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Prose and Politics

June 28, 2006

As college officials, higher ed policy wonks and other interested observers digested a draft report released late Monday by the federal higher education commission, some of them focused on ideas that should have been included but weren't. Others analyzed the report's political prospects. But again and again, virtually all of them returned to the paper's "tone" -- which partisans of higher education found distasteful (or worse) but others suggested was purposely designed to create a sense of public urgency about the problems facing academe and the country.

The report (a link to which is also available here) from the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education was prepared by the panel's writer and several outside consultants, under the direction of Chairman Charles Miller. The document raised the hackles of many college officials who perceived it as giving short shrift to the many strengths of American higher education and emphasizing (or even exaggerating) its problems. The 27-page report describes colleges in one place as "risk-averse, frequently self-satisfied, and unduly expensive," and characterizes higher education leaders as having an "unseemly complacency about the future."

Miller and the panel's staff had been planning on keeping all of the commission's written work under wraps until it delivered a final report to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in September, but they decided only over the weekend to make the draft public after concluding, they said, that federal law required them to release it. Because the Education Department made the draft available only very late in the day Monday, few people had a chance to see it until yesterday, and as they did, reactions poured in.

Among the most significant ones came from David Ward, who is both president of the American Council on Education and a member of the federal panel. As head of the lead association and lobbying group for higher education, Ward is in an almost impossible situation -- many college officials expect him to defend academe to the hilt, and yet he may only have meaningful credibility on the commission if he appears open to change. As the commission's work has unfolded, Ward has often chosen his words carefully, and when the panel staff's draft was released Monday, he was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

But Tuesday he weighed in in an e-mail message to college presidents, and he did so in terms that are, given his usual approach, surprisingly strong. He criticized the report as being based on a "highly selective reading of testimony" and prepared "without the slightest input of commission members."

"I believe it is seriously flawed and needs significant revision," Ward wrote. "I am particularly unhappy with the tone and the hostile, almost confrontational, way it approaches higher education. Some of the recommendations are also deeply troubling."

Ward said the draft made him wonder "whether the commission can successfully complete a report that accurately describes the state of American higher education." He also raises the possibility, for the first time in the commission's deliberations so far, that he might refuse to sign the report if it is not radically transformed. "I sincerely hope that the commission will produce a report that I will be able to sign, and I will work diligently to that end," Ward said. "But it goes without saying that I will not sign a report I believe is inaccurate, misleading or likely to undermine colleges and universities. We will just have to see what the future brings."

Creating a Climate for Change

Whether Ward's comments represent more than gamesmanship is uncertain. But if he is engaging in tough rhetoric to begin to draw battle lines, several policy makers who commented on the commission's draft report said, he is only responding in kind to what Charles Miller, the panel's chairman, sought to do in the report he and his staff released Monday.

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, a nonprofit research group, said he believed that the panel's report "does a pretty admirable job of concisely summing up both the most potent critiques of higher education and the best ideas as to how to fix it," though he said he believed some of the panel's recommendations "don't go far enough."

But perhaps more important than the substance of a report like this, Carey said, is what he called "the political dimension." "Commissions like this are, first and foremost, designed to address the political side of the equation," he said. "They're not meant to create new solutions, they're meant to find solutions other people have created and clear the way for their implementation."

The challenge facing the U.S. higher education panel, Carey said, is that apart from the high and growing price of a college education and the difficulty of gaining admission to an elite college, the American public does not, by and large, consider there to be a problem in the country's higher education system. "The only way this commission will matter in the long run," Carey posited, "is if it helps shake the public mood, if it undermines the public's false confidence in the higher education system. It's why the chairman has chosen to deliberately take a very critical stance, and why the representatives of the higher education establishment have focused all of their pushback and resistance not on the specifics of the critiques but the tenor of the critiques."

Kenneth P. Mortimer, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and a former president of Western Washington University and the University of Hawaii, said his experience with a precursor to the current federal panel (which produced a 1984 report called "Involvement in Learning") was consistent with Carey's view.

"They're trying to create some sort of crisis -- that's what you do in a report," he said. Mortimer said he believed the panel was focusing on many of the right issues: the centrality of need-based financial aid, "the inability to measure student learning." But the panel risks undermining itself with the tough talking, critical language, which "engenders a reaction that takes a while for people to get over before they consider the substance of the report," he said. "I would hope they just tone down the rhetoric of 'you guys are stinkers,' " he said.

On that last point, at least, Mortimer is joined by most college officials who commented Tuesday on the commission's draft report. Katherine Haley Will, president of Gettysburg College, said she was "very  concerned by what seems to be a lack of impartiality," and a sense that the commission, or at least certain members of it, "come to this with a real negativity, a harshness, a need to find fault." Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College, said he was inclined to dismiss the document because "it doesn't appear in any way to be a commission draft," but instead a paper from Miller and his consultants.

James Moeser, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he hoped "that what we're seeing is just a kind of 'throwdown' -- a draft calculated to be so provocative that they're going to produce a counterproposal, with the idea that this gets measured and sifted over time."

If Moeser is right, that measuring and sifting process begins today, when the 12 members of the commission who were available to meet this week -- Miller, Nicholas Donofrio, James Duderstadt, Gerri Elliott, Arturo Madrid, Robert W. Mendenhall, Charlene Nunley, Catherine Reynolds, Arthur Rothkopf, Sara Martinez Tucker, Richard K. Vedder and Robert Zemsky -- will gather privately at the Education Department to debate and revise the draft report. (Because they will meet in two groups of six, department lawyers have concluded that the gatherings avoid triggering federal open meetings laws.)

Although some members of the commission had urged the panel to jettison the document and start over, that seems unlikely to happen, which means that Miller and his staff have laid down a marker, to which other members of the commission will now respond.

 

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