Sunday, February 15, 2009

Endowing The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education

In December 2008 I completed my personal pledge to endow The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, DC. My 60 checks between 2001 and 2008 totaled $100,000. I had planned to complete my gift by the time I reached retirement age and I just barely managed to do so, since I turned 66 on February 6th, 2009.

My endowment gift to the Pell Institute is an unrestricted gift to support and advance the research agenda of the Institute. I decided to do so a decade ago because closing the gap in higher educational opportunity between those born into low-income families and those born into affluent families would not be accomplished in my lifetime. In fact this gap has been widening almost steadily since the advent of regressive social policy in the United States around 1980.

My personal motivation for endowing the Pell Institute with my gift reflects my family’s story of what America has meant to us. In 1957 when I was in the 9th grade in high school in Roseville, Minnesota, my American Studies teacher Ms. Bergeron assigned my class the task of researching and writing our families’ American family histories. Five decades after I turned in my high school paper I am still working on that assignment. Family history has become a lifelong hobby, and I am not done yet with either life or that assignment.

My travels have taken me from cemeteries in Albany, New York to Albany, Oregon. In 1975 I went to Europe to see where my ancestors had come from and try to understand why they left their homelands for America. Of the five places I visited one, in Prussia (now Poland) I knew the motivation to emigrate was to escape conscription into Otto von Bismark’s armies. These were draft dodgers.

But in the other four places I was stunned to find that my ancestors had lived in the shadow of castles. My ancestors were share croppers, or serfs, and did not own the land they farmed. They worked for the people who lived in the castles and owned the land. These places included Sweden (Skane), East Germany (Neuenkirchen), West Germany (Oberderdingen) and Switzerland (Graubunden). My farmer ancestors saw that good farm land was available free or at least cheap in the United States, and so they left and settled in Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.

When these ancestors came to America between about 1840 and 1880 they came as farmers, and opportunity in the agrarian economy of that era meant owning and working your own land. America provided that opportunity in abundance and my ancestors benefited directly from the opportunities America offered but which were not available in Sweden, Prussia, Neubrandenburg, Mecklinburg and Switzerland.

My ancestors also benefited from the developing educational system America decided it needed. My great grandfather Nels Martensson left Sweden at age 22 and signed his name with his mark: “X”. My grandfather Frank Mortenson had a grade school education and beautiful penmanship—which he learned and of which he must have been proud. My father Allen Mortenson earned a bachelor’s degree, I earned a master’s degree, and my daughter is now working on her PhD at the University of Michigan. In every respect the educational opportunities available to my family in America have brought our family to a condition not available to our peasant ancestors in Europe.

The modern equivalent to the opportunity of land ownership that my ancestors sought when they emigrated from Europe for America is higher education. Since about 1973 access to the American middle class is through higher education. Other work that paid well in agriculture, manufacturing and some other industries has been replaced with work in other industries such as education and health care, business and professional services, leisure and hospitality services and other service industries that require higher education.

Today both immigrants and natives can prosper only if they have the education and training that only higher education provides. Higher education has become the gatekeeper to the American middle class experience. And under regressive policy choices that access has been largely limited to those that inherit privilege by their birth. The United States is becoming the kind of country that my ancestors fled when they left Europe for the opportunities available in America. And Europe is starting to look more like the progressive America that we once were.

My gift is an endorsement of the work of The Pell Institute. Long after I have turned to dust and ashes and I have been forgotten, the challenge to restore America to a land of opportunity for those willing to work for it will remain. I wish my successors well in meeting that challenge. This country’s survival depends on restoring the national commitment to helping everyone maximize their human potential and economic productivity.