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The Making of a Majority

The Making of a Majority
August 7, 2006

From the moment last September when Margaret Spellings appointed her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, skeptics and supporters alike wondered whether the diverse array of members could possibly get their arms around such a monumentally broad topic and reach agreement on meaningful recommendations. Only time -- 2 years, 5 years, perhaps 10 years down the road -- will reveal whether the panel's ideas and proposals accomplish anything.

But one outcome now seems clear: The group's members, despite their sharply varying backgrounds and perspectives, have found common ground in the third draft report the commission released Thursday.

Commissioners who said they support the draft include not only steady critics of higher education like the chairman, Charles Miller, and Richard Vedder, the libertarian economist at Ohio University, but some representatives of traditional higher education on the panel, such as Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, and James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan.

"I think the third draft of the report focuses on many issues that are important and at the mission center of America's community colleges," Nunley said in an e-mail message.  "These include issues of access, preparation, need based aid, simplification of the financial aid system and others." Though she said she had "one remaining concern" about the report, which she declined to identify, she added: "I intend to vote for the report."

Only about half of the commission's 19 members responded to e-mail messages seeking their views on the draft report, and several of them said they either had not reviewed the report yet or chose not to share their views. But all but one of those who responded said they would support the draft when the panel meets Thursday, and adding in commissioners who have endorsed the report in e-mail messages to their colleagues (according to multiple sources), a majority of panel members seem destined to endorse the report largely as written.

The one holdout was a key one, though. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said in his weekly letter to college presidents Friday that while he was “pleased that we continue to see progress in both tone and substance … some troubling issues related to higher education finance, tuition and changes to the student aid system remain.”

Ward said that he would not decide until the commission meets on Thursday “whether or not I will be able to support the final document.” He added: “The general improvement in the overall document indicates a willingness to develop a final report that is constructive, creative and worthy of support by the majority of commission members. Clearly, many members of the commission who sign the document will not agree with every finding and recommendation, and I will have to weigh the magnitude of those elements that I do not support in relation to those that are positive and supportive of higher education…. I will continue to work towards a report I can sign.”

Ward’s position is significant not because Miller, the chairman, can’t build a majority without him – it’s clear he can – but because the real key to the commission’s ultimate success isn’t how many people sign it. The panel’s work will have an impact only if the many constituents who would need to play a role in bringing its recommendations to life – federal and state officials, corporate leaders, elementary and secondary school officials, accreditors and college administrators and professors – embrace the push to carry out the plan (or at the very least don’t fight it.)

And while some individual higher education groups and leaders could certainly rally behind it without the backing of Ward and ACE, the endorsement and involvement of the closest thing higher education has to a central lobbying group would very much help the commission push its agenda within academe itself.

Because Ward and ACE aim to represent all nonprofit colleges, they are frequently pulled in competing directions when, as is often the case, legislative, political or other proposals would affect different elements of higher education in differing ways, and hence provoke very different reactions. Private, nonprofit colleges have most vehemently opposed several aspects of the commission's work, especially calls for a national database of student academic records, for a restructing of federal financial aid programs, and for efforts that might increase state or federal intrusion into the affairs of independent colleges. But the leader of the biggest association of public four-year colleges has largely embraced the Spellings commission's work.

Although Ward is withholding judgment on the commission's report at this point, other college representatives on the panel have endorsed the third draft. In addition to Nunley, the only sitting college president on the panel and the only person with significant community college experience, Duderstadt (who has been among the most vocal defenders of higher education on the panel) and Arturo Madrid, the Norene R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, in Texas, also expressed their general support for the new draft in e-mail messages.

Madrid said he found it "clear, concise, precise and compelling," He said he remained concerned about some details of the commission's recommendations for expanded testing of student academic outcomes -- "I have concerns about the nature and character of evaluating our students" -- but believe it is something we need to do."

He added: "I'm particularly pleased that the new draft underscores the complication that our educational system is essentially separating out the privileged from the less privileged, in essence privileging the privileged, but would like some language and recommendations that speak to the need to provide support for those institutions that are taking on our toughtest challenge: educating low income, immigrant, Black and Latino youth."

The commission meets for what is expected to be the last time at 10 a.m. Thursday, at the U.S. Education Department in Washington.

 

 

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