Opinion- 02 March 2007


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The Minister and Shadow Minister for Education Politely Disagree While the President of Stanford Gets Specific



Stanford University's President, John Hennessy

    No, Stanford's president, John Hennessy, wasn't in the ABC's 7:30 Report studio February 28 with Kerry O'Brien while Mr O'Brian was courteously interrogating the federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, and Labor's Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Steven Smith.


But perhaps he should have been.


America's private university presidents make a habit of sending annual reports to alumni extolling the virtues of their institutions with the underlying aim of enticing contributions to further the well being of their alma maters. Stanford University this past year has been particular good at garnering funds having banked US$911 million (A$1.16 billion).


So while Ms Bishop was telling the 7:30 Report audience that all was well and it is just a matter of certain areas of her responsibility that needed to be brought to understand the error of their ways, while others needed to DIVERSIFY.


It seems to be rather like a Biblical pronouncement, i.e. "go forth and diversify", while being unclear as to just what is really meant, let alone required.


On the other hand Mr Smith declares that if Labor assumes government, it will properly resource the nation's education sectors to bring back our universities to first rank. However, details of policy remain to be published.


To return to Professor Hennessy, an electrical engineer; as the university's president, what does he want Stanford to do and now?


"[We] have been rethinking the role of the university in the 21st century. The world's institutions of higher learning possess many resources that can be tapped for the benefit of the greater community. Stanford is singularly well positioned to contribute to the search for solutions to the challenges humanity faces."


And like the new Netherlands Minister for Science Education and Culture he believes that "the excellence of any university is built on the excellence of its professors."


You might think that that was a given, but observing how Australia's Coalition government has treated the university sector there are strong indications that it is not seen as a universal truth.


Professor Hennessy then gets to his main themes (some excerpts):

While Stanford is known for its pioneering research in engineering and the sciences, we also have a strong commitment to the arts. I have long recognized that our arts faculties are not up to the level of a great university.  [Now, however] we are [going] forward with plans for a new concert hall... [which] will be the cornerstone in our comprehensive vision of the arts in a Stanford education.


[R]ecently we have introduced a new financial-aid policy for undergraduates: Families with annual incomes less than US$45,000 are no longer required to contribute to their child's tuition costs, and the contributions of middle-income families will be reduced by half.


Many [alumni have indicated concerns] about K-12 education in the United States and encouraged us to address the crisis. Qualified and committed teachers -- teachers who are leaders within their schools -- are the most important ingredient for success in the classroom. We want to do what we can to ensure that every child in the United States has an excellent education; it is a vital goal for the country...


To encourage students to pursue careers in teaching, this fall we announced a new loan-forgiveness program for our graduates who go on to become teachers, the first university-funded, large-scale program of its kind... By encouraging our most gifted young people to be teachers, this program puts Stanford at the forefront of universities in dealing with the crisis that faces K-12 education. We hope it is just the beginning.


Last summer the university opened a new public charter school... One hundred and fifty students -- kindergarten through sixth grade -- will participate. The charter school will also serve as a teaching school for student teachers... and for evaluating innovations in teaching.


[W]e will continue to strengthen the undergraduate experience at Stanford through increased research opportunities and programs that develop creativity.

While Professor Hennessy is lauding Stanford's initiatives in advancing the public good, it is by no means unique among its cohort private research universities or the US' leading public research universities.


And it is of interest that the president of Stanford, which is known as one of the world's leading entrepreneurial universities, has chosen to emphasise to its alumni the efforts being made for the public good.


If nothing else it ought to give Ms Bishop as well as Australia's vice-chancellors pause.


Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web