But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it.  And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.  That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.1

That was Barack Obama, State of the Union, February 24, 2009.

So I wish to respond to President Obama’s remarks in three ways. First, I would like to place this challenge in its broader context. Second, to describe a tension that emerges for all those engaged in higher education in responding to this challenge. And third, to offer some reflections that place the President’s challenge and our response – as educators committed to civic engagement – in a distinctively American context.

The Challenge in its Context

So first, the challenge: As President Obama states, his primary goal is for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. At present, we are 12th among OECD countries. The goal urges us, within a decade – by 2020 – to be number one. The metrics the President refers to when describing this goal is the percentage of 25-34 year olds with an Associate Degree or Higher.2

In this ranking, 40.4% of our nation’s 25-34 year olds have an Associate Degree or Higher.3

In the number one position is Canada at 55.8%, followed by Korea and Russia at 55.5%, Japan at 53.7% and then New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France, Belgium and Australia all in the forties, ranking ahead of the United States.4

The challenge is to take the percentage of Americans, ages 25-34 and increase the percentage of those completing an Associates Degree or higher by 4.2% annually by 2020.5  This will require a growth of over 8.2 million new degrees in this time frame.6  To do this, we will need to ensure more students are on their way towards a degree, and that more are successful in completing studies necessary for a degree.

I’d like to share a few more facts that further indicate the complex context to which we are responding to:

The President places this challenge in a context that includes these facts about our performance in developing our young people. He also places this challenge in the context of competitiveness. In an address that he gave this past May at Hampton University, at their Commencement, he said, “All of us have a responsibility, as Americans…to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy. That is our obligation as a nation….”8

So now I’d like you to consider the findings of a colleague of ours, Tony Carnevale, who directs the Center on Education and the Workforce here at Georgetown. This summer Tony and his colleagues produced a report, Help Wanted, Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018.   The crucial finding of their research: “success will require higher education….”9  They write:

“By 2018, the American economy will create 46.8 million openings—13.8 million brand-new jobs and 33 million “replacement jobs,” positions vacated by workers who have retired or permanently left their occupations. Nearly two-thirds of these 46.8 million jobs…will require workers with at least some college education….”10

Nearly two-thirds of those 46.8 million jobs.

The most significant part of the report is this: We are not on the trajectory to meet the needs of this economy. If we continue on the same trajectory, the report indicates, and this is a quote, “By 2018, the postsecondary system will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than demanded by the labor market.”11

So we have two challenges to which we need to respond. First, to re-establish the United States as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates, and second, to respond to the competitiveness of a global, knowledge-based economy.

The Tension

When higher education is presented with such challenges – challenges to meet very instrumental or ‘utilitarian’ ends, we sometimes can experience a sense of ambivalence that goes to the heart of our identity as institutions of higher education in America.  To situate this tension, I would like to briefly tell you about the scholarship of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Just a month ago, in Birmingham, England, Pope Benedict beatified Newman.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, Newman is recognized for his contributions to the understanding of the nature of change – how we understand a change in our ideas, a change in the development of doctrine – the formal understanding of what we believe. Newman’s conception of change had a profound impact on the way in which the Roman Catholic Church came to embrace the modern world.

But in higher education, Newman is best known for a set of lectures he delivered in the mid-part of the nineteenth century as he was founding what would eventually become University College Dublin. Those lectures came to be called, The Idea of the University, and they have provided an articulation of the purpose of an undergraduate education that still informs our understanding of a “liberal education.”

For Newman, the “main purpose” of the university is “a real cultivation of mind,” a “habit of mind” capable of grasping “a comprehensive view of the truth in all its branches….” An “intellect…properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things….”12

Newman captures a deep aspect of our purpose. It is this comprehensive view of knowledge that enables our students to contribute productively and meaningfully to the complex challenges facing our nation and our world. And it is a type of learning that helps our students become their very best selves. Newman writes, “The perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education…to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things….”13  For Newman, knowledge is understood as its “own end” pursued for the purpose of cultivating the minds of our young. Newman rejects the notion of an education pursued for purposes of “utility.”

Writing more than a century later, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, presents a character in one of his novels, The Rebel Angels, with a resonance to the perspective offered by Newman. This character says:

Oh, they did that, right enough. Our tradition of the relationship between student and professor had always been that of the aspirant toward the adept; part of the disturbances arose from the desire to change it to a consumer-retailer arrangement. That caught the fancy too, you know, and consequently governments began to talk in the same way, if you will allow me to say so. ‘We shall require seven hundred head of engineers in the next five years, Professor; see to it, will you?’ – that sort of thing. ‘Don’t you think philosophy a frill in these stern times, Professor?’… Education for immediate consumption is more popular than ever, and nobody wants to think of the long term, or the intellectual tone of the nation.14

This is a tension – a tension between knowledge pursued for its own sake in the development of habits of mind, in the cultivating of intellects, and knowledge pursued for instrumental ends. This is a tension that we have all been living with in all of our contexts all our lives.

The Tension in an American Context

But this is a tension that has always been embraced in the American context. It is a unique dimension of the American experience. As the historian, Daniel Boorstin, who served this city with distinction as the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, in his history of the Colonial experience in America wrote, “The primary aim of the American college was not to increase the stock of cultivated men, but rather to supply its particular region with knowledgeable ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders.”15

We are to “supply” the “ministers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, and political leaders.” We have always embraced the dual and sometimes conflicting challenge of both producing cultivated minds, unencumbered by the affairs of the day, and the development of the skills for those responsible for carrying out the work of our communities. This tension characterizes the earliest days of the new Republic. Our first learned societies, the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1745, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, celebrating its 230th anniversary this year, founded among others by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of our learned societies created at the point of formation of the New Republic were dedicated to “useful knowledge.”

And notice, too, Boorstin’s emphasis on the need to supply the “ministers, doctors, lawyers, merchants” for a “particular region.”   America has always embraced a uniquely local commitment to higher education. Boorstin also wrote: “Americans came to believe that no community was complete without its own college.”16

This is a distinctively American story, one that connects democracy and education with the flourishing of each community. By connecting the livelihood of American communities and colleges, the utilitarian drive to produce the most competitive workforce becomes an issue of civic responsibility, of giving back to the community and to our country, to ensure that we are providing our students with the opportunity of a world-class education and making sure that our students can access the same kinds of opportunities.

This is the challenge that I believe President Obama is speaking to, and the one that we are in dialogue with today. So once again, we need to embrace this tension – a tension between a liberal education of which the attributes, for Newman, are “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom….”17 and an education that understands a responsibility for civic life — a civic life that now must acknowledge the responsibilities of a global, knowledge-based economy in which our young people will need to be prepared to find their place.

Connection to Civic Engagement

There is an assumption that informs the work in which we will engage during our time together here. If we dig deep into the tradition of higher learning that has animated our nation, we will find that a commitment to civic engagement has always been inextricably linked to the idea of higher education.

For a quarter-century now, Campus Compact has brought together the presidents and chancellors of our nation’s institutions of higher learning to carry forward this connection between the work of our schools and the need for civic contribution. It is our responsibility to interpret this connection anew, in our time and in our place, and to determine what this responsibility demands of us.

We are here to respond to the President’s call: to re-establish the United States as the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, and to ensure that our students are capable of competing in today’s increasingly global economy, a world that will increasingly require an advanced education. We believe that a resource that we bring to this challenge comes from the deepest parts of our identities as American colleges and universities – a commitment to civic engagement, a civic-engagement that has always honored and acknowledged very local responsibilities in the pursuit of addressing the most global of challenges.

Our purpose in coming together through our shared membership in Campus Compact is to harness our unique perspective and explore our response. Can civic engagement provide a means through which we can address the issues of access and success?

Can civic engagement provide resources through which to strengthen recruitment, retention, and graduation rates?

We believe there is something here that is truly worthy of our attention, worthy of our efforts in responding to the challenge given to us by our President. I am truly honored to have this opportunity to be with so many wonderful colleagues from so many extraordinary institutions from around our country who share in the same kind of tradition and identity that is characteristically American to see how, together, we can determine the most appropriate response to the challenge at this moment.

1.  Obama, Barack. “State of the Union.” Washington, D.C., 24 February 2009.
2.  Kelly, Patrick J. “Closing the College Attainment Gap between the U.S. and Most Educated Countries, and the Contributions to be made by the States.” National Center for Higher Education Management Systems report, April 2010, 1.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid, 2.
5.  Ibid, 3.
6.  Ibid.
7.  “NCHEMS Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis.” Website:
8.  Obama, Barack. “Commencement Address.” Hampton University, Hampton, VA, 9 May 2010.
9.  Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl. “Help Wanted, Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018.” Center on Education and the Workforce. 1 Aug, 2010, 13.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Ibid, 16.
12..  Newman, John Henry. The Idea of the University. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982, Preface and 77.
13.  Ibid, 105.
14.  Davies, Robertson. The Rebel Angels. New York: Penguin Books, 1983, 174.
15.   Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books, 1964, 181.
16.   Ibid.
17.  Newman, John Henry. The Idea of the University, 76.