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Our Reach, Our Grasp

Spring 2003

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his
grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

Robert Browning's most oft-quoted verses, their message clear and timeless, have remained a favorite nostrum of teachers, orators, and moralists for more than a century. Aspirations should outdistance achievement. Our strivings, our "reach," should exceed our accomplishments, our "grasp." We need a heaven, a dream to sustain our reachings even when our grasp falls short. Greatness, for individuals or for a society, becomes the will to reach.

The intrepid dreamer, the relentless reacher –Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Don Quijote—give form and life to impossible dreams. But the context of Browning's lines, from the poem Andrea del Sarto (called "The Faultless Painter"), set in the context of our times, offers us an urgent and cautionary message.

In the poem, Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto reflects upon his art, his marriage, and his life in a poetic monologue addressed to his wife, Lucrezia. Born in the late 1400's, a very young Andrea distinguished himself as a draftsman and technician almost without peer. A lack of inner resolve, however, betrayed the promise of youth. Giorgo Vasari, student of Andrea and author of the famous Lives of the Painters (1568), noted "a certain timidity of spirit…of humility and simplicity." Andrea del Sarto lacked "that glowing ardor and that boldness which, added to his other qualities, would have made him truly divine in painting."

Browning's Andrea reflects upon his own stunted energies, wishing, pointlessly and too late, that he had been two men, "another and myself," the one talented, the other bold of spirit. In the famous lines above, Andrea describes his own road not taken; Andrea del Sarto remains "placid and perfect," facile in his reach and mediocre in his grasp.

What we are. What we might be. Like Andrea del Sarto, who was born just as Florentine art was reaching its zenith, those who study and those who work in higher education in Texas today live in a moment of unparalleled possibility. Like the high culture of Renaissance Florence, higher education in Texas today enjoys a vision and momentum of unprecedented strength. Two decades of inspired effort, of legal and social unrest, of reaches and of grasps of great magnitude, have set us on the right road.

We now understand, as never before, that our curriculum must be conceived as grades Pre-K through 16 continuum, from pre-kindergarten through the senior year of college. We now have in place a common core for all university and college study throughout the state, basic courses that a mobile student population can transfer, without loss, to any university or college. We now understand how learning communities and student-centered institutions can maximize the chances for success for all students. We now understand that collaboration and cooperation will allow all of us to enrich our offerings and avoid costly and unnecessary duplication of efforts. We now understand that the challenge to recruit non-traditional students demands direct, human contact between higher education and the student and his or her parents.

And the State has steadily improved the facilities available for higher education. Tuition revenue bonds have funded $2,141,605,576 in new construction in the last decade and today there are approved projects in the amount of $1,081,755,576. But higher education in Texas is even better positioned than we might suspect.

A recent national report demonstrates what is at once the greatest challenge facing those who work in higher education and those who frame public policy.

In the December, 2002 edition of its bulletin, Policy Perspectives, the Knight Higher Education Collaboration unmasks a national disconnect between the public interest and institutional performance in higher education: "…what has become increasingly clear is that educational performance in the public interest and institutional performance are not one and the same." The Knight report shows how institutional and public agendas vary, how institutions of higher learning "do not give priority to public purpose," how the absence of an agreed-upon agenda to serve both public and institutional ends ensures that the "greatest funding [goes] to institutions and students who are most advantaged." The products of "habit and history," public policies related to higher education reflect at best "maintenance agendas," while each educational institution pursues individual policies "to build…and then protect its autonomy against all comers."

The Knight Report clearly demonstrates the need for a new and different alliances between public policy and higher education, citing a recent study undertaken to determine how well each state's educational systems have served the public interest.

Measuring Up 2000: The State-by-State Report Card for Higher Education, prepared by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, examined performance in five categories: preparation, affordability, participation, completion, and benefits higher education brings to a state and its citizens. Only five states received an "A" for affordability, only seven received an "A" for participation; only Illinois received an "A" in both categories. Texas joined the vast number of mediocre performers: C+ in preparation, D+ in participation, D+ in affordability, C-in completion and C+ in benefits to the public.

A burgeoning population brings added urgency to this situation. Between 2000 and 2015, Texas population will grow 20.7%, while the US will rise 12.9%. Today, 20.8% of Texans have less than a high school diploma or its equivalent; in the US, 15.9%. The Report Card and population figures sound a serious warning: we must find a new road for education.

In spite of seemingly dismal facts, we Texans have done much to address the chasm between the public interest and institutional self-interest. Texas now possesses a coherent plan, a vision to unite public education and public policy, strategies to ally public and institutional interests.

Both conceptual document and roadmap, the Coordinating Board's study, "Closing the Gaps", makes use of demographic data to project what Texas society will look like in 2015 and what consequences we can expect from present educational policy. Texas must bring an additional 500,000 students into our higher education system by 2015 if the State is to hope to enjoy an education populace and a competitive profile in the nation and the world.

Most important, "Closing the Gaps" lays out a plan, conceived in four categories, to avoid a future in which limited education opportunities vitiate the public interest. We are to increase participation in higher education for Texans of all stripes, to devise programs to make success a realistic goal for all our students, to promote excellence in our university faculties, and to move research in Texas universities to a place of national prominence. A State-wide campaign, College for Texans, began in November, 2002, with a bilingual rallying cry to all citizens: Education. Go Get It! La Educación. Saber es Poder.

The good news is that we now know how to find the students and how to help the students succeed. We have never had such magnificent facilities to support learning. This past biennium, institutions throughout the state experienced dramatic growth, with a 24.5% increase here at Texas A&M International University near the top. The sobering news is our fiscal shortfalls and the approach of a menacing period of retrenchments and cuts.

What we are. What we might be. It is widely believed that the 2005 biennium will find the Texas economy restored to former vigor and revenues returned to their former levels. That may be. But in our present environment of growth, a static budget now will require a reduction in services. Cuts in appropriations will reverse the gains of the last two biennia, reducing participation and success at a time when we are beginning to feel the benefit of many years of wise effort.

As together we confront the fiscal reality of a diminished economy, we must reflect upon where we are now, how difficult the journey has been, how today, more than ever before, we have in place the strategic plan and the structures to bring in a new day for education in Texas.

To return to Browning's words, we might say that today in Texas, our "grasp" in higher education has never been more secure. The "glowing ardor and boldness" which kept Andrea del Sarto from greatness today infuses institutions of higher education in Texas. Our "reach" must not now fail us.


Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University