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Declaring university research throughout the nation "seriously at risk," President Neil L. Rudenstine delivered his first major public speech on the threat to higher education posed by proposed budget cuts in his annual Commencement address.
"The key to progress has been the partnership between universities and the government," Rudenstine said, referring specifically to research funding. "Now, at a time when our ability to solve increasingly difficult problems depends on educated leadership, we can't afford to give up on what's been our strength."
Rudenstine said that although researchers have little or no constituency, they are responsible for breakthroughs in areas ranging from medical illness to computers.
"All aspects of our lives are more dependent on basic and applied research," Rudenstine said. "We may well persuade ourselves into thinking that [reduced funding] will have no effects, but that would be a grave mistake."
Rudenstine said now was the "most hazardous moment of research" and the president urged his audience to advocate continued funding.
"Many leaders need to know the rest of us care too," he said.
Rudenstine also discussed federal financial aid for students, stressing the nationwide benefits of educating more students.
"Without financial help, we might never have heard from Fleming," Rudenstine said, referring to noted scientist and former Commencement speaker Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. "Higher education has become much more accessible."
"The commitment to providing financial aid has been one of the defining achievements of American society," he added.
Many observers have said that Rudenstine has not taken full advantage of his role as a spokesperson for the interests of higher education. They accuse him of being reluctant to try to set the national agenda and unwilling to speak out consistently and forcefully on issues of national importance involving higher education.
Indeed, Rudenstine's first national address on the issue of research and student aid cuts comes more than a year after such threats began to loom.
Toward the end of his speech, Rudenstine said that if education spending could not be spared the newly sharpened Congressional budget axe altogether, cuts should be made wisely, not recklessly.
"The only plea here is to make [the cuts] thoughtfully and not damage or destroy what we've built up," Rudenstine said. "At this moment, let's not turn our backs on this pledge."
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