Q&A with Martha J. Kanter

We speak to the distinguished visiting professor of higher education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

February 6, 2014

In 2009, Martha J. Kanter was made US under-secretary of education in President Barack Obama’s administration. Last month she began a role as distinguished visiting professor of higher education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Where and when were you born?
I was born and grew up in the Boston area in the 1950s and 1960s.

How has this shaped you?
The Kennedy family lived nearby and influenced my values. Growing up in [that] era, and living vicariously through the life, times and teachings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sister Mary Corita, Malcolm X and others, strengthened my belief that we are here for a larger purpose, to have a civic impact that can change people’s lives, our nation and the world for the better.

Describe your new job in 140 characters.
At New York University, I will teach, write and share the lessons learned from the intersection of US policy and politics affecting access, equity and excellence in American education.

What do you hope to achieve?
I want to inspire the students who will lead the next generation forward. They will have the chance to realise the ideals and full potential of our society.

Do policymakers listen to academics enough?
No. I’d like to see more policymakers talking with academics to make better use of the best available evidence and gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to implement the policies they offer.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes, the power of wealth to influence public policy.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Seek opportunity and take risks to improve the lives of others.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Nelson Mandela who endured unimaginable personal hardship to build the future of his nation. His unwavering belief that apartheid must end, his intellect, humility and love of humankind characterise the kind of leadership that is sorely lacking in our world.

What has changed most in (global) higher education in the past 10 years?
The creation of microcommunities of researchers, teachers and students with a common purpose and the ease of connecting them across borders made possible by technological advances and real-time translation.

What was your first thought when President Obama nominated you to be the under-secretary of education?
I have an opportunity to open the doors of higher education to millions more students if we can stay focused on increasing access, equity and excellence.

Do we focus too much on the ‘elite’ end of higher education in the US and UK?
It’s critical to the future of our democracies to focus on moving the 90 per cent up, while supporting the highest levels of R&D that enable the new ideas, products and services that propel our economies and keep us healthy.

What do you wish you had achieved?
By 2020 President Obama wants the US to increase the number of college graduates by 50 per cent. I would have liked to have accomplished that in the first four years.

What are you proudest of in your time in government?
In 2008 at the end of the Bush administration, 6 million students from our nation’s lowest income families enrolled in college. Today, nearly 10 million such students attend higher education in America.

What keeps you awake at night?
Knowing how many millions of people in the world could benefit from a quality education that’s out of reach because of poverty and lack of political leadership.

What do you do for fun?
Zumba aquatics, washing my car and laundry because it’s the one thing in life that gets done on time.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
From a good college or university, it’s a gateway to a job with a family-sustaining wage and a better quality of life.

Moocs or books?
Today, professors are selling more books because of Moocs. Moocs and books will coexist for the foreseeable future.


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