President Obama’s University at Buffalo address delivers three-point plan for higher education

By Aidan Ryan
Photo credit Aidan Ryan

Photo credit Aidan Ryan

No one expected Barack Obama to spend two days taking in the scenic views on the roads between Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton. But the force and specificity of his three-point plan to bring the equalizing power of education into the hands of every American surprised even those who anticipated the debut of a major new initiative. The changes to higher education, some requiring action from Congress and state legislatures and some that “I can make on my own,” as Obama said, aim to trim tuition, rein in student loan debt, and hold colleges to new, Department of Education-crafted standards of “value.”

All this was still a mystery when University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi took the podium, mentioned a handful of special guests including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, and SUNY Trustee Eunice Lewin, and noted that “Together, all of us in this room are making history.”

Tripathi spoke of “ensuring our U.S. system of higher education remains the best in the world,” and likewise ensuring that this system is accessible to all.  President Obama, Tripathi hinted, would begin “this important conversation.”

Of course, the conversation began years ago and has continued everywhere from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the basement office of The Griffin, covering the economicalphilosophical, and methodological crises and crisis-like questions facing higher education in the U.S.  But this morning, we were still making history.  The first sitting president since Millard Filmore in 1853 was about to speak at UB.

Tripathi left the stage, and UB’s Alumni Arena fell into silence until a cheer went up as the crowd caught sight of the JumboTron, where one could see President Obama stepping through the door of Air Force One, where Griffin Sports Editor Jourlooking cool and confident in a blue blazer and khaki slacks.  In a mute show on the big screen, the president exchanged what looked to be witty remarks with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Representative Brian Higgins, and Mayor Byron Brown.  Intermittent WGRZ footage thereafter showed gasping fans pressing hands to heaving breasts, quelling heart palpitations as Obama’s sleek black bus rolled by.  A low hum of anticipation rolled off the bleacher seats, while Miles Davis’ frozen horn sounds, selected by someone savvy at UB’s Center for the Arts, kept all in Alumni Arena calm, despite soaring temperatures.

Governor Cuomo walked in first, to enthusiastic applause.  Few recognized the man who first took the stage, however: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who gave something akin to a 30-second pep talk thanking the students and parents, insisting on the necessity of higher education in “the economy of today,” and stressing the need to bring down costs for the middle class.

After an introduction from UB sophomore and aspiring dentist Silvana D’Ettorre at turns giddy and collected, President Obama took the stage to wild applause:  “Hello Buffalo … Hello Bulls.”

Many politico-junkies in Buffalo would say that Bernie Tolbert is the least visible of the three mayoral candidates, but apparently he isn’t the most forgettable: mere moments after meeting and talking with Byron Brown, President Obama announced that “your outstanding Mayor Brian Higgins is here.  What?  Byron Brown … I’m … sorry.”

What followed, bizarrely, was a long list of the successes of the past five years, from new job creation to Obamacare, to the mention of which the audience reacted with appropriately muted ambiguity.  The sense was clear, however, that Obama was confident and ready to face a new challenge.  “We’ve cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis,” he said; and “we’ve started to lay the foundation” for growth.  What followed was a speech delivered with President Obama’s characteristic charisma fortified by an uncharacteristically assertive tone: his remarks formed an inverted pyramid developing from broad sweeping statements – such as “It’s not about how many billionaires we produce,” but giving everyone “a chance to pursue their own measure of happiness” – to the bullet point specifics of his three-point plan.

“We’re gonna have to do things differently.”

Obama said that he would work with colleges to lower tuition, to much applause.  He said that he would work with state legislatures to fund higher education – what must have been an awkward moment for Gov. Cuomo, whose track record on that front does not quite live up to Obama’s standards; although the president still labeled him of “one of the best governors in the country.”

Then the president said that he would ask more of students receiving financial aid.  The hall fell silent.  Perhaps one or two administrators clapped.  Doubling down, Obama let everyone know that his new plan would not be universally popular – and that it would be particularly unpopular with those doing fine under the current system.

“Every American should be able to afford to get it.”

His first task falls squarely on Secretary Duncan’s shoulders: devising a system by the 2015 academic year to rank colleges based on “value,” a departure from the current models put forth by Forbes, US News, and the Princeton Review.

His second goal is to jumpstart new competition between colleges on innovation encouraging affordability.

Finally, following his recent student loan victory, during which “Democrats and Republicans worked together” to prevent student loans from doubling, Obama hoped to further reduce and manage student loan debts, mentioning an expansion of the “pay as you earn” program and a complementary awareness raising campaign.

Naturally these goals engendered questions.  Several came from the president, and were directed at colleges.  “Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed?” he asked in regard to his proposed ranking system.  He said that the answer to this question would affect federal aid to colleges – and said that states would be encouraged to follow the same model, citing Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan as good examples; yet another quiet subtextual rebuke to Gov. Cuomo.  Those in the audience, meanwhile, wondered about his as-yet unknown criteria.

Tripathi, too, must have been uncomfortable, as the $375 million medical school relocation falls under the type of inefficient spending that Obama discouraged.

Regarding the new changes in expectations of students, the president was at once his most detailed and his most maddeningly vague.  He first said that students who receive financial aid must complete their semester’s courses before receiving aid for the next semester – at which point a dauntless and very angry student in a lime green “UB” shirt screamed incoherently from the upper deck, before being hustled out – and then sketched a new model of efficiency for higher education.  This included an embrace of online classes, through which “students master the same material in less time at a lower cost,” according to Obama.  Then, in a quick remark that baffled professors and pundits alike, Obama gestured to a system of credits awarded on the basis of performance, so that a student who “knows more” can graduate more quickly.

This, perhaps, will be a sticking point.  More broadly, it raises the question: What do we mean by “education?”

Reaction was mixed.  Canisius senior William Freeman thought the speech was long overdue.  He also approved of the president’s “forward-thinking” embrace of online courses.  “For gen-ed courses, they are a great cost-cutting measure,” said Freeman.  “Online courses require more participation than traditional classroom courses. Students are forced to answer all discussion questions rather than sleep in the back of the class.”

Junior Michael Rizzo had doubts.  “The professor-student interaction is a huge part of the learning experience,” he said.  He also expressed doubts about the performance-based credit system – how do you include Notre Dame’s mandatory freshman physical education course? he wondered – but thought that the overall objective of lowering student loan debt was a good one.  However, he said he was glad to be leaving school in two years.  “I think for the first half of the decade, the shit’s going to hit the fan,” he said.

This indeed may be the case – although the goal of reducing student loan debt already has a history of bipartisan support, and is non-contentious enough to perhaps amount to a second term victory – one reason why detractors are already calling these remarks the “changing the subject tour.”  The college ranking system, as Slate writer Matthew Yglesias suggested, will likely cause more of a ruckus – and not only in Congress.

Obama raised his voice to climax-pitch, and the crowd surged like a mass of flesh-toned anemones toward their president.  He waved, left the stage, and kissed an obligatory baby proffered like a ritual, while Bruce Springsteen’s populist anthem “This Train” played over the loudspeakers.  (This, unlike the Miles Davis, was likely selected by the White House staff.)

Air Force One photo gallery

Alumni Arena photo gallery


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