Maybe it was the high-wattage collection of U.S. Cabinet secretaries, corporate leaders and academic heavyweights gathered around the table. Perhaps it was the rather dire assessments the group offered about the downward arc the United States is on in the global education and research competition. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the oath that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings administered to the assembled to open the meeting, in which they vowed to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Whatever the cause, those attending Monday’s first meeting of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education probably came away (perhaps to their surprise) feeling as if they had seen the start of something significant. They witnessed thoughtful people offering (mostly) cogent assessments about a very important topic, and it was not uncommon to see the college officials, policy makers and others in the audience nodding their heads in approval -- or shaking them vehemently in disagreement -- after one comment or another. The conversation was, for the most part, intelligent and serious.
“A fascinating discussion,” Spellings pronounced at a news conference afterward.
Far less clear, though, is exactly how -- or even whether -- what promises to be an interesting and provocative process will translate into a cohesive report or a set of recommendations that are prescriptive and productive.
What was evident throughout Monday’s meeting is that the commission’s 19 full members (plus ex officio members from five Cabinet agencies) come at the broad and enormously complex set of issues that form the panel’s agenda from an almost dizzying array of (often conflicting) perspectives: online and for-profit institutions urging more experimentation with new models of higher education, advocates for minority students emphasizing diversity and educational equity, corporate leaders decrying a dearth of highly skilled workers and America’s declining dominance in producing scientists and engineers.
The process of crafting that cacophony of interests and strong points of view into a cohesive national strategy for higher education -- and doing so by August 1, when Spellings expects the committee’s report -- is unlikely to be easy. That likelihood was reflected in the comment -- a slight twist on Spellings’ own assessment -- that David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, jotted down on a notepad that contained his notes on the discussion: “Fascinating but frustrating.”
“There are subsets of this group that believe this is primarily a workforce question, another that sees it as an overarching question of research and global competitiveness, and another set of folks who come in mostly concerned about the traditional role of higher education, to transfer knowledge and educate an informed citizenry,” Warren said in an interview. “Each of those has immense policy implications, and very articulate voices lifting those particular questions up. To wrestle with all those implications in four more meetings is a very big task -- one that I’ll be interested to see unfold.”
Spellings formed the panel  last month, and in her opening comments  at Monday’s first session, she expanded on her reasons for doing so, striking a balance, as many of the panel’s members did, between praising the historical strengths of the American higher education system and acknowledging the ways it is beginning to slip.
“I’ve convened this commission to ensure that America remains the world’s leader in higher education and innovation,” because “the world is catching up,” the secretary said, noting that the U.S. now ranks seventh internationally in college graduation rates. “And we’re not keeping pace with the demand for skilled labor in the new high-tech economy,” she added, quoting Tom Friedman in arguing that “our students are facing and education and ambition gap, and they’re on the wrong side.”
Although it is generally posited that the federal government plays a smaller role in higher education than in elementary and secondary education, “federal dollars, including funds for research, make up about one-third of our nation’s total annual investment in higher education,” Spellings said. “By comparison, the federal government’s investment in K-12 education represents less than 10 percent of total spending. But unlike K-12 education, we don’t really ask many questions about what we’re getting for our investment in higher education.”
She asked the panel’s chairman, Charles Miller, an investment executive who is former chairman of the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents, to focus its work on four major subject areas: accessibility, affordability, accountability and quality. Miller said he would establish committees to zero in on each of those subjects.
Miller asked each member of the commission to introduce him or herself and make a brief statement, and that’s when the immense diversity of the panel members’ special interests was most vividly on display. Arturo Madrid, the Murchison Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Trinity University, Sara Martinez Tucker, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and Louis W. Sullivan, president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine, emphasized the need for higher education to reach all Americans, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. Charles M. Vest, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focused on the importance of American higher education as “the United States’s basic research infrastructure.”
Business representatives like Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and former president of Lafayette College), and Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration at Boeing, stressed the importance of workforce training. And Jonathan Grayer, chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., which owns 70 for-profit colleges, and Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, a distance education pioneer, said it was important that the country not only accept but embrace new models of delivering higher education.
Miller opened the round table discussion that was the centerpiece of Monday’s meeting by challenging the view of one panelist, Robert M. Zemsky, that the American higher education system operates as a market enterprise, and then inviting three members of the commission – Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of its Learning Alliance for Higher Education; David Ward, president of the American Council on Education; and Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University – to argue the question.
What followed was an engaging, highly detailed discussion in the best tradition of the academy, in which the three men discussed such fine points as cross-subsidization within university budgets, changing perceptions of a higher education as a public vs. a private benefit, and whether postsecondary education behaves more like the real estate market or the health care market. They took turns supporting and challenging each other’s views, like three instructors in a multidisciplinary course.
And then James B. Hunt Jr., the former four-term North Carolina governor and perhaps the panel’s most powerful personality, stepped in to yank the discussion from important but narrow questions about college budgets to the bigger picture, as perhaps only a professional politician could.
“I had hoped that we would begin by looking at what the nation’s needs are” before exploring in detail the inner workings of higher education, Hunt said, in what seemed a gentle rebuke to his colleagues. He launched into a litany of statistics showing the “hemorrhaging” in the educational pipeline, in which of every 100 9th graders, 68 graduate from high school, 40 immediately enter college as freshmen, 27 return for a second year, and just 18 percent get an associate degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree in six. “Folks, that won’t do,” Hunt practically preached. “We can’t compete with those kind of results.”
Nicholas Donofrio, executive vice president for innovation and technology at IBM, seconded Hunt’s suggestion, but in a way that higher education leaders in attendance might well have taken as a warning, if not a threat. Companies like IBM “have alternatives” if American higher education can’t do a better job producing technologically skilled graduates,” Donofrio said. “We want to see America continue to be great. But it’s naïve to think that” competitors like China and India “aren’t doing something better” as they ascend the economic ladder, he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Donofrio said his comments were not meant as an “idle threat.”
“It’s a warning” from a company whose “first name,” he noted, is “international.” “Too often in this country we look inwardly, and we need to understand the competitive scene on a global basis.”
As they turned repeatedly to comparisons to past federal efforts to reshape higher education, from the Morrill Act that created the land-grant college system to the National Defense Education Act that largely established the country’s research and development infrastructure, the panel’s members seemed to recognize both the seriousness of the task facing them over the next 10 months and the high stakes attached.
“More of the same isn’t going to work,” said Zemsky of Penn. “Come August, if we’ve given you more of the same, we’ve failed.”