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Hockfield offers views to higher ed commission

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Testifying at a public hearing held by the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education on Monday, March 20, in Boston, MIT President Susan Hockfield urged the panel to champion increased financial support for higher education, stronger K-12 preparation, and the diversity and innovation that have made American universities and colleges models for the rest of the world.

She urged the commission, in making its recommendations, to resist the urge to impose a standardized curriculum or mandatory testing. "My own belief is that strengthening those aspects of higher education at the root of our success -- access, innovation and competition -- will be more effective than standardization, mandates and penalties in promoting real, long-term improvements," she said.

Hockfield's comments on educational innovation stressed curricular change, programs that make connections to the world of professional practice, and the use of technology. She cited as examples a range of MIT programs, including new degree offerings at the intersection of the life sciences and engineering; the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), which places students in professional internships abroad; and MIT OpenCourseWare, which makes materials from more than 1,200 MIT courses available free via the web.

"Curricular innovation is not optional for U.S. universities," Hockfield said Monday. "It has been and will continue to be the source of our vitality and our ability to respond to changes in the world."

Pointing out that Congress recently cut $12 billion from the budget for student loans, Hockfield asserted that the United States needs to engage in "an informed public discussion of how the nation can pay for the education our young people need."

"Higher education is the best recipe we have for improving economic opportunity and the quality of life for our citizens," Hockfield said. But, she noted, "Today's college graduation rates are closely correlated to family income: To sustain our robust democracy and to compete in a global marketplace, we need to send an even higher percentage of our population on to college and graduation."

MIT itself, she noted, adheres to need-blind admissions and need-based aid, and meets the full need of all admitted students: next year, some 57 percent of Institute undergraduates will receive MIT scholarship aid, totaling more than $60 million.

Hockfield also underscored the need for a national effort to improve K-12 schooling and urged the commission to work to foster innovation in education.

In her remarks, Hockfield emphasized that the United States needs to start improving math and science education in the K-12 years. "In an era in which science and technology increasingly shape major policy issues, responsible citizenship itself requires mathematic and scientific literacy. MIT will continue our efforts to help strengthen K-12 math and science education."

The commission, established by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in September 2005, is charged with ensuring "that America's system of higher education remains the finest in the world and continues to meet the needs of America's diverse population by expanding opportunity, innovation and economic growth." Chaired by Charles Miller, former chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, its members include former MIT President Charles M. Vest.

Hockfield was the first in a series of distinguished college and university leaders to testify at Monday's hearing. Also among those invited to speak were Boston University President Robert Brown, former MIT provost, and Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow, former chancellor of MIT.

MIT Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti addressed the commission last month at a similar field hearing in San Diego. Magnanti recommended an "OpenCourseWare for Secondary Education" to improve early education in math and science, and he suggested the federal government provide incentives to universities and colleges to develop OpenCourseWare projects of their own.

"At its best, higher education has transformed lives and the nation's economy, and has become the envy of the world," Hockfield said in conclusion. "The evolution of these institutions and the system in which they operate is far from complete, but as we strive to define their 21st century versions, let us build on their fundamental strengths."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 2006 (download PDF).

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