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A Refreshing Meeting

Friday, October 23, 2015

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Dear Tulane Community:

Coke and Pepsi would never make it in the AAU.

Both are refreshing, yes. But they are not one of the top 62 research universities represented by the Association of American Universities (AAU). Nor would they, or any for-profit business, be likely to meet with their competitors in the cooperative spirit I witnessed at this week's annual AAU meeting in Washington.

Sure, Tulane and its fellow AAU members contend for research dollars, grants, awards, students and faculty. But this week's meeting was a welcome reminder of the special role universities play in our society and why the mission of higher education is so singular and necessary.

This year's meeting focused on promoting member universities' common interests in research; undergraduate, graduate and professional education; free speech; diversity; globalization and more.

Amid the constant pressure higher education faces to prove its value, measure its worth, increase its funding and compete with its peers in every conceivable endeavor – from rankings to rugby – I was pleased to gather with the heads of like-minded institutions with common goals and cooperative spirits.

Despite the unrelenting demand to market, position and brand, education is not a commodity and should never be treated as such by the public, the government or by universities themselves. Those who think this is an antiquated and ineffectual model should remember that American universities brought about U.S. space exploration, the polio vaccine, the computer revolution and daily breakthroughs that continually expand human knowledge and progress. We should never forget that this is why we are here at Tulane.

AAU schools are responsible for thousands of patents, technology licenses and startup companies annually. Their more than 16 million alumni include 122 current global Fortune 500 CEOs, 24 current governors, 244 current members of Congress and a dozen U.S. presidents since 1900. The United States would not have the health system, the work force or the innovative spirit it has without these institutions. There is simply nothing comparable in the world today.

But now that I have returned from Washington, I find my focus being turned inexorably toward beating Navy on Saturday. I guess cooperation among universities has its limits, after all.

Signature of Mike Fitts