IHE Report

  • 2016 McBee Lecturer Advocates for College Access

    EARL LEWIS GREW UP WITH an appreciation for a college education, fostered by his maternal grandmother. The daughter of a man born into slavery, who still managed to learn to read and write, she aspired to attend college but never made it; the money she had saved to pay her way having gone to more pressing needs. But she passed her ambition on to her children and grandchildren.

     “There was never a question of whether I was going to college,” Lewis told the audience who had come to hear him deliver the 27th annual Louise McBee Lecture in the Chapel last March. “The only choice afforded to me was where.”

     Lewis not only went to college, but also to graduate school and on to an illustrious academic career, which included faculty appointments at the University of California at Berkley and the University of Michigan on the way to serving as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory.

    He left that post to become the sixth president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provides support for humanistic scholarship, liberal arts and doctoral education, as well as the performing and visual arts.

    The topic of Lewis’ lecture was America’s future, which he believes depends on continuing to expand access to higher education.

    “Education is the only thing that can’t be taken away,” a young Lewis was told by his grandfather, a firm believer in the power of education. Today, Lewis noted, research has shown the benefits—to the individual and to society—of obtaining a college degree: from earning more to being more likely to be an active citizen and enjoy a healthier lifestyle

    But access to education is not enough, Lewis said. “College and universities need to move from an emphasis on admission to an emphasis on completion,” he said, which involves asking questions about how students learn, and being innovative and adaptive.

    “But the digital age has altered that. now a ‘generation’ is 18 months—the time it takes to introduce a new technological innovation.”

    America’s public research universities have a key role to play in meeting today;s “grand challenges,” Lewis said including such issues as migration and demographic change, social injustice, and climate and environmental change.

    But tackling such challenges involves not only science and engineering, but also the humanities and arts.  Citing Apple’s decision not to cooperate with the Federal government to cack into an iPhone, he noted, “these are not just technical questions, but moral and philosophical ones.”


    THE MCBEE LECTURE honors Louise McBee, who held leadership positions for more than 25 years at the University of Georgia before serving for over a decade as a champion for higher education in the Georgia General Assembly. Launched in 1989 under the auspices of the Institute of Higher Education, the McBee Lecture annually brings to campus a distinguished leader in higher education to deliver a public talk.

    The next lecture will be scheduled for spring 2017. Details will be announced on the IHE website and Facebook page.