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A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
By Arthur G. Affleck

“When I was growing up, my parents told me, ‘Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving.’ I tell my daughters, ‘Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job.’”
Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

In his best-selling book The World Is Flat, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman examines the technological and social shifts that have leveled the economic world, now allowing less-developed nations to compete with the United States for corporate investments and jobs. He writes, “Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance — or soon, even language.”

American workers are in a fierce competition for jobs with people in India, China, Russia and many other countries. The competition is highly educated, highly motivated and will work for less money. Many CEOs say they are forced to hire engineers and other high-tech workers from abroad because the United States is not graduating enough students in the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math. Combine that with America’s low birth rate and aging population and the result is a shortage of skilled workers that will number in the millions by 2010. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is already reporting shortages in fields such as engineering, teaching, health care and other technology fields.

I believe this challenge to our nation presents an opportunity for American minority-serving institutions. While it may sound simplistic, MSIs could actually provide viable career options for undereducated and underemployed populations, solve a national crisis and enhance the country’s competitiveness at the same time. 

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who is quoted in Friedman’s book, calls this a “quiet crisis.”
“If we don’t change course now and buckle down in a flat world, the kind of competition our kids will face will be intense and the social implications of not repairing things will be enormous,” she says. Friedman argues that the American education system does not stimulate enough young people to go into the STEM disciplines. The challenge before us is a lack of motivation and preparation. There may also be a lack of vision, a critical component if we are to see beyond the current crisis and develop a long-term strategy institutionally and nationally. 

Former President Bill Clinton addressed this issue  in September at a benefit gala for Bennett College.

“If women, African-Americans and Hispanics went into the sciences in the same proportion as White students, there would be no disparity between America and other major powers in the world in our performance in the sciences,” Clinton said. 

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” is a phrase that applies. Minority-serving institutions should use this looming crisis to strengthen their position in the economic landscape. They can attract new investment, strengthen their curriculums and align their programs with the changing content and technical specifications of the workplace. MSIs are well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. They provide faculty role models whose very presence assures students that they can earn master’s and doctoral degrees in technological fields. For example, three-quarters of all of the African-Americans with doctorates received their undergraduate degrees from a historically Black college or university. MSIs should consider ways to intensify and expand their STEM programs. In some cases, these institutions may need to partner with other colleges and universities to deliver engineering or other science or technical programs not easily mounted at smaller institutions.   

 Fundamentally, the flattened world requires that all institutions of higher education become more skilled in competing for and retaining talented faculty and in preparing their students for a higher level of global competition.

“When one is behind in the race of life, you must run faster, or forever remain behind,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the flat world, MSIs will have to work harder and work smarter to get their share of students, top faculty, grants, contracts and private sector investments. To ensure that students are exposed to and prepared for the modern workplace, MSIs should be working to strengthen collaborations with business, industry and the nonprofit sector.

Friedman’s vision is “to put every American man or woman on a campus.” My vision is to fill minority-serving institutions with motivated students of all ages and races, with the campus in use during the day, evening and all year long. MSIs should not forget their strengths in doing more with less. They have welcoming campuses, diverse faculties and most have room to grow. With hard work, strategic planning and action, minority-serving institutions can flourish in a flat world.

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