Crunch Time for Commission

As U.S. panel prepares to meet with deadline looming, tensions rise. Can its members reach consensus?
May 12, 2006

As members of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education trickled into an Indianapolis hotel one morning last month for a meeting later that day, small groups of them gathered, talking in agitated but hushed tones.

More than a few of the panel’s 19 members were upset. Some felt blindsided by a set of highly controversial “issue papers,” one released just the previous day, that seemed to bear the imprimatur of the commission even though most of its members had not seem them before their release. Others griped that they hadn’t been kept informed about some aspects of the panel’s work, including its ever-expanding stable of outside consultants. (A few were particularly peeved to learn from a reporter that the commission was paying two outside staff members.)

With the meeting scheduled to begin hours later, several panel members approached its chairman, Charles Miller, and urged him to find a way to give the commissioners “more of a voice” in the panel’s public discussions and its public face generally, which to that point had been dominated by testimony from outside witnesses and by the accessible Miller’s own well-publicized views.

Weeks earlier, it turns out, Miller and Richard Stephens, a commission member and senior vice president at Boeing, had huddled in Houston and agreed that Stephens would lead a session at the Indianapolis meeting at which members of the panel would try to “start coalescing,” as Stephens put it, around key themes and goals. Stephens said he had approached Miller about staging such a session because “I had heard that frustration” about the commissioners’ lack of input and believed it was time to “start seeing where we land, and get real feelings on the table.”

When the panel met later that day, Stephens indeed led an exercise in which the commission’s members offered their views on pressing issues the panel should confront, and took an informal tally of the goals the group should focus on. The event seemed to serve its purpose: The commission members who had been most upset felt as if they had asserted their authority and been heard (though Miller says gruffly, "They thought they had prompted it, but guess what -- they didn't"), and the rough consensus that emerged seemed to reinforce the idea that the panel’s diverse members could come together around broad principles, at least, potentially pointing the way for the tough decisions to come.

The tensions that emerged in the days leading up to the Indianapolis meeting -- and the panel’s partial success in working through them -- are worth understanding going forward, as the closely watched commission approaches what Miller, the chairman, calls the “high anxiety stage.”

Over the next 11 weeks, 19 people with diverse perspectives and interests must, by their August 1 deadline for delivering a report to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, turn the staggering array of public testimony, internally and externally produced reports, and formal and informal suggestions and ideas into a cohesive set of recommendations. The commission meets next Thursday and Friday, May 18-19, in Washington.

“When you have a lot of ideas floating around, and they're just ideas, things seem to be real collegial,” says Sara Martinez Tucker, a panel member and president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. “But you always see the team going into a little bit of dysfunction as you get closer to recommendation time. I think that’s what we’re seeing now, and it doesn’t make me nervous. I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to rise above our individual perspectives and coalesce.”

Many of the panel’s members seem to share Tucker’s optimism. But most also agree that the process won’t be easy, and that the panel’s meeting next week (currently its only other scheduled get together, though at least one more is likely to be added) could lay bare divisions that have been largely kept under wraps so far. The differences are likely to emerge on issues such as how far the panel goes in trying to dictate measures that colleges would be urged to report to prove their effectiveness, and whether the report strikes a critical and combative tone toward higher education, or a more sympathetic one.

Reaching consensus may be difficult, given the complexity of the issues the panel is wrestling with and the wide range of views of its members, who include loyal defenders of higher education and some corporate representatives who've made clear their decreasing confidence in academe's ability to innovate and to regulate itself.

A 'Communication Problem'

David Ward and Richard Vedder haven't historically agreed on much. Right before the commission began its work last fall, Ward, president of the American Council on Education, the primary association of college presidents, wrote a pointed letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal challenging a harsh essay Vedder, a distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, had written about colleges' rapidly escalating prices. But while the two of them may not see eye to eye about certain aspects of the panel's work, they both complain about what Vedder calls a "communication problem between the chair and the commission."

"There's been a slight lack of balance in the commissioners' views vs. the chairman's views," said Ward, who like all of the commissioners for this article expressed respect and admiration for Miller, and acknowledged that the chairman had been open and accessible to the panel members themselves. "The commissioners have been a little disenfranchised, because the process up to now has not given commissioners much of an opportunity to express themselves publicly. And much of what has been said by the chairman or on his behalf, in the form of those issue papers, has tended to be negative” about higher education, Ward added.

Miller, the former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and a close ally of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, makes no bones about the fact that he has strong points of view and has tried to be a provocateur, laying out perceived problems in blunt language accessible to policy makers and the public alike. And most members of the commission say they appreciate that.

“You have a secretary and a chairman who want this to be a report that is not pablum,” says Arthur J. Rothkopf, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who, as former president of Lafayette College and a high-ranking Transportation Department official in the administration of the first President Bush, has backgrounds both in academe and in government. “Charles’s view has been to stir the pot, to put out ideas that may not be in the conventional wisdom, and that might not be so comfortable, and he doesn’t much care about whether the people in higher education like it or don’t like it. And I think that’s very positive in terms of possibly generating change.”

What troubled some commissioners more were the “issue papers,” written mostly by outside experts, that Miller commissioned and released in the last couple of months. Many of the reports were dispassionate evaluations of certain topics, but a few -- notably those on accreditation and college costs, both of which were produced by Robert C. Dickeson, one of two paid consultants to the commission, along with Vance McMahon, a lawyer in Texas -- contained harsh criticism of the status quo.

While some of the e-mails sent to reporters with those and other reports included language saying that the papers “are not formal recommendations by the Commission nor are they intended to reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Education” -- caveats most reporters duly noted -- the fact that Miller wrote some of the papers and that the others were released at his request gave the impression, some commissioners say, that their contents had more emphasis than other testimony the panel received. And the fact that most members of the panel did not see them before they were released to reporters did not help, they say.

“I was absolutely surprised by the issue papers that had the veneer of legitimacy,” says Ward. “All the other testimony up to that point had seemed to have equal weight, but calling them ‘papers of the commission’ seemed to inflate them.”

Unlike Ward -- who as the head of higher education’s main umbrella group not surprisingly disagreed with some of the issue papers’ more damning criticisms of colleges and universities -- Ohio University’s Vedder says he “happens to agree with most things in the papers.” But like Ward, Vedder thinks the prominence given to the issue papers “does raise qustions about who is speaking for the commission.”

Vedder says it has been perfectly appropriate for the panel to lean on staff members from the Education Department and the panel’s roster of outside consultants -- who include well-regarded higher education experts like Patrick M. Callan of the National Center for Higher Education Policy and Peter J. Stokes of Eduventures, as well as lesser-known colleagues of Miller’s like McMahon -- to do much of the panel’s written work so far. But he and others say it is essential that the commissioners take charge of the process going forward.

“We have real people of substance on this commission, not lightweight people, who are not going to have an obscure group of consultants sit around and write this report and have the commission just sign off on it,” says Vedder. His view that a small group of the commissioners themselves should write the final report is a minority opinion, but many panel members agree with his sense that Miller must “be clearer with the commission than he has been about what his view of the process is, so that we all know how we’re going to reach agreement on the recommendations and how this report is going to get written and approved.”

No Shortage of Discussion

Miller acknowledges that he could have communicated more clearly with commission members about the content of the issue papers, the role of the consultants, and certain other “process” issues. But he says -- and other commissioners agree -- that the panel’s members have had no shortage of opportunities to express themselves to him and to each other, if less so in public.

“Commissioners were asked to make recommendations and to share their thoughts on various task forces,” says Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University and a member of the panel. “Nobody’s ever said, ‘You can’t put out your thoughts to the whole commission.’ I know my thoughts are out there, and most of us have gotten our various ideas and recommendations on the table in one form or another.”

Miller has now laid out a process by which the commission’s staff is compiling a long document containing the various ideas that commissioners, witnesses and others have put forward during the panel’s first six months of work, and the commission will discuss them at next week’s meeting in subject-specific sessions led by various members of the panel: Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, will lead a discussion on universal access and preparation, for instance, and Nicholas Donofrio of IBM will spearhead the conversation about innovation.

The expectation of most commissioners -- or at least their hope -- is that the panel emerges from next week’s two-day meeting “knowing what areas we’re going to make recommendations in, and what those are,” says Tucker of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. (Although that is currently the commission’s last scheduled meeting, it is widely acknowledged that the panel will need at least one more.) Tucker and others generally agree that there is broad consensus among the commissioners on many of the potential topics and themes: emphasizing need-based financial aid over merit aid, for example, and more aggressively making room in higher education for students from traditionally underrepresented groups and low-income families.

The much tougher areas -- and those most likely to show the fault lines between panel members most impatient with the status quo, who include Miller and several of the corporate representatives, and those who are most supportive of the colleges -- relate to the cost and price of higher education and how best to hold institutions more accountable for their success in educating students.

How successful the commission is at getting everyone on the same page and still producing a strong report that “doesn’t just get put on a shelf and do nothing,” as Stephens put it, may come down, suggests Robert Zemsky, a commissioner and an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to language and “tone.”

He believes that the panel must and will make strong recommendations for changing higher education, but that it should do so through persuasion or pressure rather than force. "If you want to change higher education, you challenge it. If you want headlines, you insult it," says Zemsky. "We should be talking about 'raising the bar,' which is a different way of saying 'not good enough,' but in a much nicer way."

The report can't be too "nice," though, or it will risk losing the support of those who believe higher education needs significant change. "If it comes in as a wishy-washy report, I'm not going to sign it," says Vedder. "Heck, I'll write my own minority report and get it published in The Wall Street Journal."

It may seem like an almost impossible task for the panel to produce a report that challenges and calls for transformative changes for higher education but does so in a way that the higher education leaders on the panel can sign off on. Yet the commission's work so far suggests some hope. Already, just by poking and prodding on tough issues like accreditation and accountability, the commission has provoked some changes from college leaders, such as last month’s proposal by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities planned to create their own accountability system.

“You have to give Charles credit,” says Rothkopf of the Chamber of Commerce. “He’s changed the conversation. There are now organizations that are talking about assessment. Six months ago, these places wouldn’t have dreamt of doing that, because it was too comfortable the other way.”

Adds Mendenhall of Western Governors: “The secretary of education called the commission a ‘national dialogue.’ What we’ve accomplished, to a great extent already, is creating a national dialogue that wasn’t there before.”

Whether that dialogue results in cacophony or consensus will become a little clearer next week.


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