In the 14 years since he founded the Institute for Higher Education Policy, Jamie P. Merisotis has played a significant role in putting the issue of expanding access to college on the agenda of politicians, higher education officials and others in a position to help make it happen. With a budget of $4 million and a relatively small team of researchers and program officers, the institute has helped to generate knowledge about and interest in the need to improve the rate of college going by low-income, minority and other underrepresented Americans.
Starting January 1, Merisotis will be pursuing much the same agenda, but from a decidedly larger platform. The Lumina Foundation for Education, which made $50 million in grants this year and expects to spend more this year, announced Thursday that it had hired him to replace the retiring Martha D. Lamkin as its president. John Mutz, chairman of the foundation's board, described Merisotis as a logical choice to carry out the seven-year-old philanthropy's continuing efforts to back research and programs designed to improve college access -- and its plans to get more involved in public policy making going forward.
"The board considers Jamie almost a perfect fit for this job," Mutz said in an interview Thursday. "He is well acquainted with the higher education area, he has experience in public policy, and has been an individual who has run his own organization" -- albeit one a lot smaller than Lumina, he acknowledged.
Mutz said Lumina officials were particularly attracted to Merisotis' ability to "convene people with differing opinions and bring them together around a question," not necessarily to full agreement but to a common understanding. That trait will be especially important given Lumina's desire to step up its involvement in working with state and federal officials, educators and others not only to suggest and encourage the use of good ideas, as Lumina has thus far in its short life, but to promote "systemic change" through changes in policy.
"This foundation in particular, given its mission, can play a much stronger convening role," said Merisotis, bringing state legislators, members of Congress, and other leaders together to talk and to brainstorm about ways to actually get things done.
Merisotis also said he hoped to use Lumina's wealth and connections as the "leading philanthropy" in the realm of student access to stimulate "blue sky policy thinking.... There's not enough work being done on 'big ideas,' " he said. "There are very narrow windows of opportunity open where big ideas are possible. In the current Congress, for example, with the changeover in leadership, there is a natural opportunity for big ideas. What we've seen so far from this Congress are big investments, but those investments are in areas where there already had been some work done. We'd like to do something about the dearth of new and fresh ideas at policy levels."
Higher education leaders praised both the work that Lamkin had done as Lumina's original president in establishing the credibility of the foundation -- which was formed out of profits from the student loan industry -- and the selection of Merisotis.
"This is a match made in heaven, given the foundation's focus on helping nontraditional students go into higher education and the fact that Jamie has devoted his career to that," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. (ACE has received funds from Lumina for its Know How to Go campaign, but then again, it's a challenge to find a major higher education group or effort that hasn't benefited from Lumina's largesse.) "He is universally liked and respected for his straightforward, evenhanded public policy analysis. There are a relatively small group of people who would fit that description."
Like many a person in the foundation/grantee relationship who has moved from the beggar's side to the giver's, Merisotis said he anticipates a sudden gain in popularity. "I imagine I'm about to meet friends that I never knew I had."