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Helping Out With the Short List

November 4, 2008

What with figuring out the economy and Iraq, drape-measuring and reaching across the aisle, Wednesday could be a full day for whoever is president-elect. In an effort to be of service to the new administration, Inside Higher Ed asked some experts of a variety of political persuasions who should make the short list for education secretary.

Our panelists were told they could offer names for either McCain, Obama or both; could offer the politically possible or impossible. Not surprisingly, we ended up with a not-so-short short list....

If the president-elect is either young or wants to demonstrate a connection to young people, he might consult with Walter M. Kimbrough, who was 37 when named president of Philander Smith College in 2004 and is among the youngest of college presidents. Kimbrough had three names to suggest: Johnnetta Cole, who had highly successful presidencies at Spelman and Bennett Colleges; Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone, which promotes education and social services for children in Harlem, with unusual success that has been singled out for praise by Senator Obama; and John H. Jackson, who as president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education has focused attention on at-risk students.

What's important to Kimbrough is that the next education secretary have "real experience in education," not just political connections. "Most of the past education secretaries were politicians, and Spellings has no administrative experience in education, which made her attempt to lead reform in higher education somewhat laughable," he said.

Others think politicians are inevitable for the short list. Sherman Dorn, who teaches education policy at the University of South Florida and blogs about education policy, suggests four former governors: Bob Graham of Florida or Jim Hunt of North Carolina for a Democratic administration and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey for a Republican administration. For Alexander, currently a U.S. senator who has been influential on higher education policy, the role would be a reprise of his term working for the first President Bush. Donald Rumsfeld's second tour of duty in the same cabinet job didn't turn out so well, but Alexander has a lighter touch.

Also interested in an encore performance -- although from a different administration -- is Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research of Excelencia in Education. She'd like to see a return of President Clinton's education secretary, Richard Riley. While the idea is "sentimental and biased," because she worked for Riley at the Education Department, Santiago said that "he served as a
thoughtful, respected and knowledgeable leader of the agency for eight years and has remained engaged in educational issues throughout the pipeline (not just K-12). His style of leadership has been sorely missed."

For someone who hasn't previously been in the cabinet, Santiago suggested Diana Natalicio, president of University of Texas at El Paso. Beyond her leadership of UTEP, she's forged ties to community colleges and public schools, Santiago said. The next education secretary needs "this ability to unite the multiple stakeholders invested in education to create an aligned educational system," Santiago added.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, caucused with fellow members of the AAUP council and the group suggested two names, both with the idea of finding someone who understands both K-12 and higher education. The AAUP suggestions are Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey and Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College. Of Holt, a physicist turned politician, Nelson said: "He supports early childhood education in key areas, while also understanding why university research must remain independent." And of Marx, Nelson said: "He recognizes that inequality is a central problem with K-12, while also understanding the structural challenges confronting higher education."

Anne Neal never hesitates to discuss problems in higher education. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, suggested that KC Johnson, the Brooklyn College history professor whose blog and book documented the Duke lacrosse case, would be ideal because he "understands firsthand how the politically correct university is undermining America’s ability to understand and sustain itself as a nation" and as "a recognized scholar of American military and diplomatic history, KC inspires students at Brooklyn about topics and people that are ignored on many campuses and is an eloquent spokesman for how and why American higher education needs to reclaim its academic mission." Johnson, a member of Historians for Obama, "should be secretary of education in any administration."

Neal also suggested the current president of Tulane and former presidents of Harvard and Yale University. Tulane's Scott Cowen, she said, "restructured Tulane to make it more student-focused and cost-effective" and "consolidated undergraduate colleges and promoted a common academic experience." Neal also has hope that Cowen, from his years working in New Orleans, "understands the party culture that reigns on so many campuses." Lawrence Summers of Harvard, Neal said, would fight "the lethal combination of overspecialization and political correctness" and "the reduction of general education to a collection of competing faculty interests rather than a shared foundation." And Benno Schmidt, formerly of Yale, has also worked as a City University of New York board member, promoting "academic standards, academic responsibility and intellectual diversity."

While Neal did not suggest herself for a short list, another person did.

Richard Vedder, like Neal a frequent critic of academe, directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University. For an Obama administration, he suggested Kati Haycock of the Education Trust as someone who "shares Obama's concern about equity and equality, knows both K-12 and higher education, is realistic, and is bright enough to discern what is doable and what is not." To assist Haycock, Vedder suggested Kevin Carey of Education Trust, who has written extensively about issues such as graduation rates and equity, for under secretary.

For a Republican administration, Vedder would like to see McCain "cause tremors in the establishment" by picking someone like Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and one-time assistant secretary of education under William J. Bennett. Vedder added that McCain "would turn the tremors into an earthquake" by picking Anne Neal as the department's chief higher education official.

Margaret Soltan, a literary scholar at George Washington University known to readers of this Web site and others for her University Diaries blog, took a typically non-traditional approach to the question. If McCain pulls off an upset, she said, he will need one intellectual in his cabinet, and her nominee for the job is Hubert Védrine, a "titanically snobby anti-American" French thinker and politician. While a McCain administration might not seem likely to run to the French for policy help, Soltan noted that Védrine could "becounted on to deliver hyper-puissant jolts of disdain to American apologists for the mediocrity of our schools."

In an Obama administration, Soltan would like the see the education secretary address the intellectual shortcomings of Texas, where she notes that one quarter of the population believes Obama is a Muslim. Texans would be angry about an Obama victory, Soltan said, so it may be time to "reconceptualize the position of secretary of education" to focus on Texas. Who better to lead this effort, Soltan said, than the actor/fictional character Larry Hagman/J.R. Ewing, who could talk tough and yet be reassuring at the same time.

Here are some of our other experts and their suggestions:

  • Nancy L. Zimpher, president of University of Cincinnati, said she wants the education secretary to push for an "integrated educational pipeline of life-changing interventions from birth through career," and to be someone who used "evidence-based decision-making." Her choice is Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, given his experience leading such a large system and his commitment to producing teachers and working closely with elementary and secondary schools.
  • Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, suggested Clifford Adelman, senior researcher at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, "for his ability to frame the complexity of the higher education system, his creativity and his ability to understand the global context"; Cecilia Cunningham, CEO of the National Middle College High School Consortium, for her work with at-risk students; Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, "for his unrelenting ability to combine the highest academic standards with an unparalleled commitment to success for every student"; and Hilary C. Pennington of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for "imagining how to build better educational systems that link to the workplace to produce successful lives."
  • Betty Young, president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, in North Carolina, also suggested people who mix political and education backgrounds. She recommended Erskine Bowles, the University of North Carolina president who was once chief of staff to President Clinton, or Gaston Caperton, the College Board president who was once governor of West Virginia.
  • Michael Dannenberg, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, also focused on governors. He suggested Roy Romer, who in addition to being the former governor of Colorado was also superintendent of the Los Angeles public school district. Dannenberg called him "smart, political, well-versed, intellectually curious." An alternative is Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who made Obama's short list for vice president. "Kaine would bring executive experience and missionary zeal to the signature issue of his campaign for governor and what might prove the largest education deliverable in an Obama presidency: universal pre-kindergarten," Dannenberg said.
  • Marc Bousquet, a professor at Santa Clara University and author of How the University Works, offered a wide range of options. Among them: Jonathan Kozol, who "for decades described the way that class war from above maintains savagely unequal public schools" and Zeke M. Vanderhoek. The latter is "not a household name," Bousquet said. He offered this rationale: "Obama, sadly, loves charter schools, and he's started the one charter school concept I like -- a Washington Heights school where the starting wage for teachers is $125,000. The principal's wage? Just $90,000. You want to reduce costs in higher education? There's all the budget planning you need."
  • Finally, Wick Sloane, one of our columnists, has nominated himself for the job in his open letter today to the transition teams.

One person we asked for views declined to provide names, but did offer some general qualities that may be important. Gerald Graff, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who is president of the Modern Language Association, sent these thoughts: "Whoever is elected president, my choice for education secretary would be someone who would move us beyond the disabling conflict between Traditional and Progressive views of education. For me this would mean someone who combines a belief in national standards and accountability with a feeling for the curricular and pedagogical approaches that can best reach students. We also need someone who can get the schools and the colleges working together as one culture. Finally, we need a person who understands that improving math and science programs won’t make a difference unless we give equal priority to the critical literacy and language practices taught in the humanities."

A tall order. Your ideas for the short list?

 

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