by David A. Salomon, The Sage Colleges, Coordinator, NACU Campus Ambassadors

Sages_David-Salomon_195This past week, I took the train from Albany, NY, to Manhattan, and paid $406 to stay overnight in a room slightly larger than a thimble at a Hampton Inn on 39th Street in order to attend the fifth annual New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference at The Times Center in New York City, a conference addressing public policy and education, chiefly higher education. The day (along with the preceding evening) is filled with panel discussions or one-on-ones between notable NY Times writers—David Leonhart, Joe Nocera—and higher education and policy wonks, including political figures like Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, who discussed his “pre-k through community college” strategy. The day’s topics ranged from curtailing sexual assault on campuses to issues related to NCAA sports to an intriguing panel on race and affirmative action. The conference is excellent at raising provocative questions but tends to be a little light on providing concrete answers and offering solutions. Interestingly, the one session that didn’t allow for audience Q&A was the most contentious and buzz worthy—on the NCAA, big-time sports, and paying college athletes.

New York Times buildingOne example is the interesting exchange between John McWhorter and Angel Perez, both of who acknowledge being products of affirmative action. However, McWhorter, a professor at Columbia and frequent contributor to the NYT, argues it is time to move from race-based affirmative action policies and instead implement similar policies based on socio-economic class. Perez, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Trinity College, feels that race-based affirmative action still has important work to do on college campuses, noting that diversity on a campus is often viewed as the training ground for diversity in the workplace. McWhorter, however, noted “it’s not Yale or jail.”

Perhaps the highlight of the day was Frank Bruni. Eloquent and articulate on the subject of college admissions, Bruni argued that the high-stakes admissions game in the US is out-of-control, having convinced high school juniors and seniors that acceptance to one of about thirty highly-selective colleges and universities is the brass ring. The truth is that undergraduate education truly is the product of the student’s individual passions, involvement, and motivation. Bruni’s most recent book is Who You Are Is Not Who You Will Be. That said, other speakers later in the day noted that graduation from one of those highly-selective schools seems to all but guarantee success in today’s America—witness Rahm Emanuel, graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. My title is taken from something Bruni said during his talk, reinforcing the importance of liberal arts education, even in the age of STEM-mania.

A lunch discussion sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation engaged three speakers on issues related to training future teachers. Most significantly, Kathy Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, noted that, sometime in the 1970s and 80s, universities moved from the “training” of future teachers to “preparing” them in more holistic ways as classroom professionals. This move, Walsh suggests, needs to be reversed and the teaching of research-based best practices needs to be ramped up. Another panelist, Norman Atkins, president of Relay GSE, would like to see more practicum-based training of teachers, putting them in the classroom long before the usual fourth-year student teaching placement, while concurrently studying pedagogical theory and, even more importantly, content. All on the panel seemed to lament the deficit in content learning for future teachers at the cost of increased numbers of education courses. Walsh mentioned a recent study of graduating education majors and noted that at some institutions as many of 90% of those graduating did so with honors. “We’re accepting students at lower levels and graduating them at lower levels,” she said, also noting that at many institutions the entrance requirements for athletes are often higher than those for education majors.

This is an intriguing conference attended by about 500 people keenly interested in higher education policy in this country. The issues being incubated all day seemed to finally hatch into a charge to change higher education by implementing innovative and, often, common sense ideas. As Frank Bruni suggested, if we continue to prepare students for the future according to carefully-tailored recipes, we will end up with a nation of line cooks when what we really need are gourmet chefs.

Videos of each session are available for free viewing at