Conversation With Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Opens ACE2021
March 22, 2021

​Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona made his inaugural appearance before a higher education audience Monday at ACE2021, the Council’s annual meeting that is being held all-online through Wednesday.

Cardona touched on a number of topics in a conversation with ACE President Ted Mitchell, including transfer of credit, the role of HBCUs, the digital divide, and reimagining higher education in the wake of COVID-19, saying that “the pandemic has sharpened our sword in the fight against inequity.”

Miguel Cardona at ACE2021.

Cardona and Mitchell both highlighted the mental health needs of students, faculty, and others on campus as among the top issues that need attention, and that the pandemic has opened our eyes to the realities students were already facing.

Cardona was sworn in as the 12th Secretary of Education on March 2. He previously served as the commissioner of education in Connecticut and also has worked as a teacher and principal, and most recently.

The pandemic has interrupted progress on higher education’s long-term focus on expanding access to underserved students and help them succeed once they get to campus. In some cases, the steps forward made in past years have slipped, and in other cases the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems, like access to broadband and the need for financial support beyond tuition.

Cardona and Mitchell agreed that bold new efforts were needed to restore what has been lost and accomplish important new goals. ACE has outlined these goals in other communiques with the secretary, including doubling the maximum Pell Grant from its current $6,495 to at least $12,990 and indexing it to inflation; expanding funding for under-resourced Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other minority serving institutions; protecting Dreamers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and expanding access to broadband, the disparities of which have become even more stark during the pandemic.

Kirsten Powers, Michael Steel, Johnnetta Cole Talk About Moving Forward in 2021

Political analysts Kirsten Powers and Michael Steele discussed the political landscape for 2021 during Monday’s opening plenary session. Powers is an author, USA Today columnist, and CNN political analyst. Steele was elected Maryland lieutenant governor in 2003 and chair of the Republican National Committee in 2009, and is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.

Powers and Steele walked through the tumultuous events of the 2020 election and took questions from moderator Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, who just concluded service as chair of ACE’s Board of Directors. 

In response to a question from the audience on student loan forgiveness, Powers said the country needed to decide as a whole whether we believe that education a right. If it is, she said, that would necessitate rethinking the whole system of student aid.

Steele stressed that changes in the way education is administered need to be student-centered rather than institution-centered.

The political landscape has been a common theme to a number of meeting sessions so far. Members of the ACE Women’s Network gathered Friday evening for their pre-meeting conference, featuring Johnnetta B. Cole, president emerita of Spelman College and Bennett College, as keynote speaker.

A conversation with Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University, and Maria Gallo, president of Delaware Valley University, led to a discussion about how to best chart your course towards a campus CEO position and places to find support along the way. Jill Popovich, senior managing director at TIAA, spoke about financial strategizing and planning during the COVID-19 pandemic specifically for women, who were hit especially hard in the past year. Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University, and Luoluo Hong, of the California State University System Office also spoke during the all-afternoon event.

Cole discussed four “profoundly critical challenges” shaping the country today—COVID-19, unemployment, racial unrest, the extreme political divides in the country—that are having a particular impact on women’s lives.

In terms of moving forward on women leaders in higher education, she said that although there is still a long way to go, we are witnessing progress toward gender equity and gender equality. However, only five percent of presidents are women of color.

ACE Women's Network conference attendees toasted to making it through a long year and a better 2021.