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Excerpts: Keynote Address – Never Eat Your Seed Corn: Some Personal Reflections


“The theme of my remarks today are drawn from the first lesson I learned as a youthful agricultural economist when studying small farmers in the less developed regions of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers lived in a world of high risk and uncertainty. Their long-term survival from year to year depended primarily upon the food crops they produced.  Facing the risks of crop failures from droughts, monsoons, pests or blights, meant always protecting the seed for the next year’s crop — even if it meant going hungry. Otherwise, no seed meant no future food. Their wise rule was: “Never Eat Your Seed Corn.”
“This principle is the key to a major crisis facing U.S. higher education today.  Since public higher education enrolls some 73 percent of all students in the United States, let me focus on that sector. Since I began working in higher education roughly 50 years ago there have been dramatic changes and declines in the levels and changes in sources of its financial support. For example, when I arrived at Michigan State University in 1970, student tuition covered 1/3 the costs of the university and 2/3 came from State and Federal sources. Today, those ratios have more than reversed. Here in your Pennsylvania system you have experienced the same problem. Recent research by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Public Agenda revealed that public confidence in higher education has dropped from a high of 55 percent positive in 2009 to 42 per cent in 2016. Why is this happening?”
“One reason for the crisis is the public’s growing rejection of the value of education for the improvement of society and the individual. Over time there has been a dramatic shift in society’s understanding of the purpose and goals of higher education. Increasingly, higher education’s primary goal is seen as almost exclusively preparation for a specific job, not the nurture and growth of intellectual flexibility and broader human competence.  Job outcomes after graduation are an important goal. But given today’s ever-increasing shift toward knowledge-based occupations, our offerings must reflect this change to achieve stronger mind-skills and the need for lifelong education.”
“A second reason for the change in education’s standing has been a growth of anti-science and anti-knowledge views. The “scientific method of inquiry” which for centuries has been the central foundation for the increase in human knowledge, is being steadily eroded. The denial of facts and truth are leading to growing ignorance.”
“With the growing income inequality in our country, there is also a burgeoning perception that higher education is “elite” because it is available mainly to the rich. All these views are gradually becoming the basis for justifying inadequate federal and state tax support.  A related negative factor has been a shifting of cost burdens thereby producing ever higher tuition levels for students and their families. The result has been a reduction in educational access for low-income sector potential students and an increase in the economic load placed upon middle-income families, not to mention the larger loan debt levels for the graduates themselves. This is a huge and disgraceful national loss of future human capital.”
“These destructive trends have spawned disinvestment in the basic foundation of colleges and universities. Higher education has been experiencing a hidden decline similar to our national infrastructure decay. The long-run impact upon the pursuit of excellence and the strengthening of core disciplines is causing a devastating deterioration in the central institutions for our nation’s future growth and development.”
“Higher education is an investment in human capital – both through the students who are served and the scholars who teach and whose research expands the knowledge base of our society. It is the major basis for the growth of our national human capital.  The institutions of higher education represent our nation’s “seed corn” for our future. We eat it at our peril.”
“We all must also continue to speak out forcefully and often on the critical importance of higher education’s role in your state and the nation. Trustees are especially important advocates for their universities and the system funding. Trustee stewardship and commitment to the academic enterprise and their wisdom could lead to stronger future human capital. Our universities, the seed corn for human capital, must be given a higher fiscal priority if our academic institutions are to survive and make their special contributions to our nation’s future.”

Dr. Wharton is president emeritus, Michigan State University, chancellor emeritus, State University of New York system; former Chairman and CEO, TIAA-CREF; and former chairman, Rockefeller Foundation. He holds 63 honorary doctorates.