(Image above courtesy of the Senate website for Senator Edward M. Kennedy.)
If you have a Pell Grant, thank Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
If you have ever received a federal student loan, thank Teddy Kennedy.
If you are a woman who has enjoyed improved opportunities in education and collegiate sports, thank Senator Kennedy.
Amid the many tributes to the late Senator Kennedy this week, most emphasize his outstanding advocacy for health care and civil rights. But Ted Kennedy was an equal opportunity advocate for equal opportunity, and he leaves an indelible mark on higher education and the millions of students who have reaped the benefits of legislation he crafted or supported during his half-century in the Senate. His advocacy for expansive student aid was rooted in the same instincts that made him a tireless advocate for civil rights.
I certainly did not know Senator Kennedy as more than a significant public figure and legislator, but I did meet him on several occasions including some opportunities to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor that he chaired (or, when the Democrats were out of power, where he was the ranking member). On the few occasions when I was able to speak to him directly, his eyes lit up at the mention of Trinity, and he always made clear his respect for our history, our well known alumnae who worked with him in political leadership, and our devotion to expanded educational opportunity.
Senator Kennedy was instrumental in preserving and expanding federal financial aid. I remember the last time I saw him in-person, several years ago when he and Senator Mike Enzi invited some business leaders and college presidents to speak to the Senate Committee about the importance of the federal aid program. He listened closely as I described our students at Trinity, and he quickly absorbed our story as part of his large reservoir of human experience supporting legislative initiative for social change.
He was also instrumental in creating and preserving Title IX, the law that protects women’s equal educational opportunities throughout education. Having such a powerful champion for women’s rights proved essential time and again when the law came under fire for, perhaps, giving women too many advantages.
As many commentaries have made clear this week, the death of Ted Kennedy symbolizes the end of an era in many ways. No single figure currently dominates the Senator or the House in quite the way he once did. He was a champion for education and justice without apology. He was a Liberal in an age when even liberals eshew that freighted word. He was a scion of wealth and privilege whose life of noblesse oblige did not seem artificial or patronizing. He was among the last of the old-time politicians who held he respect of both sides of the aisle and all parts of the house.
Most of all, by advancing the cause of educational opportunity for all — and ensuring the financial support in the federal aid program — he made it possible for our students to achieve their dreams for higher education.