Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward Kennedy and Higher Education

By Richard Vedder

I have been asked, "will Senator Kennedy's passing materially impact American higher education." My answer, in a word, is "no." Life goes on, and the Senator's replacement on the Senate Education committee is not likely to be dramatically different than the late senator in his or her approach to the topic. Teddy Kennedy had some formidable skills at negotiating and reaching across the aisle to susceptible and cognitively challenged Republican senators like Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, but at the margin that should not make too much difference.

We have twice mentioned Sen. Kennedy in CCAP blogs and, remarkably, both of those references were pretty positive. In 2006, the Senator wrote a good op-ed for Inside Higher Ed that spoke positively of the work of the Spellings Commission, but said it should have said more about student loans ---and I strongly agreed. The Senator was a quintessential liberal activist, and most of the money he successfully worked to throw at American higher education has been inefficiently used and some has had unintended adverse consequences. But in the absence of the senator, I doubt policy would have been all the much different.

I think commentators should be biased towards saying nice things about the deceased since, always, those commentators are going to be deceased themselves some day. In that spirit, I would note that Kennedy did make one important contribution that indirectly impacted higher education, in generally very positive ways. In his early days, Kennedy was a prime mover of the 1965 Immigration Act, that liberalized immigration into the U.S. In general, Kennedy favored policies consistent with the increased internationalization of higher education, a development on the whole I think has been good. The international flow in the creation of human capital is in keeping with the general liberalization of trade that has contributed to our postwar prosperity.

Senator Kennedy did a lot of bad things, both in his personal and his public life. His treatment of Robert Bork's nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court was shameful, for example. But he was generally fair and listened to other views, unlike some of his more strident colleagues. May he rest in peace.

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