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President of NYU assesses Reagan's impact on education

The irony doesn't escape him, nor does it discourage him either. Celebrating this week his third anniversary as president of New York University (NYU), John Brademas is still spending a major portion of his time raising funds for education.

This former Democratic congressman from Indiana, in Washington for 22 years, can look back on a political career in which he shepherded through Congress more federal aid to education - at the elementary, secondary, college, and graduate levels - than was authorized at any other time in United States history.

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He now finds himself heading one of the largest private universities (45,000 students) in the country and leading an NYU fund drive that seeks to raise $1 million a week for 100 weeks. The drive comes in the wake of Reagan administration cuts in many of the financial aid programs he helped enact in Congress.

Sitting in his office atop an 11-story, red sandstone library that overlooks Washington Square in Greenwich Village, Dr. Brademas discusses the major challenges facing education as the first Reagan term draws to an end. His focus is pointedly national, albeit from the vantage of an urban campus that is bigger than many small cities. In more than an hour of conversation, he makes a case unequivocally for a strong federal role in education.

''I must say, having been here three years now, I have not had a single instance where a federal agent has walked into my office from Washington to say, 'Stop doing that! And start doing that!' '' he says. Much of what Ronald Reagan has done for education has been just good public relations, Dr. Brademas contends.

''When he says we ought to have stronger discipline and more homework - well nobody's against discipline, and nobody's against homework - it's mostly sound and fury signifying nothing, because the specifics of his policies, such as tuition tax credits and vouchers and so on, really do nothing to improve . . . access to our schools and universities or to enhance the quality of the teaching and learning that goes on....''

Shaking his head to add emphasis, not so much for this reporter as if for a larger audience encountered during his years of political speechmaking and congressional hearings, Dr. Brademas faults the President for what he considers shortsightedness in underfunding higher education. The President does not see that higher education is crucial to the future and security of the country, he says. Defense and foreign policy strategy, economic growth, the entire quality of life that ''we as a people live'' are directly tied to scholarship and research, he adds.

''It's terribly important that we maintain a continuing flow of student assistance funds,'' says this son of a Greek immigrant, whose father came to the US not knowing a word of English and without a dollar in his pocket. He died when Dr. Brademas was 16. It was his mother's faith in education for her son that opened doors for him and allowed him to reach his present position.

''A very substantial percentage of students at NYU (and other campuses across the country) depend upon the guaranteed student loan program, college work study programs, the Pell grant programs (for low income students), and other forms of federal student assistance in order to be able to go to college,'' he says.

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The former legislator points out that, if the US had tuition tax credits, the ''drain on the federal Treasury represented by the lost revenues would immediately be regarded by the House Appropriations Committee as a mark against the other federal programs for higher education. Moneys that now go directly either to universities or to students would begin to drain away, all under the guise of encouraging more freedom,'' he maintains. ''It's another Reagan gimmick to take money away from low- and middle-income Americans and give it to upper-income Americans. I think it's bad morally; I think it's bad fiscally; and I think it's bad educationally.

''Vouchers are nothing more than an income redistribution program, because the money doesn't go into the school system. The money goes into the pockets of the parents,'' he says, warming to his subject with zest inspired by a November election on the horizon. The public schools are ''a fundamental institution in the American democracy. We cannot have a free society, a democratic society, without a strong public school system. So instead of saying, 'Gee, how awful the public schools are!' the rational policy, in my judgment, is to say: 'Well, now let's talk about how we can strengthen the public schools.' One of the ways - I do not say the only way - is to pay teachers better salaries.

''You need not only an ongoing supply of students, but you need ongoing support for research - medical research, for example, scientific research, research in the social sciences (the area in which he received his doctorate). We also need to invest adequately to produce teachers not only for our colleges and universities but for our grade schools and high schools, and those come from institutions of higher learning,'' he says.

Earlier this month, a 21/2-year study of American college presidents conducted by Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California (fired in 1967 by then-Governor Reagan), said that the heads of American colleges have become so tied down and ''weakened'' by interest groups and regulations that few are able to provide strong leadership. But for Dr. Brademas, one of some 400 presidents interviewed for the study, that finding decidedly doesn't fit.

Asked why leadership is not as forthcoming from his colleagues as one might expect, given their position at the helm of institutions that do the primary research for an information society, Dr. Brademas's answer is direct: ''A major reason is that universities, especially large universities like this one, have become such managerial challenges - such administrative challenges and such fund-raising challenges - that the time of the chief executive can often be swallowed up in these activities, so that he's not able to do as much thinking about the purposes of education and the problems that face society, for the resolution of which problems we need educated men and women, as he ought to do, '' he says.

''Probably, the longer I'm here, and the more I feel on top of my responsibility, I'll have more to say on this or that. I make speeches on foreign policy. I'm speaking next week on children and television.'' It's the one subject on which both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale agree, he says. ''Children spend too much time watching TV and not enough time doing their homework.''

''I don't want to become a prisoner of solely the management and fund-raising functions of the university presidency - indispensable though they are, crucial though they are - because I don't think I will be properly fulfilling ... my responsibility as a university president if I don't have some sense of what's going on in the wider society. And frankly, I don't think I would be as effective a fund-raiser manager either!''

In Congress or out, John Brademas will speak to issues facing the wider society.

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