The Exodus Begins

James Kvaal, key higher ed official in Education Department hierarchy, will leave to join Obama re-election campaign.
September 15, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A key member of the Obama administration's higher education team is departing, diminishing the chances that much of substance will happen in federal postsecondary policy making until the president is either re-elected or ousted.

James Kvaal, who came to the Education Department as deputy under secretary of education a little over a year ago after a stint at the White House National Economic Council, is leaving to join the campaign to re-elect President Obama. Kvaal could not be reached for comment, but a department spokeswoman confirmed his plan to move on.

Kvaal's departure does not leave the Education Department without experienced hands on higher education policy; Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter, a former community college president, and Eduardo M. Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, remain in their posts, along with a slew of career staff members.

But Kvaal, like his predecessor, Robert Shireman, was generally seen as the agenda-setter in an Education Department where Secretary Arne Duncan (like many of his predecessors) pays far more attention to K-12 than to higher education and takes a hands-off approach to postsecondary issues.

When he took the job at the department in summer 2010, Kvaal succeeded Shireman, who had engineered the Obama administration's successful overhaul of the federal student loan programs and orchestrated its effort to intensify regulation of for-profit colleges. Kvaal was widely seen as a logical heir apparent to Shireman, and as on roughly the same page ideologically -- though as somewhat less doctrinaire.

And indeed, that's largely what higher education policy makers, from a surprising cross-section of the political spectrum, say they got from Kvaal and the department during his time there.

He was heralded by college and student aid officials who dealt with him as a pragmatist who believes deeply in the importance of federal student aid but recognized the vulnerability of the Pell Grant Program and fought to put it on a sounder footing. Others described him as an "honest broker" who did what he could to advocate for colleges' position on issues such as the department's controversial "state authorization" rules, but was quick to challenge higher ed lobbyists when they were blowing smoke.

And advocates for for-profits credit him with recognizing the reality that the gainful employment rules faced major hurdles in Congress and working to soften them so they were politically palatable but still achieved the original goals.

Kvaal was uniformly characterized as whip-smart, bringing intellectual rigor to policy discussions -- a trait seen less and less in the capital these days.

As is often the case here, talk among higher ed policy makers quickly turned to who might succeed Kvaal. Two names earned significant mention: Michael Dannenberg, an aide to Kanter who worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and at the New America Foundation, where he was a frequent critic of student loan companies and for-profit colleges; and Gabriella Gomez, the department's assistant secretary for legislative and Congressional affairs, and a former aide to Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House education committee.


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