WASHINGTON -- Of all the campaign promises made so far in the Republican primary, one of the most unexpected has come from the former speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich: If elected, he will teach a free online course from the White House, returning to his roots as a college professor.
With two weeks remaining until the first votes are cast at the Iowa caucuses, it’s unclear how long Gingrich will maintain his status as front-runner in the topsy-turvy campaign for the Republican nomination -- let alone whether he will serve as professor-in-chief.
Still, Gingrich is unusual in the Republican field in his ties to academe and his choice to emphasize his academic background. He is the first major candidate from either party in decades to hold a Ph.D. His history dissertation, written 40 years ago, has attracted a spate  of media attention . A supporter of expanding federal spending on scientific research, Gingrich has already proposed a few specific, if perhaps far-fetched, ideas for reforming higher education nationwide.
“We're at the beginning of a period of disruptive reform, and one of the disruptive places will be education,” Gingrich said at a College Board forum in October.
Gingrich (like his fellow Republican candidates) has yet to propose a full higher education platform. But unlike other contenders in the race, he has put forward a few ideas: establishing a work college in every state, where students could work in on-campus jobs to graduate without debt; returning to bank-based student lending; and giving scholarships to students who graduate early from high school.
So far, the Gingrich campaign appears to have no formal advisers on higher education, Campaign staff did not respond to an interview request from Inside Higher Ed. But a look at the ideas Gingrich has promoted in debates and speeches, as well as his record on higher education issues during his four years as Speaker, reveals a complex, sometimes contradictory, set of positions.
His ideas and record mix Republican orthodoxy on taxes, spending and student loans with strong support for scientific research. He has called for slashing budgets across the board, but increasing funding for basic scientific research.
“He appreciates the role that research plays in discovery and innovation and ultimately in long-term economic growth,” said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association for American Universities. “I think he gets excited by new technologies and he knows that they don’t happen if you don’t have the basic research that underlies them.”
Other higher education priorities already threatened by budget cuts, including Pell Grants and other financial aid programs, would likely suffer under spending cuts Gingrich has endorsed. And his views on particular programs, such as the Pell Grant, can be difficult to discern because the atmosphere has shifted so much since his time in Congress.
“He didn’t have a big agenda on cutting student aid,” said Thomas Butts, who retired as director of federal relations for the University of Michigan and fought with Congressional Republicans, including Gingrich, in the 1990s over direct lending. “If anything, it was benign neglect, from a conservative perspective.”
One college in Missouri has captured Gingrich’s imagination and appears repeatedly in his remarks and on his website. The College of the Ozarks, in Point Lookout, Mo., is a small Christian college that does not allow its students to take out federal loans. Only financially needy students are admitted. More than 90 percent of each graduating class leaves with no debt, in part because students work 15 hours a week on campus in jobs that range from working at the college museum to baking fruitcakes the college sells.
Gingrich has mentioned the college at least three times: at the College Board forum,  where he put forward several ideas for changing higher education; in a CNBC debate in November ; and in remarks in December in New Hampshire. Each time, he has called for a a work college in every state that would follow the College of the Ozarks model.
“That is a model so different it would be culture shock for the students of America to learn that we actually expect them to go to class, study, get out quickly, charge as little as possible, and remain debt-free by doing the right things for four years,” Gingrich said at the CNBC debate, to applause.
Gingrich was inspired by a speaking trip he made to the College of the Ozarks in 2009 for a forum on citizenship. “He came upon the idea of working for your education, an institution that actually implements that type of philosophy,” said Elizabeth Hughes, the college’s spokeswoman. “It inspired him.” Gingrich has not been in regular contact with the college or its administrators since his visit.
Culture shock aside, using the college as a national model could be difficult. The College of the Ozarks does not charge full-time students tuition, and proudly eschews federal money for student loans and work-study programs. Costs are kept low through its endowment of $288 million. But the college relies heavily on federal money in the form of Pell Grants: two-thirds of its students are Pell recipients, and the maximum grant covers almost a third of the estimated cost of attendance, about $16,600. (This paragraph has been updated to correct an error.)
Gingrich hasn’t said how cash-strapped public colleges -- the vast majority of which don't have endowments like that of the Ozarks -- could adopt this model.
“It does cost a lot to successfully operate a program like ours,” Hughes said. The college also hires fewer administrative and maintenance staff than others of its size so that students can do the work: the janitorial and maintenance staff, for example, consists of two full-time custodians and about 30 students.
Gingrich has also proposed elevating another local idea to a national stage: scholarships for students who graduate early from high school, a program established this summer in Indiana. Students who graduate at least a year early will receive $4,000 to be applied to tuition at an Indiana college or university. So far, the program is tiny: about 10 students had expressed interest by August, and only about 400 students graduate early in Indiana each year.
Gingrich has not specified what he admires about the program, only that he considers it an exciting innovation for higher education.
Congress to the White House
Some of Gingrich’s other proposals hew more closely to Republican doctrine. Like other candidates, he has been harshly critical of the federal student loan program, calling it “an absurdity” that leads to students delaying graduation. At the same time, he has proposed subsidizing loans for math and science majors.
As speaker, Gingrich was involved (although not a key figure) in fights over the Federal Family Education Loan program, successfully constraining the direct loan program by limiting how many institutions could enter the program per year. It was a fight that continued past his tenure: bank-based lending was eliminated in 2009, which Congressional Republicans portrayed as a “government takeover” of the student loan industry.
“He’s a very strong free-market evangelist, and he saw the banks, in his mind, as a much better way of running the program,” said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, who was assistant secretary for postsecondary education with the Education Department during the Clinton administration. “He did not argue with the fact that there were substantial savings. He just said banks were better at doing this than the federal government would be.”
Gingrich also fought increased regulation of higher education, including the State Postsecondary Review Entities -- stage agencies set up in the 1992 Higher Education Act to investigate institutions with high student loan default rates. Colleges, universities and accrediting agencies fought the SPREs, as they were known, and Gingrich joined forces with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and other groups to block their implementation.
On other student aid programs, Gingrich was largely silent. The maximum Pell Grant increased during his tenure in Congress, but the program was not then the lightning rod for criticism it has become, Longanecker said.
Gingrich has said he would repeal direct lending if elected. But many observers question whether that would be possible, given the substantial savings on bank subsidies that are now being applied to both Pell Grants and deficit reduction. “I don’t know how in the world it could possibly go back,” Longanecker said. “There’s no conceivable way they could move in that direction.”
Candidates with some ties to academe are hardly rare in presidential politics. President Obama, a former lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, used that as a talking point in the 2008 primaries. Bill and Hillary Clinton both spent time on the faculty at the University of Arkansas School of Law early in their careers. But “professor” has been used more frequently to attack Democrats than as a talking point for Republicans -- even for Obama, who originally adopted the label to demonstrate his constitutional bona fides, it became a slur by the midterm elections .
Gingrich, on the other hand, has chosen to present himself as an intellectual, frequently mentioning his Ph.D. in history and seizing on scientific concepts -- like the danger of “electromagnetic pulse” or the possibility of mining minerals on the moon -- that have been decried as far-fetched but he defends as a way to bolster interest in science and technology.
Still, he has hardly embraced academe. Gingrich began his political career while a professor at West Georgia College, but left without receiving tenure. “If Gingrich projects a scholarly image, it's as an anti-professorial scholar,” Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who has studied public perceptions of professors, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “He's been an active critic of the liberal professoriate, blaming it for a host of ills. “
Gingrich’s field -- history -- also helps him with voters who might otherwise scorn a former college professor, because history is important to conservative voters, Gross said. And while he said he didn’t believe Gingrich’s academic background would become a major campaign issue, it did rebut criticism that the Republican primary field was anti-intellectual.
“Gingrich's identity as a politician-intellectual seems to be helping him,” Gross said. “The Republican field was looking extremely anti-intellectual for a while, and this was a source of concern to some Republican strategists and to a segment of conservative voters and backers.”
But one facet of Gingrich’s academic career has recently attracted attention: his dissertation, written in 1971 for his Tulane University Ph.D. Titled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960,” it has drawn attention from The New York Times, Salon, and other news outlets for Gingrich’s seeming sympathy with the colonists.
Academic writings of candidates (and, in the case of Michelle Obama, their wives) have become a target in recent campaigns , but those documents are more frequently senior theses than dissertations. Reporters and conservative activists hunted for Obama’s senior thesis from Columbia during his presidential campaign, and the theses of Michelle Obama (“Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community”) and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (“There Is Only the Fight...’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model") came under scrutiny.
Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who read and blogged about  Gingrich’s dissertation in 2009, while preparing to defend her own dissertation on (contemporary) education and health care policy in the Congo, said that, like many dissertations, it was not an exciting read -- “kind of pedantic and uninteresting.”
“I think you can kind of draw conclusions,” Seay said. “He’s a traditionalist. He’s someone who thought that colonialism, on the balance, was a good idea. The sense that comes through the dissertation was that he thought it was kind of a noble task and something that needed to be done,” even though he acknowledged where the Belgian government had failed, she said.
Others have raised questions about whether a dissertation should be used to judge a candidate. Seay, whose two-year-old blog post has been revived in the controversy, said she agrees, to an extent. “I hope that no one would judge me on my dissertation in 40 years, so maybe I'm being a little unfair to Newt Gingrich,” she said. On the other hand, she added: “He didn’t publish anything academic beyond his dissertation, so there’s not a lot to go on.”