Cliff Adelman, Analyst Extraordinaire

A smart, opinionated researcher and interpreter of the higher ed enterprise dies at the age of 75.

May 7, 2018
Clifford Adelman

Clifford Adelman could analyze. He could research and write. And he could talk. Boy, could he talk.

Adelman, who died Thursday at the age of 75, was a longtime researcher at the U.S. Education Department, where he contributed significantly to understanding of higher education, in the United States and internationally. He spent the last decade as a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which paid tribute to him Sunday.

Perhaps Adelman's largest impact was in the realm of student success. He was an early advocate for, and eventually a tough-love critic of, the value of student assessment of learning. And he was among the first analysts to talk about the "swirling" of students among institutions, a theme he identified as early as 1999 in his "Answers in the Tool Box."

Questioning prevailing and emerging wisdom was a specialty; in these (long) essays for Inside Higher Ed, for instance, he begged people to stop using the phrase "accountability" without thinking harder about what they mean by it (2010) and splashed a bucket of cold water on the emergent landscape of alternative postsecondary credentials (2017) -- not doubting their possible, eventual value, but noting that data about their inclusion of nontraditional students is sparse.

He was known especially for the rigor of his studies and for the cogency (and sometimes the ferocity) of his arguments. Conversations with him were always civil but rarely serene.

As scholars and policy makers offered their thoughts on social media, they referred to the brilliance of his thinking, even as many if not most noted their regular disagreements with him.

Deborah Santiago's post was typical. "So many smart, tense, enriching and stimulating conversations with him about data, policy, art and life. We didn’t always agree … in fact maybe only half the time, but that made our discussions richer and more memorable," wrote Santiago, vice president at Excelencia in Education.

Recalling the first presentation she heard Adelman give, Susan Albertine wrote: "What I remember clearly: It blew me away. I had never heard such a cogent explanation of what was wrong with the way we were obliged to report on students' academic progress. First time I could see such a large structural problem and a way to fix it.

"Truly inspired me and was one of the reasons I started to think about leadership at the next level," wrote Albertine, a senior scholar in the Office of Integrative Liberal Learning at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. "I feel fortunate to have made my way into a place where I could and did have arguments with Cliff (always astringent and satisfying) and enjoy his thoughts on music, books, social justice."

Researchers, policy makers and other groups all had their own special relationships with Adelman. (From the many postings about him on social media, he had vibrant relationships with others around art, music and Jazzercise, as well)

So too did journalists like those of us at Inside Higher Ed.

Scott Jaschik and I used to warn our reporters not to call Cliff unless they had an hour to spare -- not to discourage them from doing so, but to make sure they actually had the time to go where his curious brain would take him (and anyone willing to go along for the ride).

Jane V. Wellman characterized encounters with Adelman about as well as anyone in this 2000 profile in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Listening to Cliff's like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hydrant," says Wellman, another higher ed policy expert. "You could drown small plants by giving them that much water."

All of us learned a lot from him.


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