My parents and teachers instilled the value of education in me through their words and examples. Their emphasis on learning shaped my worldview and led me to a life and career in which education was always vitally important, culminating in my role at TIAA. As my time as president and CEO draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on their teachings and the occasions I’ve had over the past 13 years to learn from both my colleagues as well as the people and institutions TIAA serves. I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside such dedicated people striving to advance higher education. And I have never more appreciated the crucial part they play in helping to strengthen our society and ensure more people share in its progress.
My tenure at TIAA has been bookended by two consequential events: the financial crisis in 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both crises fundamentally reshaped our society and will have lasting effects on young people who came of age against the backdrop of turmoil and anxiety. But this is not the first time a generation has been shaped by crisis and unrest, nor will it be the last. I am optimistic that we can learn from the role that education has historically played in informing civic dialogue, strengthening social resilience, opening pathways to prosperity and preparing people for the future -- no matter how challenging times may seem.
In a 1990 speech on his first visit to the United States, a recently freed Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Those words still ring true and punctuate how vital our work is to strengthen our educational institutions as beacons of truth, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.
Recent crises have exacerbated enduring challenges in higher education. How we collectively address these headwinds will shape outcomes for generations to come. America is home to some of the world’s best colleges and universities, and we need to guarantee the best student experience across an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society. That begins with tackling the COVID-19 emergency and helping academic institutions safeguard health and ensure no one is left behind as we build back post-pandemic. But as the crisis has laid bare, we have deeper problems to address.
I’m encouraged by the commitment and dedication that leaders in higher education are demonstrating to collectively solve three interrelated challenges, several of which were explored in a seminal report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. First, we’ve seen a renewed focus on improving graduation rates, especially by addressing underlying structural inequities in institutions. Second, faculty members, administrators and policy makers are thinking systemically about how to make higher education more affordable and student loan debt more manageable. And third, we’re having important conversations about how to make higher education institutions stronger and better equipped to provide value as the pace of societal and technological change continues to accelerate.
I’m in awe of the many ways faculty members and administrators have adapted under challenging circumstances to continue to fulfill their institutions’ mission of teaching while also supporting students through the pandemic, even as resources have diminished. I’m inspired by the students I meet and the stories I hear about the lengths to which they, and their families who support them, go in order to keep pursuing their education in these challenging times.
I also value my TIAA colleagues working to help our customers achieve financial goals and resiliency. Like the institutions and individuals we serve, TIAA is mission driven, and we are committed to ensuring teachers and other nonprofit professionals can retire with dignity. We know how important it is that educators have a secure financial future so they can focus on the important work of preparing students for their own futures.
A Vision for America
As I prepare to leave TIAA, I would like to challenge the academic community to hold on to our belief in the possibilities and opportunities that education provides. I know education has the power to be “the great equalizer” at a time when equity has never been more essential. My success has been unlikely if you think of the whole of U.S. history. I grew up in our nation’s capital when it was segregated, but through hard work, opportunity, a fair bit of luck and the support of teachers who invested in me, I was able to pursue higher education and enjoyed the chance to serve several organizations that help shape the economic backbone of our society.
I‘ve seen the potential for education to enhance society’s resilience, which is vital to help us reset our economy today and better weather future shocks. Colleges and universities help build positive social norms, generate a sense of community connectedness and equip students with the knowledge and life skills to help them navigate change. Fostering resilience and a sense of normalcy is another reason why higher education remains an essential public good and why educators have gone to great lengths to keep students engaged in learning during this challenging pandemic year.
I also believe in the promise of education to equip exceptional citizens to better face hard truths and rebuild a fractured society. As they have throughout history, colleges and universities will serve as catalysts for the exchange of knowledge and new ideas that will show us the way forward. My ultimate vision for America is a country that values learning as a fundamental expression of what it means to be an engaged citizen.
Within that vision, educators have an awesome and important responsibility to help shape the next generation, but much of their service goes unremarked and uncelebrated. So just as I honor my mother’s service as a public school teacher as well as that of every other teacher who made a difference to my life, I say thank you to all the educators and administrators who work tirelessly to help our young people connect to opportunity through education. Learning has been the foundation stone for my future, and through the collective work of the higher education community, it can be so for many millions of Americans from all walks of life.