Peter McPherson Says Public Universities are Doing the Heavy Lifting of Higher Education

The president of the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities called on colleges to streamline costs without sacrificing quality

Peter McPherson speaks at UC Riverside with faculty members Jodie Holt and Sharon Walker. Carlos Puma

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), said 80 percent of the children of the richest families in America earn college degrees, while only 10 percent of the children of the poorest families do.

That inequity is a real problem for the nation, and it is a problem being tackled by the large public research universities, McPherson said during a symposium Friday, May 30 at UC Riverside. He said members of the APLU teach 64 percent of the college students in the U.S. 

“UC Riverside, by itself, serves more students eligible for Pell grants than all of the Ivy League put together,” said McPherson, a leading voice in America on the needs of public higher education. Federal Pell grants go to low-income students. He said he was impressed by UC Riverside’s success in graduating students from all walks of life at the same rate. “I hope you know how unusual that is,” he said.

He lauded the campus for including 55 percent of its undergraduates in the research process.

“He is a humble man and a true personal friend,” said UC Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilcox as he introduced McPherson as the third and final speaker in the 2014 Chancellor’s Symposia on the Future of the American Research University. He listed McPherson’s varied career, from the Peace Corps, to special assistant to President Gerald Ford; head of USAID; Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Department; president of Michigan State University and Chairman of Dow Jones.

Chancellor Kim Wilcox and others join a reception after a talk by Peter McPherson.   Carlos Puma

Chancellor Kim Wilcox and others join a reception after a talk by Peter McPherson.
Carlos Puma


Since government is decreasing spending for public universities, creativity will be key in lowering the cost of college, McPherson told an audience of about 150 people, mostly UCR faculty and administrators. Technology, including online classes, will help. “We know that online classes can produce learning,” he said. And we know that technology is getting better, but we don’t have the scale yet.”

He also pointed out the need for a more streamlined approach to advising and tracking student success. “With all that we know about learning, we have no reason NOT to be applying it.” He said public research universities need to do a better job of convincing the federal government to compensate the universities for all the research that contributes to innovation and economic growth.

Two UCR faculty members participated in a response after his talk: Jodie Holt, professor of botany and a divisional dean in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences; and Sharon Walker, an associate professor who holds the John Babbage Chair in Environmental Engineering in the Bourns College of Engineering.

 Walker said that as UCR adds faculty – with a plan for 300 new ladder rank faculty in the next five years – the campus will need more staff support and more research and teaching space. She also said the campus needs more faculty diversity, and an internal process to measure success with more data and more numbers.

Holt said that the new faculty hires would help the campus change culture quickly, following a Strategic Plan that has already been set. “We need people who are the full package,” she said, researchers, teachers and people who do outreach. She called it “RTO” for short. She also said the UCR School of Medicine is a great example of the campus matching a new initiative to the needs of the Inland region.

A question from the audience about how higher education funding seems to flow into the sciences and engineering, but not the humanities, prompted McPherson to say, “The Humanities broaden and enrich the experience, and it is central to the institution. Campuses have to make the hard decision. Where in the humanities are you particularly strong? It’s hard to excel in everything.”

He said the per student cost of a college degree is quite different when you look at it by college. “That is the awkward reality.”

Chancellor Wilcox suggested the series of three speakers as a way to build on ideas presented at the April 24 investiture ceremony. The first speaker was Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. The second speaker was Jeffrey Riedinger of University of Washington.

Founded in 1887, the APLU is North America’s oldest higher education association with member institutions in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, Canada, and Mexico. Annually, APLU member campuses enroll 4.7 million undergraduates and 1.3 million graduate students, award 1.1 million degrees, employ 1.3 million faculty and staff, and conduct $41 billion in university-based research.

Archived under: Inside UCR, Politics/Society, , , , , , ,

Top of Page