Martha J. Kanter
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Dr. Martha J. Kanter

U.S. Department of Education

Martha J. Kanter is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education and Senior Fellow at New York University. Her academic interests include: The Confluence of Access, Equity and Excellence; The Intersection of Policy and Politics in American Higher Education; and The Contributions of America's Community Colleges to the Nation's Social Fabric, Civic Future and Economy.

In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Kanter to serve as the U.S. Under Secretary of Education, with oversight responsibility for all federal postsecondary statutory, regulatory and administrative policies and programs for the U.S. Department of Education, including the $175B annual federal student aid programs, higher education, adult education, career-technical education, international education and 6 White House Initiatives. Through the first term of the Obama Administration, Kanter and her team focused on increasing college access, affordability, quality and completion to implement President Obama's goal to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. She oversaw the successful implementation of the Direct Student Loan program that resulted in a 50-percent increase in college enrollment, growing from 6 to more than 9 million students today who are Pell Grant recipients. Previously, Kanter served as President of De Anza College and then Chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District for sixteen years. She began her career as an alternative high school teacher. She holds a B.A. degree in Sociology from Brandeis University, an M.Ed. from Harvard University and an Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco. (New York University)


How does diversity and internationalization factor into the work of the Department of Education with respect to higher education today?


Today the United States is more diverse than ever and with President Obama's leadership, reaching out to other countries around the world is ever more important. What's incredible is that  our knowledge economy is changing at the same time as our global diversity changes, at the same time as American diversity increases throughout our population. It's critically important that Americans have cultural competency, can learn not only English, but also a language other than English, and have grounding in the various histories of people in the world. I think we're going to see an increased demand for students being culturally competent, being able to participate in diverse societies around the world, and having experiences that will allow them to be truly civic leaders and economic and social competitors in society, because they understand that America is part of a much larger world that continues to increase in diversity and complexity.


How important is the creation, development, and support of a globally competitive US workforce to the future of America's success in the world?


Critically important. First, if you look back over the last 20 years the global world has influenced American economies and micro economies. For example you see the decline in manufacturing, and the increased outsourcing of core business functions, and you see companies like Infosys of India being one of the, if not the largest service IT company in the world. If we're not globally competitive as a workforce in this country, we will not be able to compete internationally. As President Obama said, "The country that educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow." And I couldn't agree more.


What initiatives or partnerships are being developed at the Department of Education to promote more US college university participation in study, intern or other international exchange opportunities?


We have a wide variety of programs that we sponsored. We work very closely with the State Department on Fulbrights, so we send scholars form the US to many other countries. With the President's initiative to really reach out to Muslim countries of the world you'll see a greater focus on countries like Indonesia, and other countries where the President has wanted to build new partnerships. And of course countries like China where we have made significant investments in global partnerships between US universities and Chinese universities.


How will language learning factor into the future of K-12 in the US, and higher education, with respect to the efforts by the Department of Education?


We feel strongly that language learning needs to continue as a central part of American education at all levels. We had a conference with a Central Intelligence Agency, and they have many jobs that they are recruiting people in critical languages, and there's a shortage of people trained in these critical languages, and that's one tiny example of the need in this country to have many more Americans learning other languages, and vice versa having other countries learn English. In fact you know the Chinese government has millions of people learning English today.

We do have to do a far better job understanding the research for language learners, where we can really apply the best practices, use our -- at the federal level -- competitive funds, grant funds, innovation funds to really support better language learning programs in multiple languages, and of course in languages that are going to be prominent in our global society.


Specific ethnic minority groups continue to be under-represented in international education programs. How do you feel having a diverse representative of American students who study abroad benefit the student's home university, their host country, and then the United States as a whole?


It brings us into the 21st century, but we should have been doing this all along and shame on us. These are the students we're serving. Obviously these are the students that our institutions need to serve far better. Study abroad is an absolute benefit because it engages students in real world problem solving. It's great for the home institution because students have a larger perspective when they come back to the home institution.

We have to do a lot, lot more to allow every student to have the opportunity. What's great is that federal student aid will support students that take study abroad programs, but it's not enough. The institution has to have a commitment.


What suggestions would you give to higher education institutions and organizations to address the issues surrounding the high cost of some study abroad programs?


In general costs are spiraling out of control, and we need to be much more creative. We need to be much more productive, and we need to think through models and strategies. We've got great economists in our colleges and universities. We've got to tap that expertise to figure out affordability models so that more students can participate and the wealth of what higher education has to offer them.


The number of international students in the United States continues to rise. What role will international students play in the future of higher education in the United States?


International students are going to be a big part of American higher education, and we need to reach out to allow more students from there to go [university] here. There's a lot more for higher education to do in developing what I call structural and sustainable partnerships with foreign universities. We also have a lot of quality control issues. We have institutions that aren't top notch that students end up going to, and then they don't have the kind of experience that we want for everyone. We have a lot more to do there in terms of institutional accreditation and review in these partnerships, so that students will get the very best education that we can give them.


How have your diverse (and international) experiences prepared you for your role as U.S. Undersecretary of Education?


My experiences visiting other countries and here in the US, being part of a diverse institution for many years; I was 16 years President and Chancellor at De Anza College and then at Foothill De Anza Community College District. I think those experiences have prepared me well for understanding that we are an evolving field, that diversity and international work are evolving, and we have to do all we can to take advantage of the opportunities that both afford us in the United States.