As colleges and universities have come under heavy scrutiny from politicians in the nation's capital in the last year or so, Sen. Lamar Alexander at times has seemed like one of the few friends higher education has on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. He has opposed attempts by the U.S. Education Department to draft regulations on higher education accreditation, pushed hard for additional funds for science research, and consistently complained about federal overregulation of postsecondary institutions.
So it's probably not surprising, the Tennessee senator said, that he was asked to deliver the keynote speech Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, given his status as "apparently your chief defender," as he described himself to the 300 college administrators, professors and accrediting officials in the audience.
If the college officials thought Alexander would serenade them about how wonderful they are, they were mistaken.
It's not that he endorses some of the grief being directed their way by some of his Congressional colleagues and the Bush administration; he reiterated his opposition to what he characterized as the Education Department's attempt to "federalize" accreditation, and did not hide his disdain for proposals by Senate colleagues to require colleges to spend a mimimum proportion of their endowments each year, to help make college more affordable.
"If the [Senate] Finance Committee really wants tuition not to rise so fast, they should spend time reforming Medicaid," since states are having to spend money on health care that they should be spending on educating their residents, Alexander said.
But Alexander said colleges have themselves to blame, in large part, for what he called the "communications gap" that leads his colleagues to some mistaken assumptions -- and in turn some flawed policy conclusions -- about American higher education.
"Congress simply doesn't understand the importance of autonomy, excellence and choice" in higher education, "and the higher education community hasn't bothered to explain it in plain English to members who need to hear it and understand it," Alexander said.
It is also not well understood, he said, that "a primary reason that tuition has been rising is that state funding has been flat."
College leaders need to do a better job explaining to members of Congress some of the ways they are working to "be more efficient and spend money wisely," andhow they are rewarding innovation and educating students. "You should also talk about the importance of autonomy in higher education. Say, 'Mr. Congressman, we shouldn't have to fill out five boxes of regulations in order to qualify for federal loans.' "
It's not that lawmakers are wrong to impose scrutiny on colleges, the senator said. "When you've got Congress telling colleges how to spend their endowments, and trying to federalize the accreditation system, something's wrong," he said. "What is not wrong is that Congress is asking questions about how they spend tens of billions of dollars.... How would you like to come up here as a member of Congress, appropriate billions and billions [to colleges and universities in financial aid and research grants], and then have the higher education community say, 'Don't ask any questions about it'?"
He added: "I'm here today as a friend, convinced that higher education is our secret weapon" to "keep our jobs from going to China and India and other countries.... But I need you to help me persuade the entire Congress of that fact."
Alexander was followed to the podium by someone who many of them probably have not viewed as a friend: Richard K. Vedder, an Ohio University economist who was on the education secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and has criticized higher education's financial structure, among other things.
But while some in the audience were probably expecting an attack dog, that's not what they got from Vedder's stand-up routine -- er, speech. Disarming the crowd with (sometimes off-color) humor and his clear passion for teaching, developed over 43 years in the academy, as he noted repeatedly, Vedder urged the crowd to take seriously the Spellings panel's call for giving the public more information about their operations to ward off potential harm from Alexander's colleagues in Congress.
"You've got to pay attention to transparency, or Senator Alexander's admonition will come true -- the government people will get on your backs, and you don't want that," he said. "If you adhere to the spirit of the Spellings Commission's report, you can avoid truly disastrous forms of intervention. I'm on your side -- I'm one of you."