At a time of increased federal interest in international education, the U.S. Education Department is removing its senior official for such programs -- someone widely respected on campuses -- and replacing him with someone without any experience in international education.
The move has many educators concerned because some of the Education Department's programs have been targets of conservative criticism and the official being removed has been seen as a defender. "Are they now pushing an agenda for which having someone knowledgeable would be an obstacle?" asked one educator who asked not to be identified for fear of offending senior department officials.
Ralph Hines will be moved from the position of director of the International Education Programs Service to become deputy director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. He is being replaced by Lynn Mahaffie, who is director of the Teacher and Student Development Programs Service and has previously worked in other department programs focused on college preparation issues. An e-mail message sent to Education Department employees Friday said that Mahaffie's "strong management background will be of great value as the department addresses critical international education issues and priorities."
College officials concerned about the change said that they didn't have anything against Mahaffie except that her work has not dealt with any of the programs -- many of them university-based efforts to promote language and cultural studies -- that she will now manage.
Hines referred questions on the change to the department's press office. A spokeswoman there said that she could not comment on why Hines was being moved. She acknowledged that Mahaffie "doesn't have experience per se in international programs," but said that she does have strong managerial experience in the department, which would "be valuable in bringing fresh perspectives to the international education programs."
While Education Department officials undoubtedly have the authority to move personnel around, the Hines move is raising alarms for two reasons. One is that the move follows the ouster in January of the senior staff official in charge of accrediting matters -- a shift that coincided with the department taking a much tougher line on accreditors. While the political appointees at the department set out the agency's priorities, the senior staff members, like those being moved around, are important to colleges for their knowledge of how programs are structured, how to navigate the grants process, and how federal rules work. Some educators fear that experienced civil servants who are viewed as not sufficiently loyal to the Bush administration are being forced out of key roles.
The second reason for concern is that this is a period of scrutiny for international education programs run by the department. The National Academies in March released a study of the programs the department supports for language and area studies training. The report found that these programs are valuable and probably more important than ever, given the shortage of American experts on the Middle East and other regions that are outside of North America and Europe. But the report also called for a major expansion of efforts to evaluate program effectiveness.
The report sidestepped conservative criticisms that many of the programs supported by the department encourage views that are "anti-American" in some way. Educators who run these programs say that this criticism is unfair and reflects the way programs about the Middle Eastern or various other societies will almost inevitably involve ideas that are not in the mainstream of American political thought -- and that exposing students to those perspectives is one of the roles of higher education.
"We are all trying to figure out what is going on," said Miriam Kazanjian, a Washington consultant who works with academic groups on international education. "It's kind of befuddling."
Kazanjian said that Hines knows the programs' strengths and weaknesses and "has always worked to bring diverse groups together" to improve the department's international efforts. "It's just puzzling why someone with that depth of experience is being moved out."
William Brustein, associate provost for international affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the Association of International Education Administrators, said he understood that there was a school of thought (apparently being embraced by the department) that programs are best managed by people with the best "administrative skills." But he noted that there was also a view that programs may be best managed by people "conversant with the critical issues."
While leading the international education office Hines was "always helpful to us -- always had open doors," Brustein said. "He always spoke eloquently about the importance of international education, so this comes as a shock to me."
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