Former California Governor Gray Davis moderated a wide-ranging and lively panel, “What Is the Future of Higher Education?” at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival featuring USC President Emeritus and Professor C. L. Max Nikias and USC University Professor Geoffrey Cowan.
They were joined on the panel by historian H. W. Brands, the author of 30 books on U.S. history including two selected as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Brands, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Texas in Austin, has also taught history in high school and community college. He spoke about the importance of public higher education, in particular, community colleges.
Cowan and Nikias both agreed with him. “At USC, we increased the enrollment of transfer students from community colleges. A lot of private universities don’t take community college transfers,” Nikias said.
Davis credited the immediate past governor, Jerry Brown, for the recent legislation that made tuition free for California’s community college students. The legislature is now considering expanding free tuition to the California State University system.
When he took office as governor in 1999, Davis inherited a budget surplus and used some of it to fund new research institutions in the University of California system. His praise of USC’s academic ascent during the past decade was also the subject of more discussion.
“While raising academic rigor, we also became a more diverse campus,” Nikias said. “That was made possible by increasing financial aid to students from challenging socio-economic conditions.”
Cowan predicted that in the next decade, online education would produce more options for high quality education at a lower cost.
“AI—artificial intelligence—is the next phase of the online education revolution,” Nikias said. “Colleges will be able to provide excellent curricula at the undergraduate level at a lower cost, and make it available worldwide.”
Cowan also expressed concern for freedom of speech on campus. He noted that when controversial speakers come to campus, they often create friction, which sometimes leads to demonstrations. In an era when American society has grown increasingly polarized, he viewed protecting freedom of speech on college campuses as a major challenge.
“We had an excellent turnout for a serious and very positive discussion that touched many hot-button issues in higher education,” Nikias said. “I was impressed with all the panelists and with Governor Gray Davis.”