A Key Senator's Suggestions

December 12, 2005

It's far from clear, at this relatively early stage, whether the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education will go the legislative route to pursue whatever changes its members desire. But if the panel chooses to do so, it will almost certainly need the help of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the former U.S. education secretary and University of Tennessee president who heads the Senate's education subcommittee. 

The commission reached out to Alexander by holding its second meeting in Nashville late last week and by inviting the senator to speak before it on Friday -- and he took the opportunity to offer his own ideas for what the panel might propose when it reports in July. 

Most of Alexander's recommendations -- including that the panel urge the Bush administration to focus in its remaining three years on strengthening American science and technology and that it press for deregulation of higher education -- met with approval from the panel. But several commission members said that they were surprised (and somewhat dismayed) that the senator had included among his top six priorities for the commission that it seek to rein in the "growing political one-sidedness" and "absence of true diversity of opinion" on most campuses, which he called "the greatest threat to broader public support and funding for higher education."

"There is more to this charge of one-sidedness than the academic community would like to admit," Alexander said. "How many conservative speakers are invited to deliver commencement addresses? How many colleges require courses in U.S. history? How many even teach Western Civilization? How many bright, young faculty members are discouraged to earn dissertations in the failure of bilingual education or on the virtues of vouchers or charter schools?"

Alexander isn't an ideologue, and so his embrace of David Horowitz's arguments that liberal faculty members are imposing their views in the classroom in ways that are "not good for students" and "not good for the pursuit of truth," as the senator put it, bothered several members of the panel, they said privately afterward. "Is it really one of the top six problems" we should be addressing? asked one.

The senator's other five recommendations for the panel included that it: 

  • Urge the Bush administration to push for adoption of the proposals included in a recent National Academy of Sciences report aimed at bolstering science and technology education, research and productivity to sustain the American "brainpower advantage."
  • Recommend that U.S. presidents "appoint a lead adviser to coordinate all of the federal government responsibilities for higher education," so that one federal officials is responsible for looking at the many entwined relationships between colleges and federal agencies "in a coordinated way."
  • Push to ease federal regulation of higher education, which Alexander argued poses a greater threat to the quality of of higher education than does any lack of federal funding. Colleges that accept students with federal grants and loans must "wade through over 7,000 regulations and notices," he said.
  • Encourage Congress to overhaul Medicaid and "free states from outdated federal court consent decrees so that states may properly fund colleges and universities.
  • Spotlight "the greatest disappointment in higher education today: colleges of education," which he said are often "roadblocks to the very reforms they ought to be championing."

Alexander's appearance before the panel capped the second day of its two-day meeting, in which it focused on issues of accessibility and quality (which are two of its four major areas of inquiry, along with affordability and accountability, which were covered on the meeting's first day.

Friday's sessions on accessibility and quality underscored one of the most significant problems inherent in the commission's work: trying to craft a set of cohesive recommendations that can be applied to the enormously complex "system" of American higher education (which is not really a system at all but a web of thousands of institutions) and to the hugely varied problems that faces that system.

The two experts who spoke to the panel about access issues, Michael Cohen of Achieve Inc. and Ann Coles of The Education Resources Institute, both discussed the ways in which colleges and universities were failing to fully educated "disadvantaged" students, including members of racial minority groups, students from low-income families, and those with disabilities.

Cohen emphasized the lack of coordination between the academic preparation that states expect of students as they leave high school and those that colleges require them to have upon entry, while Coles focused on the "nonacademic barriers" -- financial, attitudinal and otherwise -- that make academically qualified students from low-income families so much less likely to go on to college even than less academically qualified students from wealthier families.

Almost all of that conversation pointed to the ways that colleges need to open their doors wider, and suggested that doing so would, at least in some cases, mean that they focused their time, energy and money on students who might not help them raise their average SAT scores (and rise, as a result, in the rankings of U.S. News & World Report). Emerging from the discussion was agreement that colleges need to improve teaching of underprepared students and a loose consensus that financial aid based on academic merit, which many institutions have increasingly emphasized to help them compete for the best students, should be scaled back in favor of more assistance based at least in part on students' financial need.

When the commission turned its attention to "quality," though, it headed in a completely different direction, emphasizing the need for the country to spend significantly more money so that it can continue to have what Charles M. Vest, the former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called a group of "world class" research institutions that can produce research and development expertise to help maintain U.S. economic prominence.

Those two priorities -- doing more to help educate the American masses and ensuring that the country continues to produce highly skilled researchers and scholars at the top end -- would both take enormous sums of money and investments of time and other resources, aimed by and large in different directions. And it is not at all clear, several panelists said, that the same institutions can or should pursue both goals, although so many institutions are trying to be all things to all people.

Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, bemoaned the "mission creep" in which many colleges and universities that traditionally focused on teaching students have altered their missions to aggressively pursue research expertise. Colleges might not be able to do it all well, Mendenhall suggested, adding, "If I were investing research dollars, I might more clearly distinguish between research institutions and teaching institutions instead of letting this 'creep' happen."

The commission is likely to face the same set of dilemmas as its work proceeds: Can it put forward a set of recommendations that bolsters the availability of higher education to those underserved by it and significantly strengthens the research enterprise, among the many other priorities of its diverse group of members? And can it tailor its recommendations to give direction to the varied types of colleges and universities, with their widely diverging missions?

The panel will continue its work at a meeting in San Diego on February 2-3.

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