Relations between the U.S. Education Department and college leaders have grown increasingly strained in recent weeks. Accreditors and higher ed association types have warily watched the department's aggressive efforts to carry out the recommendations of its Commission on the Future of Higher Education through possible changes in the rules governing accreditation. And the Bush administration's proposal last week to increase the maximum Pell Grant by killing several other student aid programs has had many academic leaders and college groups spewing venom in private and challenging the administration in public, drawing sometimes testy responses from department officials and, notably, from Charles Miller, who led the Spellings Commission and seems to relish the "bad cop" role.
So Tuesday, when Sara Martinez Tucker, the U.S. under secretary of education who has become the department's point person on higher education issues, addressed the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, the chief lobbying group for colleges and universities, fireworks seemed possible, even likely. But apart from one gently phrased question apiece from audience members asking Tucker to explain the department's positions on the financial aid proposal and the accreditation review, the college presidents and other administrators in the room did not direct any criticism or anger her way. And while she stood by the department's plans, she did seem to offer an olive branch to them, at least temporarily.
The decorous tone was set right from the start by David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. He praised Tucker -- with whom he served on the Spellings Commission -- and the department's call for increasing the Pell Grant, and seriously minimized the objections that ACE officials and others have been voicing in recent days about the administration's plan to pay for that increase by killing the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program. Ward acknowledged that there have been "concerns" about the budget plan, but characterized them as a "secondary and lesser issue" and a "detail." The Pell Grant increase, he said, "is the big news and that is the good news."
If Ward was pulling his punches, he may have done so in part because of criticism he and the council have faced from administration officials and particularly from Miller, who headed the commission appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and maintains close ties to her and the department's leaders, including Tucker. In one e-mail that he sent only to Ward and to Tucker, and in another message he distributed to all members of the Spellings panel, Miller blasted Ward for comments made by the council's top lobbyist in an article last week in Inside Higher Ed, in which the ACE official said: "Every presidential budget, regardless of party, contains at least one bad idea. For 2008, it's eliminating SEOG."
"What kind of tone is that for a professional organization representing much of higher education?" Miller wrote in the e-mail. He continued: "The attitude that no financial aid program can be reduced or eliminated, even if it has serious flaws and even if the funds could be spent demonstrably more effectively, stands selfishly in the way of making college more affordable for everyone and does not represent the notion higher education claims of creating the greater good for the broad community.
"Does the ACE stand in favor of a major reform of the federal financial aid program? Or will it be satisfied with defending the status quo and just asking for more money? Those are truly the only options. It's time for leadership, not fuzzy dancing around the edges of the crisis of college affordability faced by American students and families."
Tucker had engaged in her own criticism of ACE in the wake of the brouhaha over the budget, specifically calling a reporter last week to challenge data the council had released about the proposal's impact on students. But she did not go there in her comments on Tuesday, which followed an awkward hug between her and Ward. Tucker exhorted college leaders to deal with the central issues facing the federal student aid system and its success or failure in ensuring college access for low-income and minority students, rather than tinkering around "the fringes."
"You are the professionals," Tucker said. "You are probably in the best position to understand what's necessary ... to ensure that we have more access and better results."
In the session's question and answer phase, M. Matthew Owens, assistant director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, first praised Tucker's strong call for more help for needy students and then suggested that the administration's proposal to eliminate the SEOG program, which provides grants to about 1.3 million mostly needy students, might be "counterintuitive" to that stance. Tucker reiterated the administration's view that the supplemental grants program should go because isn't targeted enough to the neediest students and is costly to operate, because 5 percent of its funds go to the costs of administering it.
Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges, gently questioned the Education Department's push to require accreditors to set "bright line" standards for the colleges to meet to prove that they are educating students effectively, rather than holding colleges accountable for meeting the standards they have set for themselves. Tucker acknowledged that "accreditation has become the lightning rod for our commission recommendations," and said that it is "important that we let institutions stay mission-centric."
"But the thing we can't shy away from," she said, "is that there has to be some measure of student learning." She did not specify whether she meant that there should be a common measure of student learning.
Several college leaders interviewed after Tucker's speech said they were not surprised that the anger and frustration that so many college leaders have expressed about the department privately did not bubble forth in public Tuesday. And one higher education official who challenged Tucker when she appeared at a meeting of association leaders last week said he was heartened by her recognition that the college leaders in the audience at ACE are “the professionals” who are “in the best position” to understand what needs to be done to improve college access.
“That’s not the way they’ve been acting up to now,” said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “I sincerely hope that they will act that way, and I’m hoping this indicates a change in strategy.”