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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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An Interview: Charles B. Reed

  Charles B. Reed
Charles B. Reed has been chancellor of the California State University since March 1998, and was chancellor of the State University System of Florida from 1985 to 1998. This interview was conducted by Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Patrick M. Callan: From your perspective as one who has now led two major statewide higher education systems, what do you see as the major issues that are or ought to be on the higher education agenda for the next decade or so?

Charles B. Reed: The two states I've worked in, as is true for much of the south and the west, must focus on accommodating the enrollment growth, providing access for their citizens to earn the baccalaureate degree. And the greatest growth in California and Florida is in the minority populations. As the demographics change, universities are going to have to reflect their states' populations.

It's going to be a real challenge to accommodate that growth with quality. So it behooves the universities to focus their efforts on helping to improve the public schools. Universities have the responsibility to prepare more teachers and to prepare them better. Recent research from Washington and from Stanford shows that well prepared, high-performing teachers can improve student achievement.

States like California and Florida have worked hard on standards -- admissions standards, curriculum standards. Now the achievement of standards by students must be the focus. We must focus on new populations, on poverty, on language issues, on preparation that must take place at the very early grades, especially in language and reading skills.

So the universities must roll up their sleeves and get down into the schools, so that we can guarantee, for instance, that every one of our graduates who goes out to teach, can teach reading. And we must work as hard as we can to recruit more people into the teaching profession in the sciences and mathematics.

PC: Much of the history of higher education over the last several decades has been one of de-emphasizing teacher education and giving the public schools a low priority. What will it take to change this? What are the impediments? Why haven't we done better?

CR: Well, working with public schools is extremely hard work. It's not what gets put on the front page of most professional publications; it's not in the New York Times and the L.A. Times every week. So, from a professional basis, there are not many rewards.

Number two, it has been seen as a money maker in universities where they had large enrollments, so that they could support other degree programs. And so the payback hasn't been on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

Third, it has not been recognized by the faculty, by the provosts and the presidents, as very prestigious. So therefore, it kind of got second rating in the priorities.

One of the things that I think is going to have to occur nationally is that presidents, chancellors and heads of systems are going to have to make a commitment that the number-one priority is going to have to be preparing more and better teachers. There's a need for 2.2 million teachers in the next seven to ten years in America. Some of the states that I've been in are going to need huge numbers of new teachers. If it is not a priority, then public education will continue to suffer through the next decade. But it's going to call for a major investment.

I had a conversation with a colleague from another state who said, "Well, you can't say that, chancellor, because you've got to say that all of the professional programs and the academic disciplines are equally important." That's just not true. She said, "Well, you know, the medical school people will eat you alive." Well, so what? You know, that's going to take care of itself. But public education and the preparation of teachers will not take care of itself if there's not leadership, investment, with resources into those programs.

PC: So, are you asserting that teacher education and work with the public schools is a higher priority than some of the other things that the California State University does?

CR: Yeah. Not only have I said that it's a higher priority, but the Board of Trustees of the California State University system have said that this has to be our number-one priority. You know, if you step back two steps from all of this, and you look at it, when 95 percent of your students come from the public schools, if you do something to improve the public schools, you're going to improve the quality of your universities.

PC: In addition to the schools, what are the issues you expect to drive public policy?

CR: I think in both states what is very clear as you go into the 21st century, is that the economy is going to drive public policy. And these public universities are part of the economic engines of these states. And so there is a direct relationship in producing bright people to fill these jobs that then allows those state economies to be as competitive as they need to be in order to generate the revenue that the state needs. So it's kind of a vicious cycle. But if the universities aren't doing their part, then the competitiveness, the economic competitiveness will suffer.

PC: As a person who has lived in both the academic and political worlds, do you think we are getting the kind of political leadership in the states that is going to be needed if higher education is to address the issues you've been discussing? What should we expect by way of state leadership?

CR: The legislatures and the governors of the states have really figured it out. One of the things that they have access to is good polling information. And what they see is that the American people are very concerned about the quality of the public schools so their children and grandchildren have a chance to succeed in America. Which success, in their estimation, is being able to get a college degree and enter the economic competitiveness that they know they're going to need. That's what a level playing field is going to be. They know that that's the most important thing for their children's future.

In California, I'm very interested in pursuing the concept of a compact between the political leadership and the universities that would focus on maintaining access, but yet would have greater accountability and both efficiency and effectiveness from the universities. And so I welcome the legislative and the gubernatorial demand for greater accountability from our institutions. If we don't have the outside pressure, then it's very difficult for us to change inside.

In Florida I am proud to say that I got a huge productivity increase in the number of student credit hours that were being taught by the faculty. Now, in California I think that we have very heavy teaching loads in the California State University. On the other hand, I think that we can expand our capacity significantly by working on a year-round calendar, and that we can hire more faculty members to teach and work throughout the summer, that we can get more students through, and get more students through faster, to maintain the access.

And then, I think that there are some uses of technology that we can put in place, and maybe serve ten percent or so of our students through new technology and Web-based courses. I think that we also can look at utilizing the day, the week and the calendar in a different way to serve students' needs. But it's going to call for a major investment by the state.

PC: So you're saying it will take some political pressure from the governors and legislatures as well as some leadership from inside, to achieve these kind of improvements in productivity that are needed to accommodate this demand.

CR: Twenty years of experience says, if you don't have that kind of outside pressure, it's very difficult to get the kind of productivity and accountability changes that are really necessary to improve quality.

PC: Among the spirited conversations you've started since arriving in California, one of the most interesting seems to revolve around your view that higher education must become more "student-centered." What are you driving at? And what kind of changes are you looking for?

CR: Universities were put in place to serve student needs. I think over the last ten or fifteen years, some institutions have lost that focus. My observation has been that large institutions then begin to think that students or people need to serve them, rather than the institutions serving the people or serving students.

So, I want to take a look at everything we're doing on the student services side, student life side, to convenience, to time, to service, to the academic programs, to make sure that we're delivering the highest quality instruction that we can to students, to meet their needs. And, my hunch is that if we have a student-focused system, then we'll have a higher quality system, we'll be more efficient, we'll be more effective in what we do, and we will be supported at a much greater level by the public if we do that.

PC: Some who may be nervous about this "student centered" approach have suggested that you may be implying a kind of pandering to students that reduces quality.

CR: It's just the opposite, I think. For instance, in remedial education, we're going to say to students, here are the standards, and if you don't meet them, we're going to suggest that you go to your local community college or elsewhere until you can meet these standards. But we want remedial programs to be available when students want them, we want them to be intense, we want them to operate year round, we want them to be on weekends and nights, we want tutors available, we want learning assistants available, because it's focused on getting those students up to the level that they need to be able to do collegiate work.

"Student-centered" also means having the curriculum focused on use of multimedia techniques for students, because they all don't learn the same way. Having the courses available when students want to take the courses. Providing more access to technology. More access to electronic information and data systems for students. Teaching students more about computers and the Internet. When they get their first job, they're going to need to know that.

That's something different than what we've traditionally been able to do. That's more student-centered -- giving students a chance to be able to demonstrate that they've learned material on their own. I think that's going to be different. Providing community and service learning opportunities to students, and being able to keep records of that so that those students can show potential employers that they've had these different experiences.

PC: How are these ideas being received?

CR: Some faculty don't like me to say this, but students are our customers. If we didn't have any students, we wouldn't be here -- especially the California State University, because that is our mission: to serve the students of California.

Photo by Axel Koester, for CrossTalk

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