One by one, the members of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education offered their support for the panel's report, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some, like James B. Hunt, the former governor of North Carolina, virtually gushed, saying it "could be one of the most important reports in the educational and economic history of our country if we act on it."
Others, like Ohio University's Richard Vedder and Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania, said they would sign it but with significant (though differing) reservations -- Vedder because he thought it went too soft on higher education's curricular and other woes, Zemsky because the commission has been too critical: "You don't get people up and moving in your revolution by saying that they haven't done it and that they're on the wrong side of right."
The only real drama of the panel's sixth and final meeting emerged when the conversation worked its way around the horseshoe shaped table to David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which defines itself as the group that most broadly represents the interests of American colleges and universities.
Ward had looked more than a little uncomfortable -- head in his hands, looking at the floor -- as even some of the panel's strongest defenders of higher education, like Charles M. Vest and James J. Duderstadt, former presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan, respectively, said they would sign the commission's report. When his turn came, he said he regretted having to pour "a little rain on this unanimous reaction to the report."
Citing the report's tendency to propose "one size fits all solutions" to problems and to minimize the financial problems facing higher education but not of the industry's own making, among other things, Ward said he could not sign it. As the panel and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings work to further define, debate and eventually carry out the report's recommendations in the months ahead, Ward said, "I think I can be more effective if I am free to contest some -- not very many -- aspects of this report."
In some ways, Ward's decision was not surprising; the cautious, evenhanded leader had expressed uncharacteristically vociferous displeasure about the first draft of the commission's report, and some of his constituents -- particularly the nearly 1,000 private colleges that are also members of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, led by its president, David L. Warren -- have aggressively opposed many of the panel's ideas. But Ward also knew that opposing the panel's work could open him and higher education generally to the oft-heard charge (oft-heard, among others, from the commission's chairman, Charles Miller) that colleges are reluctant to acknowledge their flaws and unwilling to undertake significant change.
"That was the biggest risk," Ward said in an interview Thursday. "If I've lost sleep, it's over how concerned I was about leaving that impression. But that's not what this is about. I am planning to be a progressive and active participant in pursuing change" as college officials, policy makers, business leaders and others work to implement the commission's plan, Ward said.
In the long run, whether or not Ward signed the document matters little; what will really matter, many college leaders, members of the commission, and other observers seem to agree, is how consensus is built (or not) in the as-yet undefined process for transforming the commission's mostly big-picture recommendations -- like restructuring "the entire student financial aid system" and measuring and reporting "meaningful student learning outcomes" -- into actual, actionabale proposals.
Little is known about how that process might unfold. Miller, the commission's chairman, and Education Department staff members said that they planned to get a final, "copy edited" and prettied-up version of the report to Spellings by mid-September. But then what? Hunt, the former North Carolina governor, told his colleagues that he hoped the education secretary and President Bush would seek to quickly put some of the commission's proposals into legislative form for Congress to consider. One by one, virtually all of the commissioners offered their services in helping to advocate the commission's recommendations to the public, but many of them did not seem to share Hunt's enthusiasm for looking to lawmakers. Miller was among them.
"My focus wouldn't be on legislation," the chairman said in comments to reporters after the vote. "I wouldn't run to the policy makers." He said he thought a "big public debate," involving state and federal policy makers, business leaders and college officials, would be needed to help figure out how to put meat on the bones of the panel's recommendations, many of which he acknowledged had been purposely crafted to be broad and unspecific.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Miller said his preference would be for "the academy [itself] to address" the changes called for in the report, and as evidence of his desire not to impose mandates on higher education, he noted that the report the commission approved Thursday had dropped language (which was in last week's draft) that called for states to require public institutions to measure student learning using a set of tests and other measures. (The new language, which college leaders pushed hard for in the last few days, just says that "higher education institutions should measure student learning using....")
If higher education is "not responsive to change" and "doesn't have a strategic vision," Miller predicted, then "things are going to be mandated."
Zemsky said he was heartened by the promises from his fellow commissioners to become "a group of messengers" who will help promote the panel's agenda to the public and to the college administrators and professors who may be most responsible for whether it succeeds or fails. "If this is going to work, I think we as individuals have to act as catalysts," he said. But citing the distrust the commission created among academics with the highly critical language of its earliest drafts, he warned panel members that they should not only "strap on our armor but understand the desert we're about to enter," adding: "There are a lot of people out there who no longer believe in us."
The extent to which college leaders are going to join arms with the commission to help it carry its agenda forward is hard to know, but perhaps can be partially gleaned from the reactions that various higher education groups had in the wake of the commission's vote Thursday.
Officials at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities reiterated their support for the panel's overall direction and recommendations. At the other end of the spectrum, David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said his group continued to oppose three major aspects of the panel's plan: a national database of student academic records, the call for consolidating the number of federal financial aid programs, and its inclination to push a common yardstick for all institutions in measuring student learning.
Leaders of the other major college groups took a middle ground. Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, praised some of the commission's suggestions but said the group of major research universities shares "several of the concerns expressed by American Council on Education President David Ward in explaining his decision to abstain from signing the report." The American Association of Community Colleges endorsed the commission's call for an expansion of need-based financial aid but said it paid too little attention to the crucial role of state and local support, which is declining.
Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which has been praised by Miller and others for stepping out in front and proposing its own voluntary accountability system, said in a statement that the final report largely focused on the right things. But McPherson also said the report gave short shrift to the "vast experimentation and change that is taking place" on campuses nationwide and to colleges' willingness to change.
In an interview, McPherson said: "People like me and [Constantine W. Curris, president of AASCU] and David [Ward] are going to be supporting innovation and change."
Hours after Ward's decision not to sign the report -- a decision that he said those he polled on the American Council on Education's board had wholly endorsed -- he acknowledged that it would be crucial for college officials to advocate for the commission proposals they agreed with and to work to improve the ones they don't.
"We need to find way to show responsiveness," he said. "We have to create some self-generated outcomes. This is an agenda we need ownership of. If we don't, [the commission's report] is a shot over the bow," and colleges can expect changes imposed by others.