Coming to grips with the problems of race – interview with Council for Aid to Education’s Commission on National Investment in Higher Education co-chair Thomas Kean – InterviewJuly 11, 2007 |
In addition to serving as a co-chair of the Council for Aid to
Education’s Commission on National Investment in Higher Education
(CNIHE), Thomas Kean, president of Drew University and former governor
of New Jersey, was recently appointed to the president’s newly formed
advisory commission on race. Following the CNIHE press conference, Gov.
Kean discussed the report and the advisory commission with Black Issues
In Higher Education:
What is the key thing you’d like the President and Congress to take from this [CNIHE] report on higher education?
The key thing that I’d like them to understand is that if we
continue to do things [on a] business as usual [basis], hundreds and
thousands of their constituents are going to be denied the right to a
Is there a connection between your position on the race advisory board and this report?
The most dramatic tie is [that] the people who are going to be left
out [of participation in college] first are people who are Black,
people who are Hispanic, people who are poor. So if these trends
continue, the divide between rich and poor, Black and white is going to
widen. And so the social contract, the social fabric of this country is
going to be much more difficult to maintain.
How do you see linking the results of the study to the task you will have on the advisory board on race?
I happen to believe that we will never solve the problems of race in
this country, which is so tied up with the right to opportunity,
without looking at our young people and looking at our education system
in a major way. And that starts with K through 12 [kindergarten through
twelfth grade], and goes right into the recommendations we make in this
report. Many of our problems with race are because we have denied
opportunity to people in this country. We cannot continue to do that.
The doorway to opportunity is education and if we don’t address
education in our final recommendation to the President, I don’t think
we will have done our jobs.
Were you surprised to be nominated to the advisory board by President Clinton?
Yes, I was. I was surprised because I was basically retired from
public life. I had done some commission work and I’m chairman of the
Carnegie Commission, but I have not been involved in public roles. I
have not run for anything. I don’t want to run for anything. So I was
surprised that he selected me, and in fact, I turned him down until he
came back and said, “I really want you,” and [told me] the reasons he
One of the reasons he cited was that I’ve been governor of the
second-most diverse state in the country. I dealt with a number of
issues while I was governor. I appointed more minorities than any
governor in the history of the state. I was the first governor to deal
with the South African problems. And when I ran for reelection as a
Republican, I got well over 60 percent of the minority vote, which is
unusual for a Republican.
[Aside] from the point of view of having dealt with the problems as
a governor, I’m now a foundation president and we’re dealing with a
number of these issues at the Carnegie Corporation. And as a university
president, because race is always an omnipresent subject on campuses
and, as every college president has, we’ve dealt with problems on
campus and understand the nature of those problems.
What do you think will be the greatest challenge for the advisory board on race and why?
I think our challenge is first of all to get the dialogue started
properly and not have people run off on side issues or be diverted by
anything. [Our challenge is] to get into the serious issues which
involve not only those of us who may have been talking about race for
some time, but involve people in a bipartisan way – [to] get [to]
people in some institutions who have not really focused on race; to get
the country as a whole recognizing that we are not going to be the kind
of country we want to be unless we finally come to grips with the most
difficult problem that has affected this democracy since our
constitutional convention. Unless we come to grips with it, we’re not
going to succeed as a nation in the next century. And the president put
it very well. He said we can decide to live with people just like us.
We can go into little enclaves and that’s very easy to do. But we lose
something when we do that as a people, and the nation loses a great
deal. And this diverse democracy will never be able to realize its full
potential unless we come to grips with the problems.
What’s the biggest challenge of ensuring diversity at Drew University in your role as president?
We have a diverse student body because partly we’re in a location
where people from cities can come to us. We’re the best institution
near a city. We’re near Newark. We’re near East Orange. We’re near
Jersey City. We’re near Paterson. And we’re near New York, for that
matter. So a diverse student body hasn’t been our problem.
Having a diverse faculty has been more of a problem because there
are not enough minority candidates in a number of fields out there. And
often, some of the richer universities have first crack at those
people. Getting a more diverse faculty has been a challenge.
The other challenge … is to make sure [that] as a campus, as a
student body, we are really taking advantage of the various backgrounds
and the things everyone brings to the table, and [make sure that] we’re
not self-segregating and going off and talking only to those who are
Do you think Drew has a special obligation, particularly in light of
having a well-known school of theology on campus, to be a leader on
issues relating to diversity?
I think there’s no question Drew has a special responsibility. It is
good that we have a theological school not on a hill as at some
campuses but right in the center of the campus. The theological school
has a very good program going now with the Black ministry in Newark.
And that’s expanded now to the undergraduate body. We have, for our
size, one of the largest chapters of Habitat for Humanity in the
country. We have well over a hundred students who go down to Newark and
mentor students in the Newark schools. We do volunteering at the food
bank and a lot of other things. I think our students feel – and our
faculty feels – we do have a special obligation, and it seems to be
part of our spirit right now.
The composition of the president’s board is all pro-affirmative action. Will that create credibility problems?
I hope not because, again, that’s in the nature of who we are. If we
were a board that was going to make a national report, I would argue
for much more diversity in views. But we’re not that kind of board.
We’re a board to recommend to the president of the United States for
his consideration. The president of the United States is totally
committed to affirmative action. He’s not going to change on that. To
put an advisor to him who doesn’t believe as he does doesn’t make much
sense. So, because of the kind of body we are to advise the President
of the United States as to what he’s going to say, that’s the reason
we’re of a like view on affirmative action.
Do you think it will be possible to convey in your advice to the
President that higher education can be a tool in the fight to
strengthen race relations in America?
I think higher education has got to be a tool in two ways. First of
all, in line with this report, higher education has got to be open for
those people of every race who have the ambition and the ability to
take advantage of it. And higher education has also taken on – and
should take on – the responsibility to make sure those who have the
ability can nevertheless find a way to achieve something in higher
education. So it’s got that responsibility.
The second obligation is to maintain a community on campus where
diversity is treasured and where opportunity is granted. And where
self-segregating is occurring, none of it is promoted by the
institution. The institution promotes the broadest possible
diversification so that students can benefit from all cultures and all
backgrounds. That’s part of their learning and that’s the world they’re
going to live in when they leave the university.
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