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Lambeth Lecture speaker discusses importance of higher education

Association of American Universities president Mary Sue Coleman calls for restoration of university-government partnerships during lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Mary Sue Coleman speaks at a podium in the front of the room.
Mary Sue Coleman delivered the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Lecture in Public Policy on November 29, 2018, at Hamilton Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coleman is the president of the Association of American Universities and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UNC in 1969. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The partnership between American research universities and the federal government is at risk, threatening our progress as a nation, says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities.

“There is no partnership like this on the planet, and we are at risk of undermining it with shortsighted thinking,” Coleman said during the 11th annual Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Lecture in Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt introduced Coleman, who earned her doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1969, to an audience of nearly 200 people on Nov. 29. Folt recognized Coleman for “the dedication she brings to diversity and expanding access and opportunity for all.”

Coleman’s talk, “The Educated Citizenry: An Endangered Species?”, addressed the skepticism and devaluation of higher education in the United States, as well as the potential consequences of not investing in education at the same rate as other global superpowers.

“Make no mistake: this partnership created the internet, put a man on the moon, ended polio and countless other diseases, and put the world in the palm of our hands with the smartphone,” Coleman said, adding that research has long underpinned the American economy, society and national security. “As a nation, we’d better do something — and do it quickly — about a monumental partnership that is threatened.”

As Russia, China and other countries continue to invest in university research at higher rates than the U.S., Coleman warned that America’s position of global dominance is in jeopardy.

“Unless the U.S. government renews the partnership with U.S. universities, it is simply a matter of time before we will no longer lead,” she said.

In her lecture, Coleman called on those who believe in the value of higher education to promote and defend the work of universities and the role of diversity in generating innovative ideas.

“We must challenge ourselves to explain the impact and the importance of university research,” she said. “Our collective work changes lives for the better, so we cannot stand idle while some of our leaders devalue education and educated people… To be silent, particularly in our current political climate, is to acquiesce.”

In the face of spending deficits and changing American values, Coleman reminded her audience of the “extraordinary” return on investment that comes from training the next generation of scientists and engineers.

But above all, she endorsed a long-held principle born of American democracy: “higher education is a public good.”