October 16, 2018
On Affordability, History Doesn't Need to Repeat Itself

In his October 14 opinion column in The Virginian-Pilot, Gordon Morse decried a speech by Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox that underscores the obvious connection between Virginia’s economic vitality and the roles our public colleges and universities should be playing.

But rather than focus on the future, Morse decided we needed a history lesson, replete with programmatic litanies of “who did what to whom” and “we got here because of political choices” made almost 30 years ago.

Naturally, the irony is inescapable: then, Morse was a speechwriter for one of Virginia’s governors and undoubtedly had every opportunity to weigh in on “political choices” that, today, he characterizes as wrongheaded.

What makes even less sense are criticisms leveled at the Speaker for suggesting that it’s time to consider new ways of writing academic success stories focused on affordability, and rewarding Virginia’s schools who lead the way in public and measurable terms.

To some, it may seem heretical to suggest change. . . to challenge old ways of thinking and doing.  But we’re not going to get out of this higher education mess without change, and the Speaker and others from both sides of the political aisle deserve credit for leading the way.

On the other hand, there will always be those who would rather dwell in the past and use history as a shield against change.  As Morse put it, “If only we could just get straight on the history — yes, it matters – of how we got to this point.”

Well, sure it does.  But only to a point.  

Instead, what matters more is how our public colleges and universities will respond to these historic realities:
  1. Too many students are going into debt to get a college degree, and it’s not because they’re drinking too many lattes.
  2. College debt has become the albatross that’s dragging down our economy and draining Virginia’s talent pool.
  3. More and more, a tidal wave of mounting student debt is pushing graduates, parents and grandparents under water, and into bankruptcy.
  4. Left with no affordable - much less realistic - option, Virginia’s next generation of college graduates won’t be.  And then what?

Say what anyone might, but those leading our public colleges and universities - not to mention those governing them - have a primary obligation to educate Virginians first.  

It’s what Thomas Jefferson – who wanted to be remembered as the founder of the University of Virginia instead of our third president - always wanted, but what far too many seem to have forgotten.

So if it means meeting a first principles obligation to follow the truth even if it means change, then so be it.

If it means one size will never fit all, and that it will take flexibility and new ways of thinking that don’t quite conform to the past, then so be it.  

And if it means accepting that history isn’t a straight line, but something that can actually bend to meet today’s needs, then so be it.

Speaker Cox is a retired high school government teacher who knows these things.

The pity is that others seem to have forgotten them.