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ACE President Ted Mitchell's Remarks at the 2018 ACE Board of Directors Dinner

As delivered at the National Portrait Gallery in Washing​ton, D.C., March 9, 2018

Welcome and thank you all for joining us to mark this auspicious occasion: ACE's 100th Annual Meeting, a gathering where we will take a moment to look back on and celebrate past accomplishments and then focus on where we, collectively as a higher education community, stand right now and where we are headed.

Ted Mitchell speaking at Board of Directors Dinner ACE2018Before we do, Judy has introduced our sponsors, the ACE Board, and other special guests. I'd also like to recognize Ron Pressman, Chief Executive Officer, Institutional Financial Services at TIAA, and to thank him and TIAA for their ongoing support of ACE and the work we do. I'm honored that two of my predecessors as presidents of ACE are here with us, David Ward and Molly Broad. Their vision and leadership has helped make ACE an enduring force in the higher education community.  John B. King Jr, former U.S. Secretary of Education and current CEO of the Education Trust and a longtime partner in the battle for equity and opportunity is here, as is Ambassador Jennifer Galt, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State. I want to give special thanks to the leadership of the ACE Board, our immediate past chair, Jack DeGioia, current board chair Judy Miner, and our incoming board chair, Barbara Snyder.

The mission of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who have shaped our nation's history, development, and culture.

American higher education, of course, has played an integral role in producing so many of the people, institutions, movements, and ideas that have built our national history and identity. Since our founding in 1918, the Council's history has been inextricably bound with the story of America and America's commitment to higher education as a primary tool in the creation of a thriving and equitable society.

That's why I am so proud to be a part of ACE at such a critical time in both the history of higher education and the history of our nation.

Some of you know that when it was created in the early months of 1918, ACE was initially called the Emergency Council on Education and was asked to galvanize America's colleges and universities around three issues: Train officers for the war in Europe; prepare our 2.8 million soldiers, many of them with barely a high school education; and return to civilian life after the war with the knowledge and skills necessary to prosper and to support an intellectual and scientific infrastructure to rebuild a tattered continent.

So from our beginning, ACE has worked to create opportunity in service of broad social goals. That work continues today. We convene, organize, mobilize, and lead advocacy efforts that shape effective public policy and help colleges and universities best serve their students, their communities, and the wider public good. We help institutions build their capacity through high quality innovation. And we work to improve equity and expand access to our colleges and universities, and diversify the higher education leadership pipeline.

Over the years, this work has included the development of practical tools, like the GED assessment and ACE Credit Service to translate military and on-the-job experience into college credit, as well as efforts to build a more diverse pipeline of leaders in higher education through what have become our 10,000-member strong Women's Network and alumni of our Spectrum Programs. And from the beginning, our work has had a dramatic impact on federal policy, including leading President Truman's Presidential Commission on Higher Education, helping develop the GI Bills and the Higher Education Act, and organizing the recent Senate Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education.

Ted Mitchell speaking at Board of Directors Dinner ACE2018

​Even when we fall short, as we have so far on the DACA issue, we bring the community together to defend the highest values of our sector and our country.

From the beginning, and by design, our work is at its heart, collaborative. This dinner tonight is a reminder of that and of the partnerships that sustain us.

The wartime crisis of 1918 compelled us to act together to inspire a war-weary world and an apprehensive nation. Today, we face a serious challenge of a different kind, an erosion of public trust in the value of higher education that has opened the door to policies at the state and federal level that are at best careless and at worst pernicious.

As a century ago, only careful, concerted, coordinated action will meet the current challenges.

Let's be clear about the character of that challenge: there are at least five facets to consider:

  • A steady decline in public support for almost all institutions
  • The steady assault on evidence, expertise, research, and what we used to call fact
  • The vanishing understanding of higher education as a public good
  • Narratives that portray higher education as elitist, too expensive, and ideological
  • A sense among parents and students that higher education does not prepare learners adequately for jobs and careers

The good news is that in this time of civic turmoil and controversy, colleges and universities remain highly respected, especially among African Americans and Latinos.  But it's also true that our standing has fallen somewhat—it used to be that 80 percent of the public expressed trust and confidence in our institutions and we are now at 65 percent or so.

What makes this particularly vexing and important to address, is that higher education has never been more important to individuals, communities, our economy, and our democracy.  We know that postsecondary education creates an enduring wage premium for individuals.  We know that postsecondary education will be necessary for the vast number of jobs created in the future. We know that higher education is linked to greater civic participation, personal health, and general well-being. We know that university research fuels innovation and economic growth...not to mention protecting the planet and enhancing public health. We know that our artists and social scientists enrich our culture while they help us make sense of it. 

But knowing all those things is not enough.

A part of our imperative going forward is to be better about telling the stories that shift the headwinds we face to tailwinds.

For example, institutions are transforming the lives of "post traditional" students juggling their education with real life...with stronger predictive analytics, more flexible courses and learning modalities, better targeted student supports, and just in time financial aid. These are stories that need telling and retelling.

Similarly, we need to remind our critics that our community is one that reveres and depends upon the free exchange of ideas. Evaluating competing ideas and knowledge claims is how higher education works. That doesn't mean that making free expression work on our campuses is either easy or comfortable...  especially when student safety is at risk. Just ask our colleagues at University of Florida who spent $600,000 on security for a single speech last fall. That equals the in-state tuition of roughly 1,000 University of Florida students. The important point is that institutions are willing to pay a steep price for our commitment to free expression.

But simply telling a better story is not enough, either.

Ted Mitchell laughing at Board of Directors Dinner ACE2018

The uncomfortable truth is that within each of the narratives that vex us is a kernel of truth, enough to fuel the anecdotes we read and the impressions that persist despite ample evidence to the contrary. Take student loans. In one of the focus groups we ran last fall, the participants simply refused to believe the moderator when he told them that the average student loan debt is below $30,000. There are people facing real troubles with debt. But when you scratch the surface you find that the people for whom student debt is a crisis are largely those who incurred debt but didn't complete their degree or program and/or attended unscrupulous for-profit colleges.  What that means for us as a sector is that we need to attend to underlying substantial issues: completion and quality.

Much of the decline in the public's trust of higher education is attributable to even deeper causes, notably income inequality—the yawning wealth divide that separates many families of color from their white peers—and the job loss during the Great Recession that has badly dented the faith of many Americans. While education alone can't solve these problems, it is an essential part of the solution.

At ACE, as we turn the corner to our second hundred years, we understand this to be core to our vision for the future.  That vision is of a vibrant democratic society that relies on high-quality postsecondary education to expand equity, opportunity, and social progress. But we won't realize that vision unless it is possible for anyone in this country—regardless of zip code, race, income, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or religion—to attain a high quality degree or credential.

Now, more than ever, we need high quality higher education to be a right available to all. This is in the interest of all Americans, and it is in the national interest.

This is where I believe ACE can and must play a vital role in convening and mobilizing the entire higher education community to work together to help promote the value of higher education to stakeholders in and outside the political sphere.

ACE is, above all, a diverse membership organization whose members span the higher education landscape. Our greatest strengths are the ability to speak with a common voice and our membership's commitment to the noblest ideals of higher education.  At ACE we have the privilege of representing the most mission-driven organizations in America, institutions with a passion to serve and to build the future through teaching, research, and service. That was true in our first century and will be true in our second.

Now more than ever, higher education is shaping our world for the better. We have an opportunity to do more and we cannot let that opportunity fade. So tonight, as we embark on our second century together, let us renew our commitment to what higher education is, can, and should be...and in so doing we will meet our highest aspirations for ourselves, our students, our institutions, and our nation. The country deserves nothing less.

Thank you for that commitment and your partnership with us on this important journey.