By Richard Vedder
Three of the more intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging members of the Spellings Commission were James Duderstadt (president emeritus of the University of Michigan), Chuck Vest (president emeritus of MIT), and Bob Zemsky (professor at Penn). I consider all of them friends. They generally defended the Higher Education Establishment, sometimes irritating me, but they did so in a civil and thoughtful way. While very much friends of higher education, they were intellectually honest enough to admit that the Mandarins of DuPont Circle are not infallible.
All three have had good post-Commission careers. Jim Duderstadt has written a great book, and has become increasingly critical of the growing divide between the haves and have nots --the Harvards of the world with almost infinite resources, as opposed to the Michigans and other good public flagship universities with fewer dollars. The publics are losing their best students and faculty to the Harvards, reducing the diversity of excellence in our nation. Much of this is funded by federal dollars or promoted by federal tax policies. I think Jim has a good point and others should listen to him.
Chuck Vest has taken over the National Academy of Engineering. He no doubt will use his position to promote engineering research and education, but also is a realist who has a grounding not only in elite private schools but in the less rarefied America of his childhood (he is from West Virginia, the nation's second poorest state). Chuck gave a marvelous commencement talk at my university a couple of years ago, and is a first class gentleman.
Bob Zemsky is lively as always. He sparkles with interesting ideas. His critique of the Spellings Commission experience has raised a few eyebrows amongst fellow commissioners, but it is a useful critique. His idea that faculty who feel alienated and dispossessed should consider incorporating rather than unionizing is a great idea. In today's Chronicle, he is at it again. We have poured billions into new technology on campuses, have all sorts of new distance learning approaches but the faculty remain resistant to participating and using it. Rather than pouring more billions into the effort, Zemsky says let us get the faculty involved and supportive of the process. He is right on target there. Nothing important in the academic realm of universities happens without the support and involvement of the faculty.
Three men, over two centuries of accumulated experience on this earth, wise and innovative. They personify what is strong and, perhaps, what is weak, about American higher education. On the "weak" side, they tend to defend the establishment too much, tend to want to avoid trying to force revolutionary change, and are instinctively conservative and cautious. That got them ahead within academia by being cautious -- since it is a sector where radical change is scorned, and gradualism is the rule of the day. But this is not an approach that effectively deals with the fundamental problem of a system that is becoming overly costly and inefficient.