A Challenge to the Forum

The elite college officials gathering at an Aspen retreat this weekend shouldn't duck the big issues, Wick Sloane says.

September 15, 2006

“Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light shine so shine before men, that they may see your good works….”
--Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-15-16.

A dream I have for the week. That next Tuesday, September 19, news trucks with satellite dishes up and the deans of the national press corps clog the driveway at the Aspen Institute. Tuesday at 10 a.m. Mountain Time is the closing bell of the annual Forum on the Future of Higher Education, leaders of the nation’s finest.

(Note 1: Not the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education. More later.)

(Note 2: Very much not on the Forum agenda this year: The Forum opens with three strikes this month against U.S. education at all levels. A scorching federal report by the federal commission, above. A lousy report card from one of their own, Patrick M. Callan. Another scathing federal assessment of K-12 education.)

My dream is that Forum elders Mike McPherson, of the Spencer Foundation, and Morty Schapiro, president of Williams College, will step to the microphones. They will announce that the nation’s elite colleges and universities, too, have had enough of the deterioration of the nation’s higher education. “Our institutions, our campuses and the powerful, generous alumni networks, must lead as citizens. Not just in the interests of our own schools. Seventy-five leaders of the nation’s top institutions have spent three days here on these issues. As Bob Sternberg, Tufts dean of arts and sciences, said in his opening words to the leaders we invited to this Forum, ‘Leadership is a decision.’ Here is our plan.”

Photo: Peter Agoos


Sad to say, not looking good here. I am lucky enough to have been to a Forum, when I was CFO of a public university. I know these folks, most in person, the rest genus and species. None would accept in their classrooms the tiny bubble that bounds Forum discussions, and, sadder, how they assess themselves as leaders. I know plenty of groups who make the world safer by hiding in posh spot. I want to ship a banner to the meeting room with the bushel quote from above.

At the moment the Great Bushel, the Goodyear blimp of unfounded timidity, is settling down already on Aspen. A clash with the Bauhaus style at the Aspen Institute.

First, for my dream, scrap the agenda, marked “Private and Confidential,” who knows why. Begin with Sternberg’s fine presentation, which he shared with me, on leadership. Fold the other speakers, most of whom have already published books on their topics, into the audience. Declare those gathered a working group.  Then, in that inspiring setting, decide to make a plan for the nation. I can’t imagine any group that would come up with better ideas.

I went to the Forum a few years ago with the purpose of understanding the world as these elite leaders saw it. No evaluation by me. It’s a wonderful group. I left with great sadness that these leaders believe they have no ability to fashion a national system that ensures a great education for the rich and poor alike. What I don’t understand is the fear for the fragility of their schools – Ivy League and any top college you can name – in the world today. Nor, do they see that they are the natural leaders for the nation.

Back to the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which just issued a harsh critique of higher education in the U.S. In fact, Forum leaders declined to invite Commission chair Charles Miller, an executive who served as head of the University of Texas Board of Regents, to join the discussion in Aspen. How do I know? I know Miller and the Forum leaders. I made the suggestion to the Forum a few weeks ago. Nothing doing.

“That’s silly,” said a college president who is a frequent Forum attender. “That just makes ‘us’ look defensive. It would be great to have him there.”

Miller, patient with that defensiveness, takes the long view. He said, “It’s great that the Forum for the Future of Higher Education has their token participant west of the Mississippi with Uri Treisman, University of Texas.”

Never heard of the Forum? Based in Cambridge, the group runs the invitation-only conference for the self-described elite colleges and universities. The Forum publishes, on the Web and printed, the studies from each conference. The 2003 IRS 990, most recently available to general public, reports assets of $2,069,253, Program Service Expenses of $484,658, and an executive director paid of $196,025, plus a $54,661 contribution to employee benefit plans and deferred compensation.

The 990 requires that “All organizations must describe their exempt purpose in a clear and concise manner. State the number of clients served, publications issued, etc. Discuss achievements that are not measurable.” To which the Forum replied, in caps, “THE FORUM SEEKS AND SPONSORS RESEARCH INTENDED TO IMPROVE THE FINANCIAL CONDITION AND PERFORMANCE OF COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. CONDUCT AN ANNUAL THREE DAY RETREAT.” The 990, keep in mind, is for non-profits, funded with tax-advantaged dollars.

September, too, is the time when family bank accounts fall faster than autumn leaves, with the huge tuition payments to Forum schools. What can we expect of so many from those schools heading for three days at a $256/night conference center? If you figure 50 participants and airfare of $479 (NYC-Aspen, 30 days ahead on Travelocity) that’s $62,350, or 15 full Pell Grants at frozen $4,050. An Ivy-tuition-paying parent, without Wall Street or IPO proceeds, just gagged over lunch when I told this tale.  “What right do they have not to invite Miller? Who do they think they are?”

My dilemma here at the keyboard is encouraging the Forum to lead. Cheap shots of satire and ridicule do nothing. Why does this talent pool believe that the Ivy League and top liberal arts colleges and state universities are in mortal peril? This, then, leads to poor plans. The elites believe that endowments already huge must grow, though they have no plans to increase the number of students. That buildings most go up, again without regard to enrollment increases, or student quality will plummet. A student accepted at Amherst matriculating instead at Yale is a matter of terror. The plight of the poor is not the elites’ direct mission. I don’t understand why these people see themselves in such a trap.

College presidents have plenty of my admiration. Trustees set the values of a place. For the elites, trustee values herd these days to “My mammon is bigger than your mammon.” Presidents on the front line are the ones who grab what gains they can for students and faculty in the face of this. And most presidents have left comfortable academic seats to take these issues head on. That’s real courage and real work.

Now, so what if these folks want to gather for a few days at Aspen Meadows. I’m human and the whole trip worth it just to swim in the outdoor lap pool, a gift by the Mary Ralph Lowe Foundation of Texas, seeing the mountains when you turn your head to breathe.

For better or worse, the elites set the pricing policies for the nation. With the trackless promotion that price equals quality. A price hike in New Haven does find its way to a community college in Iowa.
Again, so what? Through student loans, Pell Grants, research grants, and tax benefits, the elites receive billions per year in federal benefits from the citizens of the U.S. The avowed purpose being creation of some public good. Question: Do institutions accepting these benefits have the right to pick and choose which national issues to tackle? (Question: What percent at the Forum, and at their institutions, have family serving in Iraq?)

Here my sorrow returns. I can’t think of a better group to help. As citizens. Why not commit, as a group, to serve the whole US? What are these assets? Vast networks of able alumni. Question: If every graduate of Forum colleges and universities ran, just once, for school board in their community, would the Spellings Commission exist?

Let the Forum debate start here: Resolved: Effective immediately, the federal government eliminates the tax benefits for the Ivy League, and all liberal arts colleges with endowments greater than $500 million. Feds will restore benefits based on measurable results when US low-income students have literacy second to none.

Put in terms of current performance measurement, if all these colleges and universities are producing leaders with a responsibility to the public good, why is U.S. public education such a mess? That’s a debate worth having in Aspen. “That’s not our mission” would be the reply.

Forum institutions accept federal aid, they are choked with it -- tax benefits, student-loan interest subsidies, Pell Grants, research grants frosted with overhead. Question: Can a university accept with one hand and then pick and choose national issues to tackle? With such aid, aren’t privates public? My sorrow is the these institutions have more than enough excess mental capital to figure out how to lead here without costs on their home turf.

After the Forum I attended, I was lucky enough to catch a ride to the Woody Creek Tavern for dinner with Hunter Thompson. Young assistant had driven him over and stayed with us for dinner. Talked about potential of the country and why so hard to get there. Expressed my sadness at perceptions of good people who could do so much. Assistant talked about her great teachers at her public high school. Somehow it came out that she was not registered to vote, either in Colorado or back home in suburban Maryland.

Conversation stopped. Thompson lit into her. How could she? Where did her teachers come from? Hortatory, not scolding. How can the system work if you take a public education and then won’t register to vote and vote in a school board election? Wish I’d had a tape recorder.

The crazy stuff of his life is a sadness, perhaps from pain at the state of the world. For an example of clear thought, of understanding of the U.S. with a global sweep, I’d hand out to the Forum “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” The New York Times, January 1, 1974, reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt. The English language has no better essay. I’m sorry Thompson, who has since died, can’t head over to the Forum this year for that same conversation.

I keep thinking about the bushel. How to motivate the amazing minds at the Forum. Light on a stand. A stand. Hmm. Quick call to the Aspen Chamber of Commerce and a few clicks with U.S. Geological Survey.

That’s it -- a stand -- the Forum luminaries are already there. The elevation in Aspen is 7,900 feet above sea level. That’s 7,710 feet higher than the combined elevations of Yale (62 feet), Harvard (23 feet), Princeton (49 feet) and Stanford (56 feet).

OK, Forum. Lights. Action. No bushels.


Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and former chief financial officer of the University of Hawaii system. His column, The Devil's Workshop, appears occasionally.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top