Leonard Haynes, an official at the Education Department, has years of experience in the education field. “President [Donald] Trump has done an outstanding job in assembling a team of dedicated and committed individuals who are willing to ask the hard questions, turn over the rocks, and to raise the issue of how do we make [historically black colleges and universities] more competitive so that they can address the priorities of the nation,” he says. Read the lightly edited transcript of the interview, pasted below, or listen on the podcast:

We also cover the following stories:

  • President Donald Trump is slated to make history as the first president to attend the March for Life.
  • The Trump administration moves to curb “birth tourism.”
  • Veteran journalist Jim Lehrer has died.

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Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Dr. Leonard Haynes. He’s the senior adviser to the undersecretary of education. Dr. Haynes, thank you so much for being with us today.

Leonard Haynes: Thank you. And good morning.

del Guidice: Can you just start off by telling us about how you got involved working in higher education?

Haynes: Very good. Well, I’m sort of a product of colleges, universities in many ways. My father, who I’m named after, earned his doctorate at Boston University in 1947, that was a year I was born. And then we moved south and he was between a college and the United Methodist Church for most of my life.

So I knew as early as the sixth grade [that] I’d probably go on into higher education because I was on a college campus. …

I graduated from college at Southern University and went on and got my master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon and my doctorate at Ohio State University. And from there … either I was a professor or I was in college administration.

del Guidice: Most recently, as you mentioned, you served as the distinguished adjunct professor for the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State. What was your time at Ohio State like?

Haynes: Oh, my time at the at Ohio State was really great. I always had a great admiration and respect and love for the university. As I said, my Ph.D. is from the Ohio State University and also, I have an honorary doctorate from Ohio State.

So I’m very, very close to the university and the John Glenn school is, of course, all about public policy. And when they asked me to teach for them, it was a great honor because I knew Sen. [John] Glenn, as a matter of fact, he gave me the Distinguished Public Service Award in 2006 here in Washington.

And that was a high honor because when I was growing up as a boy, I never imagined that America’s first astronaut would give me an award for anything. So when I was asked to teach at the university, I said, “This would be great.”

del Guidice: Given all of your time working at Ohio State, working in higher education, what’s your perspective on the current state of higher education? Where do you think we’re doing well and where do you think there’s room for improvement?

Haynes: I will say, on the positive side, the United States higher education system is one of the best in the world, indeed. How do we know that? Foreign nationals who come here for study always say this is the first place they wanted to come study. So that tells you something when there are other people who are offering higher educational opportunities.

So the university system that we have—well over 3,000, almost 4,000 well-defined [universities]. The 1862 land-grant schools do an amazing job, [there’s] 146 of them.

And you had the 1890 land-grant schools, which are the HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. They are experts in taking the message in the university to the community. As a matter of fact, they saw the food problem in the world by the research and stuff that they did over the years.

We are doing well, I think, in the STEM area.

One of the concerns we do have is the growing costs of higher education for most people. They’re having to borrow large sums of money.

Indeed, the last research that we looked at [said] we have about $1.6 trillion in student loan debt out there, and that’s not sustainable over time.

So what can we do to control costs so that the average American can aspire to be in higher education without going into severe debt? So that’s an issue.

The other issue is, of course, I mentioned, the foreign students who come here. Many of them are enrolled in our top research programs. The 100 top research universities, including Ohio State, have large numbers of foreign students enrolled. And they’re primarily in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and in business.

And the fear that we have is if for some reason those students leave our graduate schools tomorrow morning, half of our schools would have to close. Why? We have not trained enough Americans to go into the field. And that’s one of our concerns.

Are we doing enough to encourage American students to go into these fields and persist and advance to go on to the terminal degrees? Because we need them desperately.

The new field of artificial intelligence is just coming online and we only have three universities, I think, that specialize [in it] and that’s MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford. And we need many more institutions to get engaged in that if we’re going to be competitive.

That’s the issue for us today as a country, we need to be competitive in everything that we do. And we need to have all of our citizens who value the importance of getting a good education … they need to respect this. A football analogy that I use from time to time [is] we don’t want to start the season playing for last place.

del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned earlier … the cost of higher education and how that’s deterring people and causing a lot of debt. Are there certain ways you’re looking at this problem and saying, “Oh, these are some things we can do to help mitigate this problem?”

Haynes: One of the things I think that we need to look at is making good choices about where to go to school. Just because you pay a lot of money to go to school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get access to a fine education.

Somehow it’s out there in the society that the more you pay for something, the better off it is. That’s not necessarily true when it comes to education.

We need to have citizens better informed about the quality of education and what they would like to get out of it. And I think that’s important. And institutions need to reflect on, are they pricing their studies, their academic curriculum at a fair price when compared to their competitors?

Indeed, you know, everybody’s in competition. So I think institutions need to be able to demonstrate, what is their competitive advantage? In other words, why should anybody enroll in your institution? What do you expect for them to look like when they finish? And we have not always done a good job in sharing that information.

Higher education is one of the great mysteries in life, if you don’t ask any questions, they won’t tell you anything.

del Guidice: Before your current post at the Department of Education, you previously served there [in] multiple roles, including assistant secretary for postsecondary education, director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and senior director of institutional service for the Office of Postsecondary Education. What is your perspective on the White House’s work with historically black colleges and universities?

Haynes: Well, I will say this, under the current administration, President [Donald] Trump has done an outstanding job in assembling a team of dedicated and committed individuals who are willing to ask the hard questions, turn over the rocks, and to raise the issue of how do we make HBCU[s] more competitive so that they can address the priorities of the nation.

This is a first for us. Executive Order 13779 that the president signed in 2017—I played a role in drafting that executive order and for the first time in the history of the of the White House initiative, which goes back to Jimmy Carter, the first president to sign an executive order, we now have a focus on which the executive director of the office now has a seat on the Domestic Policy Council, and that’s never happened before.

And the incumbent that we have now, Mr. Johnathan Holifield, is doing an outstanding job and implementing the executive order.

So I think we’re making tremendous progress. President Trump referenced the HBCU agenda during his recent visit to Davos, Switzerland. And that was historic because for the first time in American history an American president mentioned HBCUs on the world stage.

That opens up all kinds of possibilities and it says, “Hey, HBCUs, here we are. We know that you’re there. We want you to step up. We want you to do your part so you can make a positive contribution in advancing the common good and in support of the United States of America.”

del Guidice: You’re speaking at a panel at The Heritage Foundation today, talking about historically black colleges and universities. What is your perspective on how these institutions can compete successfully when it comes to their global reach?

Haynes: Thank you very much. It’s a very good question. Well, again, we go back to the competitive imperative with the United States.

As you know, we’re in competition with other societies. China, for example, is one of our major economic competitors now, the European Union. And we know if our jobs and quality of life are going to advance in this country, it’s going to require the work of every American citizen who sees this as an opportunity to do their part.

In order to do their part, they’ve got to get a good education. And one of the keys to that—and I think we’re missing this in this country and I wish we [would] restore it—is we’ve got to have more people who are intellectually curious about things, who ask questions and ask questions, “Why?” And we need more people who are willing to make the sacrifice to be the best.

You just don’t get there without dedicating yourself in rigor and the like. Because you know, when you go to a medical doctor, for example, for a treatment, I know I do this all the time … the first time I always ask the doctor, “How did you finish in medical school? Were you a C student or were you an A student? Because if you’re a C student, you can’t touch me.”

I mean, we got to ask the hard questions. We want access to the best, but then we’ve got to be prepared to do our best so that we can move forward.

That we’ve accepted mediocrity so much in this country, that is almost debasing the quality of the education that we have today. And that’s a concern … we have too many Americans … who have not placed a high value on the importance of getting a good education. And we need to change that. And I think the work of Heritage is right on point because they talk about that issue all the time.

del Guidice: Well, during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, you were the first African American to be appointed to the position of U.S. assistant secretary of postsecondary education and director of academic programs at the United States Information Agency. What was it like to be the first African American to hold that title?

Haynes: It was a high honor and a great joy. I never thought that I would be in a position to be nominated by the president of United States and confirmed without any objections, 100-to-0, by the United States Senate. And I knew I was in for a great experience. …

Sen. Thad Cochran at the time was in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi. And I had to go through my Senate confirmation and meet with the senators before I got confirmed. And Sen. Cochran said to me, I’ll never forget this, “Haynes, if you have any problems with your confirmation, I will personally go to the floor and demand that you be confirmed.”

It showed me that America is a great country. I never expected a U.S. senator from Mississippi to say that to me, but it just [shows] the power of opportunity and what you can do if you focus on being the best at what you can do.

And it was just a great honor to serve under President George H.W. Bush. I just have great admiration for him. And I was pleased that the family asked me to attend his funeral last year as a guest of the family.

So that’s how.

del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that moving story.

You’ve served on the faculty at Howard University. We talked about your time at the Ohio State University. You were at University of Maryland, Southern University, the Brookings Institution, and George Washington University. So you’ve been serving in a lot of different universities, different capacities. What are some things you’ve learned about education and also leadership while you’ve been in these roles?

Haynes: Well, the one thing, as I pointed out, that I’m intrigued with [is] people who have this intellectual curiosity.

I grew up under my father’s tutelage, my dad had a Ph.D. in philosophy. So our house was full of books and I’d a ask him questions all the time. He would always say, “Why not?” And then I couldn’t answer it. So you got to answer that question, “Why not?”

And then one day he had a group of students over to his house and they said, “Dr. Haynes, why do you have all these old books in your house? Why don’t you throw them away?” And he would say, “Well, they’re new to you if you haven’t read them.”

So I remember these little messages and I reflected on that because he’s right. You know, education is a thrilling place to be. It’s the only immortality field that you have. Because what you teach lives long after you die.

That’s why I would always try to do my best in the classroom and always challenged students to be the best at what they could be. And because, you know, that’s what an educator does. And it gives me great joy when former students I run into from time to time come up to me and say, “Dr. Haynes, thank you, I learned a lot in your class.” And that’s what you want.

del Guidice: Well, Dr. Haynes, we’ve learned a lot on this podcast here talking to you. Thank you so much for being with us on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Haynes: Thank you very much for having me.