When Martha Kanter, EdD ’89, was tapped by President Obama earlier this year to serve as the undersecretary of education, USF Professor Susan Evans wasn't surprised: "She was the smartest doctoral student I ever taught." Kanter has focused her life work on making higher education accessible to all, even writing her USF doctoral dissertation on the topic. Today, she continues to push those same issues, this time from the nation's capital.
In 1989, Martha Kanter, EdD ’89, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of San Francisco on the issues of access and opportunity for students at California's community colleges. Two decades later, Kanter has emerged in Washington, D.C. as the nation's top federal official on higher education, pushing those same issues as the Obama administration's undersecretary of education.
Kanter arrived in Washington in July, after spending more than 30 years as an educational leader in California's community college system, where she began her administrative career creating programs at San Jose City College for newly arrived immigrants and disabled Vietnam veterans. During the past six years, she served as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza College District, which serves 44,000 students at campuses in Silicon Valley.
As the nation's economy continues to shed jobs, Kanter sees a growing demand for higher education from displaced workers looking for new training as well as immigrants seeking a foothold in the American workforce. Community colleges, she said, can play a crucial role in the process.
"It used to be that you graduated from college, got a job for 30 years, and then retired," Kanter said. "It's different in the 21st century. People will need two, or three, or even four types of education and training during their working years."
As the U.S. Department of Education's second-in-command, Kanter set up her Washington office just as President Obama launched his American Graduation Initiative, a 10-year, $12 billion program to invest in community-college campuses, improve graduation rates, and expand online education. Kanter will take leadership of the initiative, which will build partnerships with businesses to create career pathways for displaced workers while coordinating internship and job placement programs.
She'll also work to improve graduation rates among community college students by creating performance-based scholarships as well as funding formulas for colleges that are based on student progress. In addition to promoting policies that will increase opportunity and achievement for college students, Kanter's department is also seeking to reform the student-loan system and simplify the federal student-aid application.
All are changes that will play to Kanter's strength as a consensus-builder. In California, she was known for finding solutions to tough issues by asking lots of questions of experts in the area she wanted to tackle.
"She leads by asking questions," said Hal Plotkin, who served on the Foothill-De Anza District Governing Board and now works as a senior policy adviser under Kanter in Washington. "She frames questions in a way that engages the talents and creativity of her team. It's a remarkably effective leadership style that brings out the best in people."
Kanter has accomplished that while at the same time dealing first-hand with the financial realities of public higher education—she experienced six state budget crises during her time in California's community college system. She left Foothill-De Anza as her administration, faced with state budget cuts, reduced the community college district's workforce by 5 percent. It was a wrenching cut, but Kanter said the college's core was preserved.
That includes making sure the doors to college remain open and accessible to as many as possible, a topic she explored in depth in her dissertation. As she now pushes those issues on a national scale, her dissertation can still be found on library shelves at USF.
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