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Transcript:

January 30, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Last week, students at the Las Vegas campus of the University of Nevada came out to raise hell because Nevada's governor, Jim Gibbons, has just proposed slashing the state budget for higher education by a whopping 36 percent.

STUDENTS: No more cuts! No more cuts!

NEVADA CHANCELLOR JIM ROGERS: God, I'm glad to see you.

BILL MOYERS: The chancellor of the system was incredulous.

NEVADA CHANCELLOR JIM ROGERS: These budget cuts are not acceptable, and I will not support them.

BILL MOYERS: For students, that could mean a possible tuition increase of 225 percent. That's right, 225 percent!

STUDENT: I'm here to support the cause, man. I can't believe the governor's thinking of cutting education.

MAN: We just want to be able to show our support, let the governor know and the legislators know that we're serious about education, and that we don't want the budget cuts.

BILL MOYERS: All across the country it's the same. State governments are staring down the barrel at $300 billion worth of deficits for the next two years. Twenty-six states already have either cut their budgets for higher education, raised tuition fees, or done both. When it comes to college affordability, this report from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives a failing grade of "F" to 49 of the 50 states. Tuition at public four-year colleges is up an average of more than $6,500, at two-year schools, almost $2,500. Yet even with the increases, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reports that many college buildings are outdated, inefficient, even crumbling. So what's to be done? Some took hope when President Obama spoke up for higher education in his inaugural address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

BILL MOYERS: If the colleges and universities do wind up big winners in Washington, no one will be happier than this man, or more responsible. Long a dynamo for the cause of public education, Vartan Gregorian bears testament to the value of a lifetime of learning. Born to Armenian parents, Gregorian grew up in Iran and Beirut, Lebanon. He came to the United States in 1956 to earn a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University and launched a career in higher education. He perhaps is best known for his eight years as the innovative president of the New York Public Library, followed by nine years as president of Brown University. For almost a dozen years now, he has been president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation for education and citizenship.

Vartan Gregorian is an erudite charmer, a master of the handshake and bear hug, a consummate fundraiser and champion of the public good. His passion for education, philanthropy and friendship is contagious. Last October, Gregorian convened a group of educators to urge whoever would become our next president to invest in higher education. Their meeting later resulted in this two-page newspaper ad, an open letter to then President-elect Obama asking that whatever economic stimulus package comes out of Washington, five percent of it - around 40 to 45 billion dollars - go to higher public education.

Vartan Gregorian, welcome to the JOURNAL.

Your ad claims, "Today, only the federal government has the resources and vision to meet these threats to education." But the fact is that everybody, and I mean everybody, has both hands out, hoping that Barack Obama's stimulus spending will fill those hands. I mean, the highway industry, the automobile industry-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Everybody.

BILL MOYERS: -the steel industry. I mean, are people like you living metaphorically in an ivory tower? Why should education be privileged when all these other priorities are pressing against the window?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: That's an excellent question. I don't have a complete answer, but I can tell you this one: Adam Smith will roll in his grave to see that capitalism says, "When I make money, it's mine; when I lose money, you have to rescue me." Right? Businesses. Business, when it becomes very big for the country, the country cannot afford for them to collapse. And that's what has happened. All the mergers that happened have come to roost now. We're too big. We may be inefficient, but we'd like you to rescue.

Education is different because you're investing human resources that are necessary to change a society, a system. Even retraining some of these people who are let go, is through education. Education is very central to our democracy. You can neglect it, you can get it on the cheap, and you get what you pay for. And if you think education is costly, try ignorance, because that will be far more costly.

BILL MOYERS: But this country's lost two million jobs in the last year.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: There are millions of families out there losing their homes to foreclosure. And you're asking them to be taxed more or to print more money to support higher education, which may prove too expensive for their kids when they get there?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Maybe. Maybe. But as an immigrant I have a different view of America. I see America in perspective. As a historian, I see the depth of it as well. And there are great moments in American history. Since President Obama is fond of Abraham Lincoln, so I'll start with Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the Civil War, worst tragedy that happened to America, Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill Act, established land grant universities. Imagine now any president doing that in the middle of all the calamities we have, Afghanistan, Iraq, economy, and Iran and the Middle East, somebody spending that much effort on - because he wanted to see the future of America.

In the middle of Civil War, Lincoln established a National Academy of Sciences, 1863, because he wanted to see the future of America. In the middle of Civil War he established a commission to study the merits of metric system for America. Because he wanted to see not one year, one to four year; he wanted to see 20, 30, 40 years. Second thing that happened in the middle of the war. World War II, '44, Japan is still fighting, Germany's still fighting, Roosevelt established Servicemen's Act, which later became GI Bill, to see what will happen if ten to eleven million soldiers return without jobs. Would it unleash a new major depression? What? Came up with this brilliant idea to give them opportunity to be educated.

BILL MOYERS: My brother went to college after coming out of the Navy on the GI Bill and so did millions of others.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Millions of others. Brilliant. In the middle of the war, 1945, '46, Roosevelt established Vannevar Bush commission for future of science in America, which then Truman adopted. It said science should not be based in institutions like European and Soviet, you know, these institutes. It should be based in universities. Then we have, of course, Senator Pell who just died-

BILL MOYERS: Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island, who established the Pell Grants-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Pell Grants. Greatest democratization of process of access to higher education in our country's history. So we made many strides in the middle of adversity.

BILL MOYERS: And yet you say in this ad, America's losing ground on a number of these very fronts.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Number of it, because we see education as an expenditure rather than as investment. And let me just give you a couple of reasons why. My fundamental problem has been with public institutions that somehow they have come to accept the fact that democracy and excellence, public sector and excellence are not mutually compatible, that public excellence belongs to the private domain. And all my career I have fought against that concept. Whether it's New York Public Library, whether it's railway stations, whatever it is, these are monuments built in honor of democracy, 19th century, these institutions. And so one of the main things that I worry about public higher education: What is going to happen to public higher education? States' support is dwindling. Yet public has the impression that the land grant universities are providing free education to the public. That's not the case. So public higher education, most of them, cannot compete with private universities in the United States or abroad. I was worried that great universities like Michigan, University of California, University of Texas, and so on, put them in the disadvantage.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: I think all of them are on the defensive because public expects them to accommodate them; at the same time, states see as a cost. And then they're subjected to deferred maintenance, which in my book means planned neglect. And for twenty years these have been neglected.

University of California has one of the great universities in the world. Still has in many units. University of Texas has, Penn State, Michigan, Indiana. But lack of support is going to bring them gradually to be not excellent.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: America's greatness in higher education has been its diversity and its private-public arrangement. And if we force everybody to go to private domain, then tuitions will definitely increase. Some of them will collapse.

It pains me to see all of these great universities struggling to keep their reputation. And, ironically, even though I have two sons who are journalists, one of them sports writer - if a football team loses in one of these state universities, for two or three years it affects also their funding in the legislature, which is crazy.

BILL MOYERS: Guarantee a winning football team.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: It's crazy. It does not make sense.

BILL MOYERS: But why have the costs of higher education risen so fast? I mean, you say in this ad, since 1986, that's just 22 years, college tuition and fees have risen nearly three times as fast as the median family income. Why? And where has that money gone?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Okay. Take any university of your choice. Universities are small city-states. You have from 5,000 to 50,000 students-

BILL MOYERS: My alma mater, University of Texas, 50,000 students.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, 50,000. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: It's larger than the town I grew up in.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Dormitories, feeding, health, entertainment, physical education, all of this. And then you have also to hire professors. You have governmental relations, development office, all of this. So, these universities, everybody wants everything from the university. It's fascinating. All the failures of K through 12, university has to fix. Everything is put at the doorstep of the university to solve, but without adequate funding.

BILL MOYERS: You convened in August these leaders of higher education. And they came to the conclusion that, quote, "We've fallen from first place among nations to tenth in the percentage of our population with degrees in higher education." What does that mean practically?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Practically it means research universities in other countries are catching up. We're not falling behind as much as others are catching up, whether it's Singapore, whether it's China, whether it's India. And second thing is many of our students, thanks to Pell Grants and others who go to university do not finish, because of either ill preparedness or lack of resources for them. We're not talking about just educate. We're talking about how to build next generation of our youth to be able to compete globally and to re-engineer our nation's reemergence in the next phase of the global competition.

We need all the infrastructure. We need all the engineers, all the doctors, all the computer specialists, all kinds of work. So we can no longer allow 50 percent of our students not to graduate from high school or 30, 40 percent drop out from our universities, especially minorities and others. Because in the past 19th century we have industrial backbone that you could send all of this to manufacturing. We don't have it. So result, it's gone.

BILL MOYERS: Shipped abroad.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: It's a knowledge society now in which you need all the talent that you can.

BILL MOYERS: Why are we in such trouble right now? What has happened to the country that brought you here in 1956, that offered so much promise to a young Armenian Iranian immigrant arriving here? What is your own personal conclusion about why we are in such trouble?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, for several reasons. I guess, first, lack of knowledge about rest of the world. Another one, media that was asleep when all kinds of decisions were made. Along with independent judiciary, executive, we need also independent media. And also we don't have the kind of individuals which I came to know. And I.F. Stone on the left, "I.F. Stone's Weekly", did more about Korean War and other things, so forth.

BILL MOYERS: One of the great investigative journalists- VARTAN GREGORIAN Yes.

BILL MOYERS: -on the left, as you said.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Bill Buckley I met when he just launched the "National Review". Where are those independent-minded people, whether they're conservative, liberal, radical?

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people would say they're on the internet, that the internet has become the great conversation of democracy.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, let's hope so. Let's hope so. But internet has to provide common vocabulary. I don't want to be picking a piece here, a piece there, and so forth, construct my own hut. I want to have a national significance.

BILL MOYERS: You want an editor?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Editor, national editor

BILL MOYERS: I'd like to be your editor.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Because-

BILL MOYERS: You're saying you want a professional class of disinterested people who help you assemble how the world looks like every day?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, the synthesis you mentioned is missing. What I want is the institution of journalism, institution of news, institution of education, institutional values, the ones that promote to be a durable, predictable tying tradition, past, present, and the future. That's my prejudice because I come from a print side. And every Sunday I read eight British and French newspapers, plus three American ones, in order to have - not to be manipulated, in order to understand what are nuances and ambiguities, who's pushing opinion, who's pushing fact, who's pushing what ideology, so I can accept knowingly, rather than be manipulated. I learned that first lesson at Stanford when I came in 1956. There was an ad. They were showing Hamlet, and on television this small animal ran. And it said, "Burgemeister Beer. Have a Burgy," in the middle of the thing. First time I saw-

BILL MOYERS: A commercial?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: A commercial. Right on the screen.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to America.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: So we left. Yes, we left. We were upset. French arrogance and so forth. Two weeks later I went to a bar. We said, "Well, we'd like beer." "What kind of beer?" I said, "Burgy."

BILL MOYERS: The ad worked. You remembered the ad-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Imagine that happening on a national scale.

BILL MOYERS: It does happen, don't you think?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, it does.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: I want us to accept, consciously, things, not to be manipulated in acceptance. I still believe in intelligence, in knowledge, independence, should not be just reserved or elite but for the public, too. We should educate the public what's in the public interests. They may like it or not. They may accept it or not. But my conscience I want to be clear that I did my duty as an educator while you did your duty as a journalist to educate the public. That's our obligation.

BILL MOYERS: The scholar Charles Murray-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: -back in December argued in an op-ed piece in THE NEW YORK TIMES that we should have more vocational schools and stop using college degrees as a requirement for jobs. That we need more mechanics, more carpenters, more electricians, more machinists. And that our high schools should be used for that purpose and not the traditional educational-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: He has a very good point. Our community colleges, some of them are doing exactly that. Community colleges provide now task forces or workforce for our medical schools, hospitals, and others. They are happening. But where he's right that we have always looked down upon vocational institutions, whatever vocation in the United States is antiquated. We still have maybe World War II or World War - Korean War, whatever, equipment and others. It does not have the respect the way it has in Germany.

We need vocations. We need the best plumbers. We need best electricians. In Germany and elsewhere vocational schools prepare workforce. We have switched that to our community colleges, some of it. But we have not formally introduced it into our high schools. In Germany when you finish you have - you can go either route. You can go vocational or you can go into academic sector. And somehow we have to revisit that whole issue of vocational education because we need the manpower for that. And we cannot just import immigrants to do that from countries who invest in vocational education.

BILL MOYERS: There is an argument today that colleges and universities should continue to turn out generally educated, liberally educated, critical thinkers. But that we should take the people who want to be mechanics and electricians and plumbers and let them go to vocational school and not pretend to want to study "Beowulf" or "Macbeth."

VARTAN GREGORIAN: I think you'll have two sets of problems. You'll have a well-educated private university, some select, and they're the cultured ones. And the others are specialists who can only do. And that will be terrible in my opinion because even the plumbers should know about American history. Not "Beowulf" necessarily. They should know about Constitution. They should know about American history. They should know about Civil War. They should know about Depression.

I mean, we live in a country we cannot just say we're citizens but we don't know anything about our country. Yet we're the greatest country in the world. Well, on what basis? Just economy does not make that right. We need also values. We need also to participate as citizens in the fate and future of our country. So we cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge, in order to provide progress. And knowledge does not mean only technical knowledge. But also you need to have knowledge of our society, knowledge of the world. If we're a superpower, world's greatest power, we should know about the rest of the world.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, both candidates said during the campaign, they kept saying over and over again, this is the greatest country in the world.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: It is.

BILL MOYERS: You hear that. And then you read what you conclude in your report-

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: -and that's a different picture.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, different picture because it's greatest country in terms of potential, opportunity. But if the pipeline is not working, you may not be able to keep it.

BILL MOYERS: And your thesis is the pipeline of education from pre-K right on up through graduate school is broken?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Absolutely. The point I'm saying, that America should not take anything for granted anymore. We cannot afford any more mistakes. We cannot afford duplication. We have to bring collaboration and twenty-year vision, twenty-year plan, how to bring higher education of United States, both public and private, to help re-engineer, re-ignite, and keep the momentum of the United States and its progress by educating its workforce, by educating its leadership.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think merit still counts today in a society where so much wealth buys both power and policies and laws and places that it wants?

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Merit always counts, especially when economy tanks. You find true values of individuals. I can't tell you how many people are calling me about going to non-profit business rather than Lehman Brothers or so forth. People suddenly have stopped in their tracks. And they're looking to see what they could do otherwise. Economic crisis, you find not just poverty, not just human condition, also people confront themselves, their values. It's like when you leave a hospital with catastrophic news, you see the world differently. The same thing when you're humiliated, you've lost everything. You cannot go home to face your family, that you lost everything. You confront you what holds you together as a family, as an individual.

So, many individuals now are questioning whether their chosen business was the right thing to go. Hope is built in expecting that something can happen. If that hope does die, if that trust dies, then we'll be very big trouble.

BILL MOYERS: Vartan Gregorian, thank you very much for this discussion.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

STUDENTS: No more cuts! No more cuts!

BILL MOYERS: A footnote to my conversation with Vartan Gregorian. The stimulus plan passed this week by the House provides considerable assistance to higher education. So the plea by Gregorian and his colleagues may come to pass. But this bill still has a long way to go.

That's it for this week. You can go to our Web site at PBS.org for more on the history of strategic bombing, and some number crunching on the cost of college, all of that and more at PBS.org.

I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.

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