The Hurdles Ahead

As 5th meeting wraps up, an assessment of the challenges facing the U.S. higher ed commission.
May 22, 2006

The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education wrapped up its fifth meeting Friday -- the one at which it hoped to start coalescing around a set of themes to focus on, if not specific recommendations to propose. And while the two-day meeting at the posh Watergate Hotel in Washington suggested several areas of common agreement, it also left the unmistakable impression that the panel faces some major hurdles in producing the sort of cohesive, compelling report that its members hope to deliver.

First, a quick recap of Friday's session, which, like Thursday's, was designed to give the commission's members themselves ( some of whom had complained about a lack of opportunity to state their own views, as opposed to listening to outside testimony) a chance to do just that.

Friday's discussion was organized around three topics -- work force development, increasing "supply," and innovation -- and if a dominant theme emerged from the conversation, it was that the commission needed to champion the idea that a high school education no longer suffices for any American; that education must continue to occur throughout every individual's lifetime; and that the collective forces in the country -- government, corporations, colleges -- should do everything possible to ensure that every citizen, regardless of economic status, gender or race, has the opportunity for "lifelong learning." (Or perhaps "continuous improvement," suggested the panel's resident wordsmith, Robert Zemsky, chair and CEO of the University of Pennsylvania's Learning Alliance for Higher Education, who drew a laugh from his colleagues and the audience alike when he said that "lifelong learning," the phrase that has worked its way into the common lexicon, "sounds like ‘elder hostel.’ ")

Of course, no one dominant theme did emerge from Friday's discussion -- far from it. The day's last session, titled "Identification of Gaps/New Areas," gave the panel's members an opportunity to toss out subjects that they felt had not gotten their due in any of the other topic areas during the rest of the meeting. Predictably (the discussion leader, Nicholas M. Donofrio of IBM, said it was time for "random thoughts"), the discussion was all over the map, touching on the role of philanthropy, whether the commission should take a stance on the Higher Education Act, overregulation of colleges, the arms race in intercollegiate sports, university governance and the role of trustees ... you get the idea.

It is hardly surprising that a session specifically designed to stimulate brainstorming and fill in the gaps had a scattershot feel to it, and that fact does not, in and of itself, suggest a problem for the commission. But the reality that the panel's entire deliberation so far has at times felt that way might. In a list of the challenges facing the commission as it tries to converge around a set of provocative and cohesive ideas by its newly extended deadline of mid-September, let's call that No. 1:

So many issues, so little time. During the course of Friday’s discussion about “gaps” in the report, Richard K. Vedder, the Ohio University economist, did what he often does at the commission’s meetings: put into words what a lot of his peers must be thinking. (The fact that he often does so in language that is provocative or pointedly humorous led one audience member who has closely followed the panel's work to refer on Friday to Vedder as the “Simon Cowell of the commission.”)

As he and others offered idea after idea for topics that the panel might touch on in its work, Vedder said, “We have got 217 ideas that are wonderful, and we say we want six,” a reference to repeated comments by panel members that their report is likely to have the greatest impact if it focuses on a “few big ideas.” (Most credit Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, with pushing them in that direction with his comments at the commission's February meeting. )

“That’s the fundamental problem,” Vedder said. “We add this, add that -- we keep expanding our focus. Are we doing a three-page report? A five-page report, with 100 pages of ancillary material?”

The panel’s chairman, Charles Miller, said the question was unanswerable at this point and would become clearer as the panel’s members and its staff (including Ben Wildavsky, the writer hired to help them put the document into “plain words”) engage in the “iterative process” of drafting and redrafting over the next days and weeks. But the remarkable vastness of the terrain the commission is trying to map unquestionably poses a potential focus problem.

In Friday’s discussion on work force development, for instance, panel members like Charles M. Vest and James J. Duderstadt, former presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan, respectively) spoke eloquently about the need for American higher education to continue to produce the world’s best and most innovative scientists and engineers, so that the country can create the technologies that will ensure its continued economic success in the increasingly competitive global economy. Vest urged the panel to “focus much of our attention at the upper end” of the work force, on “how we keep creating new jobs, how we stay ahead.”

But panel members like Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, and Arturo Madrid, the Norene R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, in Texas, suggested that a bigger priority might be the huge and rapidly growing numbers of low-income and minority citizens who don’t right now have the basic skills to function effectively in the work place. “My concern is that we seem to focus almost exclusively on the high end,” said Madrid, rather than on the majority of jobs in the current and future American economy that once required a high school education and now require something more.

The high end vs. low end question is just one of many splits that could make it hard for the panel to limit itself to just a small number of high-impact recommendations. Should the commission concern itself primarily with issues of the quality of the education being provided to students by America’s colleges, or should it use of some of its valuable and limited capital to try to do something to strengthen the institutions’ research capacity?

Can a commission on higher education have any effect if it does not also try to bring about change at the high school level, too, or should the panel focus primarily on how well the colleges themselves are doing and largely leave high school reform to No Child Left Behind, as Miller has repeatedly said that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wants them to? Should the panel try to revamp the system of higher education accreditation, as several commission members and witnesses have urged, or should this be “one of those subjects we could be blessedly quiet on,“ because “we have enough fish to fry,” as Penn’s Zemsky suggested Thursday.

This is far from a complete list, but it offers just a glimpse at the many, often diverging interests and concerns raised by commission members and those who’ve testified before it. Which leads to another big hurdle facing the panel:

Potential parochialism. It would be an exaggeration, and an unfair one at that, to suggest that any member of the panel is the equivalent of a “single issue voter” -- so narrowly focused on or passionate about one particular theme or proposal that he or she would refuse to back the commission’s final report if things didn’t turn out his or her way. Many or the commissioners are either keeping their strongest opinions to themselves or speaking even-handedly about many of the issues on the panel’s agenda.

But by the close of the fifth meeting, certain patterns and fault lines have begun to emerge, and quite a few of the commissioners have aligned themselves repeatedly with clear points of view or specific issues. (More than one commissioner at Friday’s meeting said the equivalent of, “You’re probably getting tired of hearing me say this,” or “Sorry to be a broken record about this, but...”) That doesn't mean that any of them speak out or care only about one thing, only that they are likely to push the angles below aggressively, and perhaps to balk if their points of view are not well-represented in the commission's final product.
For instance, Jonathan Grayer, the chairman and chief executive officer of Kaplan, Inc., beat the drum on multiple occasions for the commission to take an aggressive stance on ensuring that academic credits earned by students at for-profit institutions like his be smoothly transferable to nonprofit institutions. “Some institutions are really open, but some are totally closed,” said Grayer. (And when he departed early from Friday’s meeting, Donofrio of IBM made the point in his stead, saying he felt obliged to pick up Grayer’s refrain.)

As the only panel member representing a community college, Nunley of Montgomery College has spoken out with increasing forcefulness about the strengths and needs of the country’s two-year institutions, and while the colleges were generally an afterthought in many of the commission’s early discussions, that is no longer the case.

Several members of the commission -- including Sara Martinez Tucker of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and Louis W. Sullivan of Morehouse School of Medicine, but also Gerri Elliott of Microsoft -- can collectively be viewed as the panel’s “access” wing, raising in almost every relevant discussion the needs of women and members of minority groups.

Miller, the chairman, returns over and over again to the healing effect that greater transparency in the operations of colleges and universities, in the publication of more and better data and other information about their performance, can have on the perceived ills in the American “system” (though it is not really a system) of higher education. “I’ll say it again: when you don’t have the right kind of data put into some kind of accountability system, nothing gets done,” Miller said Friday. “It’s like the sound in the forest that no one hears. When you measure things and publicize it, that creates change.”

And David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, and MIT’s Vest can be counted on in many a discussion to raise the notion that in focusing as such panels tend to do on pressing problems or concerns, it will be important for the commission to make it clear that American higher education is “building on a position of enormous strength already,” as Ward said Thursday. And that divide points to at least one more in this partial list of thorny roadblocks:

Who is the report for? In a session Thursday in which he tried to wrap up the first day’s work, Richard Stephens, executive vice president of Boeing, listed the various “stakeholders” that the panel had to address in its work: politicians and policy makers, college presidents, employers, professors, students, the general public.

College leaders on the panel and some higher education officials who have been watching its work closely have, like Ward, urged the commission to emphasize the positive as well as the negative in its final report. A report with a harshly critical tone, they suggest, will have a hard time winning over the college administrators and faculty members who ultimately will have to do much of the heavy lifting if the report’s recommendations are to succeed.

But Miller has bristled at times at the suggestion that the panel should pull its punches or soften its “tone” in any way to avoid insulting college officials. The most important constituent, he has said again and again, is the public, and the report needs to be written in direct and blunt language that will resonate with them. He has taken to referring frequently to "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 report that decried a crisis in the country's high schools and inspired significant efforts at fixing the problems.

While Miller has taken pains to note that higher education is not nearly in the mess now that secondary education was perceived to be back then, its resonance with him suggests that his idea of the right "tone" for his commission's report might not jibe entirely with the one college leaders would prefer.


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