Unity and decisive action by members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is needed to face – and overcome – the challenging headwinds that include declining enrollment, budget cuts, shifting demographics, growing polarization in college campuses and deep skepticism about the value of a degree, said Tomás D. Morales, president of California State University, San Bernardino.

“America’s prosperity is intrinsically tied to the ability of our collective work as public institutions of higher education to deliver on America’s promise,” Morales said in his President-to-Presidents Lecture, delivered Nov. 7 at AASCU’s national conference, “Leading for Democracy: Reimagine, Reframe, Rebuild,” held in Chicago.

“I find hope in our nation’s public universities coming together to share best practices and support each other, for as long as we are able,” he said. “I find hope in AASCU. Because if ever there was a time for our collective voices to join with one another in the service of providing access to public higher education, that time is now.”

Morales began his address by expressing deep gratitude for being chosen to deliver the prestigious President-to-Presidents annual lecture. He acknowledged the significance of the honor and extended his thanks to the selection committee and everyone at AASCU who supported him in preparing the remarks. He also recognized the leadership of Mildred Garcia, immediate past AASCU president, expressing gratitude for her ongoing commitment to education as the new chancellor of the California State University system.

The speech took a personal turn as Morales shared his journey as a product of public education, emphasizing the importance of access and the impact of educational opportunity programs. He recounted his mother’s inspiring educational journey, highlighting her achievements and lifelong dedication to serving the community. He also paid tribute to the support from his family, saying, “Everything I have achieved ultimately comes back to them.

“This all goes to show that I personally have found AASCU to be an organization highly representative of where I myself have learned and worked,” Morales said. 

As Morales delved into the current challenges facing the nation and higher education, he painted a stark picture of a world grappling with rising authoritarian movements, erosion of voting rights, the proliferation of mis- and disinformation, and an increase in hate crimes. In some cases, governors and legislators in some states have weaponized “public school curricula in service of these goals,” he said. “While Florida may be one of the most prominent currently in this regard, even in my staunchly pro-civil rights state of California we are seeing attempts at banning books and instructional materials at or by local school boards.”

AASCU’s role in increasing access to public higher education is crucial in facing such challenges.

“We should be growing access to our institutions and the storehouses of knowledge that they contain, embodied in our exceptional faculty and our libraries, not narrowing and restricting them,” Morales said. “I would argue that AASCU provides a forum and a supportive space for us as higher education leaders in a moment which feels perilous. Access, affordability and attainment: those summarize what AASCU is all about.”

He emphasized the importance of AASCU’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, stating that these values are integral to ensuring student success.

“We all know that if our campuses are truly serving our community and providing access, the result will likely be a more diverse campus,” he said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are not threats. Rather they are living into the promise of democracy. As AASCU institutions, we know that we cannot serve all the people of our respective states if we are not allowed to fully recognize all the people of our respective states.”

The speech emphasized AASCU’s role in promoting civic engagement, international education, and the importance of public institutions as anchor institutions in their communities. Morales highlighted the American Democracy Project and a new program, funded by the Lumina Foundation, aimed at preparing senior leaders to foster civic engagement on campuses.

America’s promise is tied to the ideals of democracy, including the freedom to choose one’s own life path, because we know one of the best mechanisms our nation can provide is through education,” he said. “We also know, as those who have been the recipients of rich educational experiences, that the manifestations of those ideals are not frozen in amber but are rather living principles. These are lofty words. But as leaders of AASCU institutions, we know that providing access to a public higher education degree is an incredibly democratic action – access is a core principle of promoting and strengthening democracy.”

He added: “Tied to all of this is social mobility: how our public institutions of higher education are enabling, promoting and even accelerating social mobility for our poorest and most underserved students.”

In conclusion, Morales urged AASCU leaders to embrace the potential of public higher education and fulfill America’s promise. He emphasized the intrinsic link between the nation’s prosperity and the ability of public institutions to deliver on their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“From the examples I have provided today, I hope that I have clearly conveyed that, by viewing higher education as a means of enriching lives through student success tools along with specific career information, students can graduate ready for lifelong learning and not simply as educated ‘widgets’ that we have produced in our higher education ‘factories,’” he said. “If we do this, across our nation, we will truly be delivering on America’s promise, because America’s promise has always been embodied in and through its people.

“All its people.”