A Washington Icon Moves On

After 37 years at center of higher ed legal and regulatory world, Shelley Steinbach to leave college group for private law practice.
August 10, 2006

Like Cher or Shaq, there are certain circles in which the name "Shelley" needs no last name. Granted, the size and scope of those circles are somewhat different. But in the world of higher education legal and regulatory policy, "Shelley" -- Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education -- has been such a fixture for so many years that relatively few college lawyers, lobbyists and presidents would need a last name to recognize him.

Thirty-seven years after he took what he expected to be a two-year stint at a Washington higher education association to get a taste of federal policy making, Steinbach is finally leaving the American Council on Education, where he was at the intersection of most of the big issues that confronted the industry during that time.

When he steps down as ACE's vice president and general counsel at the age of 65 next month, Steinbach may no longer be at the crossroads of all those developments, but he won't be more than a block or so away. He will join the law firm of Dow Lohnes, which has one of the leading higher education law practices in the country, led by Michael B. Goldstein, who said the firm's college clients will "benefit from the scope of knowledge and breadth of experience that equals what Shelley has acquired during his long and distinguished tenure at ACE."

As the chief legal officer at higher education's main umbrella group, Steinbach had a hand in dealing with many of the most pressing issues facing higher education over more than three decades: affirmative action, technology transfer, student privacy, copyright and intercollegiate athletics, to name a few.

Steinbach drafted three of the four amendments to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 1973, wrote the copyright guidelines for classroom materials that were incorporated into the U.S. Code and was cited in a footnote in Justice Byron White's dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court's pathbreaking 1984 antitrust decision involving the televising of college football.

"Where I've been most effective, no one has ever seen my fingerprints," Steinbach says.

In many ways Steinbach's visibility in Washington higher education circles has exceeded the reach of his job title as the chief legal officer at higher education's main umbrella group. That's largely because of his outgoing personality (he can schmooze with the best of them), his outspokenness (a reporter's dream -- just try finding a subject on which he won't express an opinion), and, not unimportantly, on the fact that he has stood virtually alone among college lobbyists in his stellar Republican credentials (Steinbach led Ronald Reagan's education task force and headed "Educators for Dole" in the 1996 election).

"This has been as glorious and fulfilling a job as anybody on earth could ever expect," Steinbach says. "I'm pleased that at age 65 I had a reasonable range of options to pursue, and that I'll have a chance to remain involved in higher education."

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at ACE, said that higher education officials were "extraordinarily lucky to have had Shelley in this position for as long as he's been there."

Steinbach, he noted, began his career at ACE "at about the same time that the federal government started getting involved in higher education in a significant way, and he spent a very long time educating federal government officials about higher ed and college officials about the federal government, in terms they both could understand."

He added: "Shelley has forgotten more higher education policy than I will ever know."

Martin Michaelson, a lawyer who has worked with Steinbach for many years, echoed the views of many others in emphasizing the range of his interests and knowledge. Noting that he'd seen Steinbach quoted in national and local newspapers over the years talking about "everything from antitrust to zoning," Michaelson said: "It's a tribute to his scope and judgment that he's been able to cover so many fields of the law without falling down."


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