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Federal Panel's Fault Lines

June 26, 2006

Tensions are running high among members of the federal commission on higher education, inflamed by a preliminary draft report that some college officials on the panel described as "nasty" and by continuing conflict over whether the commission's staff is playing too central a role.

That disagreement -- combined with questions about the legality of the plan by commission leaders to cloak its work in secrecy until it releases a final report -- prompted the panel's chairman, Charles Miller, to reverse course over the weekend and decide to release the draft report to the public today. The chairman and other commission leaders had maintained that they believed federal open-records laws allowed them to keep the panel's work out of the public eye until it produced a final report, but they have apparently concluded otherwise now. (Late Monday afternoon, the U.S. Education Department released the draft report.)

The events of last week, which seemed to catch Miller by surprise, suggest that the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education continues to be beset by significant differences of opinion over matters of process and substance. But perhaps more than anything else, the commissioners are divided over "tone:" whether the panel should put forward a fundamentally positive and supportive assessment about American higher education, or a much more critical one.

Which more accurately describes the situation: Does the United States have the best postsecondary education system in the world, but one that is facing some significant problems that need addressing? Or is it a once-great system that is under such stress that it needs a major overhaul to keep up with the rest of the world?

Miller, the chairman, has made it clear throughout the course of the panel's work that he leans toward the latter view, which has made some of the higher education representatives on the commission (and many others in the academy) suspicious of his every move, including efforts they see as designed to limit input by panel members or ramrod a report through the process. The issues last arose in a major way during a virtual revolt before the commission's April meeting in Indianapolis, amid concerns that outside consultants hired by Miller were taking on too large a role and relegating the commissioners' own views to the dust pile. Miller's response at that time cooled things down, and the commission had a productive, if inconclusive, meeting in Washington last month.

But the temperature level spiked a little when the chairman and the commission's staff announced last month that the panel planned to close off its process going forward, withholding any written material from the public eye until the release of a final report in September, and convening the panel's meeting this week in a way clearly designed to subvert federal open meetings laws.

Anger boiled over early last week, when Miller sent a partial draft of the report to one higher education representative on the commission, according to the chairman and to several people familiar with the panel's work, who asked to remain anonymous. The document -- which was prepared by what the chairman called a "writing team" that included Ben Wildavsky, the lead writer Miller hired, and some consultants and staff members -- contained a preamble and some preliminary findings, and Miller described it as an "unedited" fragment.

But the commissioner who received the document and some others who saw it were reportedly "very exercised," believing that it portrayed higher education in far too negative a light and took unfounded shots at colleges and universities that did not seem based on the evidence the panel had heard in its work to date. The critics used phrases like "nasty" and "cynical" to describe the report, and among the references that apparently set off the unhappy commissioners was a reference to "hedonistic" college students who spend too much time partying, and other references to grade inflation as a major problem.

By late in the week, Miller and the commission's staff had distributed a more complete draft (including recommendations) to all members of the panel, which apparently excised at least a few of the references that had offended some panel members. In an interview Friday, Miller played down the unhappiness, ascribing it to "a few people who might have been anxious about things that were fragments." He acknowledged some disagreement about the tenor of the report but defended the approach of having the staff prepare a report that staked out a strong opening position.

"You have to keep in mind that this is not supposed to be a report written of, for and by the academy," Miller said Friday. "It should be of, for and by the public." Commission members will have every chance to debate and change the initial draft, he said, but "I don't want to start with something that's inadequate. If it's so weak in language that nobody's objecting to it at this stage, I'd be surprised." He added: "If there's some language that's too strong, some will get moderated."

But by Saturday, as members of the commission burned up their high-speed Internet connections with a flurry of e-mail messages on the subject, Miller said that the panel would release the latest draft of its report to the public Monday. In a brief telephone interview, he acknowledged that he had underestimated the extent of the unhappiness over the language in the report, and said that and other factors, "including legal ones," had prompted the change of heart.

Another commissioner said that the panel's advisers had apparently realized that their earlier conclusion that the commission could keep its written work out of the public eye until the release of a final report was inaccurate.

Miller said commission members still planned, however, to gather behind behind closed doors this week to review and revise the draft report. Although 12 members of the panel -- a majority -- will meet at the Education Department on Wednesday, they will do so in two groups of six, which falls short of the quorum necessary to trigger the technical definition of an open meeting under federal law. Some members of the commission and others who are watching its work have raised questions about whether the purposeful skirting of the law is legitimate -- and at odds with the commission's frequent exhortations about much greater transparency in the operations of colleges and universities.

But Miller says that the process the 12 commission members will engage in Wednesday is no different from the work that panelists have been doing all along via e-mail and telephone, sharing drafts of subcommittee reports, proposed report language, and other written material. "We've been drafting things and writing things in nonpublic forums all the time," he said. "Now we have to write a report, and you can't do that in a public discussion."

Exactly what those 12 members will do when they get together Wednesday will say a lot about the balance of power in the commission. Some of the strongest advocates for higher education on the panel have lobbied to have Miller discard the existing draft report and start over with a document more of the commission members' own making. But if, as is more likely, the 12 members of the commission use the document the staff has drawn up as their starting point, Miller may well have won the internal war over what tone to strike, at least for now.

 

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