Tavis Smiley, Jane Close Conoley tackle questions at townhall

Published November 2, 2017

tavis smiley

What is the future of higher education and who is going to move it forward? Tavis Smiley, late-night television host and author, came to Cal State Long Beach to find out.

Sponsored by the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, Smiley held a townhall meeting at the campus auditorium Thursday and asked those questions and others to a panel of higher education representatives during a stop on his nationwide tour.

The panel consisted of President Jane Close Conoley, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California’s community colleges, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser, advocate Michele Sisqueiros of The Campaign for Opportunity, and graduate student Kyari Cail.

Smiley said he believes that college should be a right for everyone who wants to attain a degree, but it’s not always possible because of equity and equality barriers. He would like to see obstacles eliminated, especially for students of color.

“We have a right to free speech, the right to bear arms,” he said, “… we have these inalienable rights given to us by our creator and certainly by these sacred documents, and yet the thing we know matters the most is a high-quality education and we do not have a right to it. So, I think education is a right.

“If we really do care about education, if we really do care that is the arbiter of how rich and rewarding our lives can be, we ought to be guaranteed access to a high quality of education.”

But how do you make that happen? Smiley suggested spreading the wealth, along with equitable programs such as the Long Beach College Promise, which provides area students with an guaranteed opportunity to attain a degree at Cal State Long Beach.

“I’m all equality,” he said, “…. But at end of the day, we don’t have an equitable playing field where education is concerned in this country.”

Conoley said that while not perfect, a college education is still the most reliable pathway to a better job, stronger community ties, better voting records and better goods. Solid educational programs, starting with Long Beach Unified School District’s preschools, give students the foundation needed to succeed.

Conoley also pointed out the Bridge Program, the Summer Program and Math Collaborative that are in place for student success.

“We’re doing this so every student can succeed and that’s good for the nation because we look like the nation. We are the university of the nation,” Conoley said. “This is what the nation is going to look like. It’s going to be more ethnically diverse, and more economically diverse and if we can show how to do it, it’s good for everybody.”

Oakley said the nation’s education system still relies on practices that were set in place more than 300 years ago and some more recent that have created barriers. He would like to see the elimination of standardized tests, the rule-makers and rigid Advance Placement testing, among others.

“We need to unravel these rules. We need to take a hard look at them,” he said.

Smiley, whose talk show can be seen nightly on PBS, was tabbed one of “The World’s Most Influential People” by Time magazine. He said he was impressed by the work being done in Long Beach.

“I came here because of the Promise program and was glad to hear that the program is working and working remarkably well, and to hear how the Associate of Arts Transfer program is working and they’re solving those problems,” Smiley said.

“And (I was glad) to hear the students say that the university took seriously the issues of hate – that was encouraging for me. That’s what I was concerned about.

“All in all, I’m not going to levitate out, but I do feel better. I feel better leaving here than when I came.”