The Kinder, Gentler Summit

Education Department's higher education confab wins praise for cooperative tone, but storm clouds loom.
March 23, 2007

When the history of the Spellings Commission and its aftermath is written – the real history, not the serialized, on-the-fly version that’s been appearing in these pages for the last 18 months – one of the dominant themes is likely to be the alternating conflict and concurrence between American higher education and its sometime foe and sometime friend, the Margaret Spellings-led Education Department.

Since the education secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued its report last fall, the Education Department has sent conflicting signals, often at the same time, about its goals and its strategies for changing higher education. The “good cop” Education Department has proposed major increases in the Pell Grant Program and vowed, as Spellings famously did at an accreditation forum the department held last November, to “do this with you, not to you.”

Yet on other occasions, college leaders have very much felt as if the department was sticking it to them, proposing a mammoth expansion of federal data collecting about student learning measures and financial aid, which the department has apparently abandoned in the face of sharp criticism, and pursuing an aggressive approach to considering new federal rules on accreditation ( see related article, which in many ways is a  counterpoint to this one).

Heading into the much-anticipated summit Thursday at which department leaders brought together about 250 people to craft an “action plan” for carrying out the Spellings Commission’s recommendations, college leaders and others weren’t sure which Education Department would show up. Would federal officials try to cram a predetermined set of ideas down the throats of the attendees, presenting it to them just so department officials could say they got signoff from the masses? Or would there be, as the department suggested, actual give and take, a legitimate discussion in which alternative approaches were considered, changes made?

The ink is still wet, and given the previously mentioned conflict and concurrence routine, it may be unlikely to stick. But most of those who were there agreed that Thursday’s event showed the department to be generally in good cop mode.

Spellings herself gave a speech in which she praised colleges much more than she typically does and focused much more heavily on the parts of the commission’s agenda that advocates for students and campus officials endorse (the need to expand access and financial aid for low-income and minority students) than on the calls for more accountability and transparency and threats of federal policy making that trouble many of them.

More importantly, at the end of the day, department officials acknowledged that participants in the summit had (in their closed-door working group sessions) proposed many changes in the proposed recommendations that department officials had put forward at the start of the summit, and they promised they would take the changes to heart. And department leaders said that the dialogue that unfolded during the day would continue as they decided on their next steps.

“I don’t know at this minute what we’re going to do next,” said Sara Martinez Tucker, the under secretary, who was the day’s master of ceremonies. “We have a lot of distilling to do” of the many recommendations that emerged. “But we’re not going to violate the process that we created today, which is open dialogue.” Spellings herself added: “We don’t intend to end this engagement.”

College leaders seemed to appreciate the department’s open approach. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said she believed a “significant amount of good will” built up among summit participants as the day went on. And Les Garner, president of Cornell College, in Iowa, commended Spellings for “bringing us together, helping us start talking to each other again.”

That sort of upbeat vibe would have been hard to predict at the start of the day. Many summit participants were put out that they had not seen any materials before they arrived, and when they finally did see the initial set of “recommended actions” that small “working groups” of summit participants had quietly put together in the weeks leading up to the event (and been told not to share), they did not like some of what they saw.

The four recommendations on “increasing need-based aid for access and success,” for example, did not mention any role for the federal government at all, focusing on the need for states, institutions and the private sector to increase their emphasis and investment in such aid.

As Tucker sent the 250 or so participants off to the working group sessions at which they were supposed to review the initial list of proposed “action items,” to use the corporate-style lingo that dominated much of the day, she insisted that they should not hold back. “Kick the heck out of the tires,” she said. “Bat anything around, with no sacred cows.”

Those larger working group sessions included the members of the smaller groups that had framed the initial recommendations plus 20 or 30 additional summit participants (but no reporters, who were barred from sitting in -- so much for transparency). Participants described the sessions as spirited and substantive, and in the late afternoon, when the heads of the various working groups reported back to the larger assemblage, it was clear that the recommended actions had been significantly transformed, and in many cases expanded.

Tally Hart, Ohio State University’s senior adviser for economic access, who headed the financial aid group, said that its members had inserted the need for the federal government to continue to increase its spending on need-based aid, above and beyond the much-touted increase in the Pell Grant Program that President Bush proposed in his budget for 2008 and beyond. “There must be a net increase in need-based aid,” Hart said, not just “what may appear as just shifting numbers among programs” – a reference, it seemed to criticism that the Bush budget would increase Pell spending in part by cutting money for other financial-aid programs.

Thomas C. Meredith, Mississippi’s commissioner of higher education, said the working group he headed, on “enhancing affordability, decreasing costs and promoting productivity,” felt obliged to significantly alter the recommendations the smaller group had made initially. Meredith said its participants felt the need to answer the question of “why on earth would faculty and administrators and presidents take on this whole thing of trying to cut costs and be more efficient? This is a painful kind of operation. Why would they do this on their own?”

The answer, participants in the session agreed, he said, was if the rewards for institutions changed. Instead of being receiving funds “based on warm bodies,” the group proposed, public colleges should get incentives and rewards if they improve their attainment rates and learning of their students. The group also called for bringing together a new collection of “professionals” to help deal with the “touchy topic of common data” that might be used to measure how well colleges are performing. His point seemed to be that moving too fast to hold colleges accountable for their performance, without letting experts define the best ways of measuring, would be a mistake.

Geri Hockfield Malandra, vice chancellor for strategic management at the University of Texas System, said her group’s discussion on the use of accreditation to drive more emphasis on student learning outcomes focused on how accreditors could encourage colleges to do more, without imposing a “one size fits all” approach.

The panel offered a range of suggestions – such as incentive funds for 100 colleges to work with accrediting bodies and state agencies to publish “annual assessment reports of institutional outcomes in a public-friendly way" -- aimed at “creating ownership at the institutional level for using student learning outcomes.” The group, she said, hoped the various practices “would create an upsurge of interest in participating voluntarily in the developments we’re recommending.”

That sort of language, the cooperative spirit of the day’s discussions, and Tucker’s vow that the department would continue it going forward left many of the summit’s participants in an upbeat mood as some of them headed to the White House for a reception. But there were divisive developments on the horizon.

Some private college officials were troubled by the fact that a “steering committee” the department put together to advise Spellings and Tucker as they continue to carry out the commission’s recommendations (the group is meeting this morning) contained not a single representative of independent colleges (the closest person is Schneider of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose members are split 50/50 public/private). The steering committee -- which Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings Commission and is on the new panel, described as part sounding board and part a vehicle to build grass-roots support -- contains eight businessmen or women, six state officials, assorted others and just three college officials (a list appears below).

And late Thursday, the department circulated proposed changes it would make in federal rules on accreditation, which would not only require accreditors to force the institutions they assess to report how they perform on learning outcomes, but also demand that the accreditors judge independently whether the institutions are performing well enough, by setting minimum standards.

That language, which would seem to conflict with all the cheery discussion of “voluntary” approaches at Thursday’s meeting, could well undo at least some of the good will generated at the summit.

The members of the steering committee:

  • Jim Applegate, vice president of academic affairs, Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education
  • David Armstrong, chancellor, Florida Community College System
  • Haley Barbour, governor, Mississippi
  • Craig Barrett, chairman of the board, Intel Corp.
  • Ralph H. Baxter Jr., CEO and partner, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliff
  • Stephanie Bell-Rose, managing director, Goldman Sachs; founding president, Goldman Sachs Foundation
  • Erskine B. Bowles, president, University of North Carolina
  • Jim Boyle, College Parents of America
  • Donald Carcieri, governor, Rhode Island
  • Constantine (Deno) Curris, president, American Association of State Colleges and Universities
  • Susan Dell, co-founder and chairman, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
  • Allan Golston, president, U.S. program, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • William Green, CEO, Accenture
  • Suzanne Nora Johnson, vice chairman, Goldman Sachs
  • Frank Keating, president and CEO, American Council of Life Insurers; former governor, Oklahoma
  • Martha Lamkin, president and CEO, Lumina Foundation
  • Charles Miller, private investor; former chairman, Commission on the Future of Higher Education
  • Geanie Morrison, state representative, Texas
  • Charles Reed, chancellor, California State University System
  • Raul Romero, president and CEO, Alliance Consulting Group
  • Tim Pawlenty, governor, Minnesota
  • Tad Perry, executive director, South Dakota Board of Regents
  • Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities
  • Mark Yudof, chancellor, University of Texas System.


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