The New American Dilemma: An Agenda Item for Higher Education

This is a critical time for our nation. Given the confluence of the rapid demographic changes that are occurring in America, the tremendous progress in science and technology that is taking place in developing countries, the serious shortcomings of our public education systems, shifting immigration policies, and the historic underrepresentation of sizable elements of our population, our nation must act quickly on a number of fronts to maintain a strong position of leadership in the STEM disciplines and to ensure a future of prosperity and security. 

Preeminence in innovation and entrepreneurship will reside in the hands of those nations that are the most adept at quickly building and retaining talent. Other countries, certainly China and India, are moving faster than we are. Huge changes have occurred in our economy largely as a result of globalization and technological innovation. Manufacturing has declined while the information age requires more professional and high-tech skills from employees. We find ourselves importing talent and exporting jobs, not just because it is less expensive to have the work performed by lower-wage skilled workers in developing countries but also because we do not produce enough native-born, well-qualified scientists and engineers in our nation’s colleges and universities.  Unless this changes, America will be unable to retain its leadership position in scientific and technological innovation and keep its competitive edge in the global marketplace of ideas and products unless it does so. This is the dilemma facing our nation today.

This dilemma derives from our nation’s failure to educate and develop a growing proportion of its potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent base while its need for talent and skills in science and engineering is escalating.   The relative absence of diversity in representation and participation, especially with respect to African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and women, is increasingly becoming a problem for the STEM disciplines given the demographic changes underway in society.  The disciplines of science and engineering in our higher educational institutions have, to a large extent, ignored the trends and failed to recognize or, perhaps, admit that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products and, most of all, our creativity.  

Creativity is spawned best in an environment of diversity—diversity in a broad sense that encompasses race, ethnicity, gender, class, country of origin, physical ability, sexual orientation, political persuasion, cultural background and any other characteristic that differentiates one person or group from another.  The different life experiences and frames of reference that result from an amalgam of diverse individuals reflecting a broad cross-section of these characteristics leads to the creativity needed to make innovative technological breakthroughs.

Colleges and universities have a major responsibility.  They must do more than they have done to be culturally pluralistic and inclusive institutions that affirm the presence of difference throughout and that value excellence at all levels of the institution—in its students, faculty, staff, administration, governing board, curriculum, student services, social organizations and mission.   I contend that it requires them to do two things. One, the institution must have the will and the capacity to change in order to address fully the educational and socialization needs of its increasingly more diverse population. Two, there must be an unwavering commitment to excellence, the kind of excellence that can best be measured in the quality of outcomes.   

There must also be a focus on equality of opportunity and not mere diversity for its own sake.  I am becoming increasingly suspicious of the notion that simply pursuing and achieving diversity implies the presence of an environment of equity.  In order for America to fulfill its responsibilities for addressing the grand challenges of our global society, especially those that require a well prepared and talented scientific and technological workforce, we must ensure that all segments of our society have an opportunity for a quality educational experience. That must be high on the agenda of our nation’s higher education administrators and governing boards.

John Brooks Slaughter is a professor of education and engineering at the University of Southern California and a former director of the National Science Foundation. He is the co-author, along with William Dabars, of Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience. The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of the American Research University, by Crow and Dabars, will be forthcoming this spring from JHUP.

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series