In the current debate over the poor quality of education in the United States , colleges have been largely ignored. But University of Chicago president Hanna Holborn Gray insists that to some degree, every college and university directly feels the impact of the decline in quality. And, as she sees it, higher education has a role to play in helping to reverse the trend.
Colleges and universities can contribute, she says, by hiking admissions standards in some cases, by finding new ways to share their resources such as faculty and scientific laboratories, with local secondary school systems, and by broadening the general education component of teacher training.
Pressed for her views on the current controversy, Dr. Gray noted in the course of an interview in her campus office that even the highly selective University of Chicago, a private university, is keenly aware of the quality problem. The majority of its students come from public high schools.
''Despite the intelligence and real brightness of our students - and I might add that their college board scores have been going up, not down - one can see over the last couple of decades that they are not as well prepared in certain fundamental areas,'' she says, citing a gap in foreign language and writing skills in particular. ''And it isn't just that faculty think that students are more poorly prepared -the students themselves feel it and want to catch up.''
Dr. Gray notes that, like high schools, many colleges became more permissive in the late 1960s. Many dropped traditional foreign language and English composition admission requirements as many high schools stopped requiring such subjects. They also loosened their structure of course offerings, she says, to include more electives. Part of the reason: Most colleges in those years were trying to reach out for a more diverse group of students, many of whom were from schools with fewer formal academic requirements. In that sense, she says, the college admissions dilemma became a ''real chicken-and-egg problem.''
Still, President Gray, a specialist in medieval history and a former provost of Yale University, says she thinks toughening college admission requirements now could have some impact. She notes that some public universities are demanding higher grade-point averages of new students rather than automatically accepting all high school graduates within a state, and are exploring other ways to make academic requirements more vigorous. But she cautions: ''It has to be done in a way that does not exclude students who may not have had such academic courses available to them from a rightful crack at college.''
Dr. Gray says the focus on secondary education is prodding colleges to think about new ways to work with neighborhood schools. She cites her own university's summer mathematics institute for high school teachers and a summer academic and athletic program for 400 local inner-city students as examples of ways colleges can help.
''Institutions have to do what they're best equipped to do, collaborating with the schools to make use of their special strengths,'' she says.''They can't be dictating to the schools - that would be the worst thing - but I think all of us could probably be doing more.''
Dr. Gray says she would also like to see a widespread revival in universities of the once-popular master of arts in teaching programs. With such MAT degrees, students receive advanced training in such fields as history or math along with a mimimal amount of teacher training. ''I'm not a great fan of teacher training programs, and I think they haven't been that appealing.''
If there is one element in the current education debate that most disturbs Dr. Gray, it is the tendency to make no exceptions with condemning the general quality of education and teaching.
''It's sort of as if there weren't a number of excellent and dedicated teachers out there,'' she says. ''A lot of (our) students may not have gone to terribly good schools but will have encountered one or two teachers who really raised their sights. . . . But these very good teachers are not encouraged and recognized for the important work they're doing. . . . Their lives are really made very difficult. Everybody's after them all the time.''
Part of the problem, she says, is that society sends contradictory signals to its schools.
''On the one hand people want their children to be well educated,'' she says.''On the other, they don't really think very much about education from moment to moment. . . . Schools are meant to baby-sit and provide the discipline that's not always provided elsewhere, but on the other hand they're also meant to be very nice to the children and not give them too hard a time.''
She says the emphasis on universal access to secondary education has also led to considerable confusion, about public education's obligation to its better students.
''There's such a fear of what's called elitism in our society,'' she says. ''We may be setting . . . the common denominator too low. It seems to me that there is a way to be nondiscriminatory in all the ways that should be entirely irrelevant - race, sex, income, family background - (yet recognize that) some people are better at some things than other people are. It's not a moral judgment. We allow for it in athletics, business, and every other area of our society, but we get very worried when it pops up in education. . . . Schools could become exclusive in the wrong sense, but I think the reluctance to undertake major programs for those who happen to have those greater talents probably is not a good thing.''
What of the teachers who are at the center of these conflicting demands and who deserve more public esteem than they have been getting?
The University of Chicago president agrees that teachers generally are underpaid, but does not favor merit pay: ''I think it could have seriously detrimental effects.'' She suggests a number of other ways, such as prizes and awards and more ''refreshment opportunities,'' to upgrade the general level of reward for good teaching. She cites as an example a new National Endowment for the Humanities program just getting started on 15 college campuses this summer. The aim is to bring high school teachers together to read and discuss everything from the works of Plato and Chaucer to the Federalist Papers, whether it specifically relates to their teaching disciplines or not. ''In the sense of being refreshed, having new ideas, and thinking about ways of teaching, this may be as important as another couple hundred bucks,'' she says.
In Dr. Gray's view, the national debate over the quality of education is basically a healthy one which could result in positive gains. But it won't be productive, she says, if it becomes bogged down on one or two issues such as merit pay or if people conclude, after all the talk, that the problems are just too overwhelming.
''We're talking about the enormously important job of training and preparing the next generation,'' she says. ''The fact that people are concerned about it at a national level is a very good thing. In a real sense there needs now to be a tremendous amount of activity (locally) to try to make things happen. As you look at your own piece of it, your own schools, your own children, and what can be done, it's important that instead of feeling helpless . . . you (realize that you) can make some little differences in your own community - which, over time, can have some effect. It's a matter of how you actively bite off any piece . . . and try to get to work.''