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.
"In society today, you can't say that you have no inefficiencies," she said. "If worse comes to worst, I'd remind my staff that if the revenue stream won't support our entire program, we'd still be 90 to 95 percent of what we are."
Kanter's involvement in education began in Boston in the mid-1960s, when as a ninth-grader, she volunteered as a tutor in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. She majored in sociology and psychology at Brandeis University, studying under the legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow, who was then developing his theories of human development and peak experiences.Second Alum Appointed to Dept Of Ed
Martha Kanter isn't the only Don to be appointed to a position with the U.S. Department of Education—Robert Shireman, MPA ’86, was appointed deputy undersecretary and is working under Kanter.
Founder of the Institute for College Access and Success and the Project on Student Debt, Shireman is a leading expert on college access and financial aid. He served as a congressional appointee to the Federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, as an education policy adviser in the Clinton Administration, and as a U.S. Senate aide on education, and has been instrumental in leading student loan reforms, including the implementation of the federal higher education tax credit.
Shireman was a key adviser to Obama's transition team and then served as an interim consultant and senior adviser under the new administration, until his appointment.
After earning a master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, she taught in an alternative high school in the Boston suburbs, then moved to New York to teach in public and private schools before moving to California in 1977.
Kanter worked at San Jose City College, then headed to Sacramento, eventually becoming vice chancellor for policy and research for the growing California community college system. While in Sacramento in 1985, she began her doctoral studies at USF.
It was at USF that Kanter deepened her understanding of critical areas such as educational research and education law, and she credits courses on these topics for advancing her career. Kanter also became at ease with statistical analysis, which drives so much of education today. USF had such an impact on Kanter that she has even encouraged employees to attend.
While a graduate student, Kanter served as a teaching assistant for a class on advanced statistics with Professor Susan Evans, an expert in special education, whom she regards as "the best professor I've ever had in my life." Evans was equally impressed with Kanter.
"In 32 years of teaching doctoral students in the School of Education at USF, I only gave one A+ grade and that was to Martha Kanter. She was the smartest doctoral student I ever taught. Her doctoral research won the Outstanding Dissertation for Research on Community Colleges in California prize," Evans said. "I am not surprised that Obama tapped her for the position of undersecretary of education. Obama said he was going to pick the best and the brightest for his team so when he chose Martha, I knew he was serious."
After earning her doctorate, Kanter returned to San Jose City College as vice president of instruction and student services until 1993, when she was named president of De Anza College in Cupertino. She became chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza district in 2003.
She left the district as her team moved forward to cut college costs through a system of "open educational resources," which creates free, online course materials as alternatives to traditional textbooks.
"She keeps driving and won't accept failure," said Foothill Dean Judy Baker, who worked with Kanter on the project. "She invests time and attention in people. She doesn't close any doors. She keeps busting them open."