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German-American Academic Traditions

Ambassador Daniel R. Coats
Humboldt University, January 14, 2004


It's a pleasure to be here today. This is the second opportunity I have had to speak with students at Humboldt University. A year and a half ago I participated in the W.E.B. DuBois lecture series, named in honor of one of America's best-known exchange scholars at this university.

W.E.B. DuBois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1896. In 1891, after completing a master's degree at Harvard -- made possible by scholarships; he applied for a grant to study abroad. DuBois chose to study at Humboldt University because it was considered to be one of the world's finest institutions of higher learning.

Another important Humboldt-American connection was the personal and direct contact between the author of our Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander von Humboldt. They communicated often on the subject of Humboldt's scientific expeditions in America and Jefferson praised Humboldt's "inestimable treasures of information." The communication between an American President famous for his interest in scholarship and technology and one of Germany's most famous scientists built on a relationship between our two nations that goes back hundreds of years.

In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a scholar from Freiburg University, produced the first world map showing the new Western continent that Christopher Columbus had discovered fifteen years previously. Waldseemüller gave it the name "America" after Amerigo Vespucci, who voyaged with his fellow Italian Columbus.

At the end of the nineteenth century, about the time when W.E.B. Du Bois studied here, a group of American university administrators were sent to Europe to analyze selected university systems. They decided that German universities --and in particular the Humboldt model -- would be a good basis for graduate education because of the emphasis on research and teaching. As a result, the German system, in which the role of the professor combined both teaching and research, slowly but surely became an integral part of America's institutions of higher education.

In the twentieth century, the scholars and intellectuals who were forced to leave Nazi Germany continued their work at American universities and other institutions. Perhaps the most well-known name on that list is Albert Einstein, who also had a connection to the university in Berlin.

And since the end of World II, thousands of American and German students and scholars have taken advantage of exchange opportunities. In my travels around Germany, I have heard many stories from Germans about their experiences in the United States. Last year, over 9,000 German students studied at American universities. That number does not include the researchers and professors working on special projects, students on internships, or younger students participating in high school exchanges. So there is much common history between American and German university systems. But there are important differences as well.

In the current debate in Germany about the concept of elite universities, as well as the ongoing student protests, the example of American higher education is frequently invoked. So I would like to take a brief look at some key characteristics of U.S. universities.

In the United States promoting access to higher education is considered to be critical in ensuring public, private, social, and economic stability and prosperity. Going to college is much more than just a process of enhancing one's personal economic prospects.

In fact, a 1999 study indicated that 28% of all adults ages 18-24 were enrolled in higher education. It's my understanding that the equivalent enrollment rate in Germany for this age group was 15%.

The percentage of high school graduates pursuing advanced training and education is high compared to many other societies. A couple of years ago, a state-level Minister for Science and Culture, visited the United States on an Embassy-sponsored information tour. He was surprised to learn that even at the most expensive American universities, there are a higher percentage of students from low-income families than at German universities. Opportunities are not the province of the elites or the privileged, but open to anyone with the desire to learn. This is one of the greatest misperceptions about the American educational system.

A cornerstone of the system of higher education is financial aid based on both merit and financial need. Colleges and universities, state and federal governments, and a variety of both public and private sector organizations, offer scholarships and loans.

The American university system contains 3,500 colleges and universities. There is significant diversity, regarding the available study courses and research possibilities. The same institution can offer top graduate programs for a selective highly qualified student body as well as introductory or remedial courses on reading, writing and math for a large number of undergraduate students -- with a wide variety of choices between the two extremes.

A related and critically important theme is the goal of student diversity. By bringing together students from different backgrounds, life experiences, geographical roots as well as of different races and ethnicities, colleges and universities have served the American ideal of an integrated and tolerant society committed to certain fundamental principles of civil and political rights.

U.S. universities assign high priority to integrating students into the university community. Students are looked after and encouraged to participate in what we call extracurricular activities. They are assigned student advisors and meet with them regularly. There is a conscious effort at most if not all colleges and universities in developing students as whole individuals outside as well as inside the classroom.

Another characteristic of American higher education is its dual structure, a division between public and private colleges and universities. Each has made an indelible contribution to American higher education. Public colleges and universities embody the principle of broad and fair access and a connection to local needs. Private colleges and universities embody academic excellence, as well as financial aid and educational independence.

Another major influence on American higher education has been the partnership between the federal government and research universities. The funding of research in computer science, in medicine and in engineering and other selected disciplines has been a major factor in the expansion of American universities.

More recently, research partnerships uniting government, academic and private sector research interests have proved to be very successful. But in the future, there will be more competition between "state" and "commercial" research institutions -- and universities in the United States will have to react. But we feel that competition is a good thing and that it can bring about the best results.

There are other powerful new forces now shaping the nature of American higher education. The growth of the economy has clearly been one factor. Endowments have grown at extraordinary rates and the willingness of individuals to contribute financially to universities has increased exponentially.

Many universities, including public universities, raise a significant portion of their annual revenues from private gifts. Institutions like Harvard are often used as examples but let's look at a state university. The University of Michigan is a state institution but last year it received only $380 million from the state government. The remainder of the operating expenses for the University of Michigan comes from endowment income, federal grants, hospital revenues and tuition. Tuition alone brings in close to $300 million dollars.

For American colleges and universities, more students mean more money. This can be translated into a more favorable environment for new areas of research. And that means new libraries, classrooms, research laboratories, residence halls, faculty, offices, and public spaces -- as well as scholarships.

Universities have long been instrumental in generating knowledge and ideas but in an increasingly globalized world and in the face of rapid scientific change, universities will have to find new ways to prepare students for the world after graduation. It is clear that the well being of individuals and the wealth and success of nations will depend as never before on the ability to produce and use knowledge.

One question is critical. How can today's university successfully balance the mandate to cultivate the mind of a nation with the need to produce a capable work force and support a viable economy?

This discussion is not new. These and other questions in fact were the focus of a series of three conferences on "Universities of the Future" that the American Embassy co-sponsored with German institutions of higher education in 2002 and 2003. Discussion focused more on university reform in Germany than in the United States. But the vision of the German university of the future -- a vision characterized by flexibility, transparency, competitiveness and performance -- is comparable with the goals of American universities.

Earlier I referred to an Embassy-sponsored visit by a state Minister of Science and Culture to several American colleges and universities. He came back with the following observations about the U.S. educational system:

- Investment in research and development and the resulting technological innovation has been a major factor in the success of the U.S. economy
- U.S. colleges and universities profit significantly from a tax system that rewards private sponsorship.
- Competitive salaries for professors reward actual performance that is also partially measured by student evaluations.
- Training and career development opportunities give more independence to junior researchers and assure an earlier qualification to teach and to perform research.
- There is an emphasis on "educating the whole student" -- including teaching life skills such as effective communication and teamwork.
- Cultural and sports events and campus life foster a "sense of community" that creates a close identification with the college or university.

Can some of these observations about the American system be mirrored here in Germany? The history of the relationship between the American and German education systems indicates we have learned a great deal from each other. Analysis and evaluation of "best practices" -- within each system -- have guided the decisions of educators and policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have attempted to outline some of the distinctive features of the current U.S. system, which hopefully can provide a basis for comparison and evaluation as Germany debates possible reforms of it's educational system.

I thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today and look forward to hearing some of your ideas. I'd like to open the floor to your questions.

Thank you.

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