Beyond Playing Defense

September 22, 2006

As concerns about and criticism of American higher education have mounted in a series of reports in recent years, college leaders, fairly or not, have been portrayed as unresponsive if not outright obstructionist. That impression has been reinforced in the last few months by the forceful (and occasionally shrill) objections voiced by private college leaders about the work of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, and the fact that higher education's lead representative on the panel, David Ward of the American Council on Education, was alone among its 19 members in declining to sign the report.

Thursday, days before Education Secretary Margaret Spellings plans to respond to the commission's report and lay out her prescription for the future of higher education, the six leading college groups sought to dispel the notion that higher education opposes change.

In "Addressing the Challenges Facing American Undergraduate Education," Ward and his compatriots at five other associations, representing community colleges, public and private four-year institutions, and research universities, "have gotten together on a strong statement that sets forth a number of challenges before higher education and embraces change to deal with them," Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said during a news conference of the group's leaders.

The other groups signing the document are the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Association of American Universities, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The groups' statement comes in the form of a letter to presidents of their member colleges and universities, which include the vast majority of the country's nonprofit institutions. The association leaders frame the letter as a response to a series of reports about higher education that have come out in the past year or two, including the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," as well as legislation to renew the Higher Education Act.

But it seems clear, from the timing five days before Spellings' speech next Tuesday, that the groups acted largely to try to change the perceived posture of higher education as an impediment to the work of the secretary's commission.

The six associations have at times taken sharply differing positions on the work of the Spellings commission, with the independent college group by far the most critical, the two state college groups largely supportive, and the others somewhere in between. So the fact that they have come together around a common statement that, in its language at least, acknowledges problems in higher education and commits institutions to attacking them, struck at least one impartial observer as noteworthy.  

"The title of our report is, 'A Test of Leadership,' and this statement represents a constructive step in that direction," said Charles Miller, the chairman of the secretary's commission. "It admits to the need for significant change in our higher education system, and change is difficult and at times painful. The question is can we act now, soon, to do what's necessary?"

Undoubtedly, the college groups' aimed with this statement to stop being entirely reactive and to assume a role in setting the agenda rather than simply responding to it. The associations' letter acknowledges problems in higher education and the need for college leaders to confront them. It identifies as major challenges such things as providing more college access to low-income and minority students, keeping college affordable, increasing accountability for students' educational outcomes, and internationalizing the student experience.

But in the letter, and in their comments about it, the association leaders challenge the notion, implicit in the Spellings commission's report, that colleges have done little to address those problems so far.

"I think a lot of change is already going on, though it is often undocumented and unrecognized," Ward said at the news conference. "Though perhaps there is not as much as policy makers and the public would wish, and we want to energize even further change in response to these reports." He added: "We're arguing that the more we could do ourselves in a reform mode, the better."

The letter outlines a number of specific strategies that college associations or groups of colleges have begun or plan to undertake in coming months: a voluntary accountability system that the two state college groups are crafting, a major public service campaign, called "Know How To Go," aimed at encouraging low-income, first generation students to prepare for college, and yet-to-be-announced efforts to increase the number of science and math teachers colleges prepare and the number of high school graduates who are prepared for college-level work.

Those efforts aside, the letter is relatively thin on clearly defined strategies, which is no accident, the groups' leaders say. Most change in higher education must occur at the campus level, they assert, with the associations' role to prod and provide a framework for campus initiatives.

"We're very conscious of the distinction between dictum and dialogue," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "This is an effort to get a dialogue under way." More specific approaches are likely to emerge as that discussion evolves, he and the others said.

Perhaps the most visible sign of movement in the entire document is language that acknowledges that the nation needs a "better way to assess the educational success of students who attend more than a single college." That is a veiled reference to the highly controversial "unit records" system that would create a federal database to track students’ performance throughout their academic careers.

Private college officials have put that idea at the top of their list of the commission's most objectionable proposals, but most public institutions have supported the concept. In a nod to NAICU, the associations' letter states that "there are a host of technical/operational and personal privacy issues" related to unit records "that must be satisfactorily addressed." But the letter also notes that "interest in this topic is clear, and the higher education associations will convene a task force of associations and other groups to address these issues."

"It is important for this community, this group of six, to have such a statement," said McPherson of the land-grant college association. "We're saying, 'We're going to sit down and see what we should do.' " Warren, of the private college group, described the association chiefs as "collectively holding hands on this issue," adding: "There are principles that are in collision. Every now and then, this happens, and we're going to do our best to see if we can't sort it out."

The fact that the higher ed leaders see the potential to overcome their divisions on that thorny issue lent an optimistic feel to their discussion Thursday of the commission's report. But when asked about what they expected from Spellings' speech about the report on Tuesday, most of them predicted that the response of college leaders would depend largely on how tough the secretary's rhetoric is. 

"How the individual colleges respond depends on how it's framed," said Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. "If it is framed in terms of being chiding, the response may not be entirely positive."

Warren of NAICU said he was waiting to see to what extent the speech would "inform us about the dialogue, to what extent it will inspire us to act, and to what extent it will inveigh against us." The key, he said, is "which of those will be primary."

In other words, they suggested, if Spellings fills her speech with tough talk about higher education's flaws and its declining competitiveness on the world stage, expect college leaders to start playing defense again.

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