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A White House Departure
Zakiya Smith, who helped guide higher ed policy for President Obama, leaves for a think tank. College officials will miss her.
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is losing another official who has played a major role in shaping its higher education policy.
Zakiya Smith, a senior policy adviser at the White House Domestic Policy Council who has made a significant imprint on federal higher ed policy making since she graduated college just six years ago, will leave at month's end for the Center for American Progress, a think tank with historically close ties to the administration.
Smith will become director of postsecondary innovation and co-director (with Julie Morgan) of postsecondary education for the center. "We are very excited to have Zakiya join us," said Michael Ettlinger, CAP's vice president of economic policy. "She will be an incredible addition to our very talented postsecondary education team."
Smith, whose education degrees are from Vanderbilt and Harvard Universities, worked from 2009 to March 2011 in two Education Department offices where she helped formulate the administration's policies on college completion, among others. Then she became a senior policy adviser in the White House, which has played a larger role in setting higher education policy under President Obama than has historically been the case.
Higher education leaders and lobbyists who have dealt with Smith said they'll be sorry to see her go -- and that wouldn't be true for everyone in an administration widely seen as regulating higher education with a heavy hand, following in the footsteps of its predecessor under Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
"Zakiya totally understands higher ed, and we could count on her giving us a fair hearing, even if she didn't agree with us," said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. "She could also help translate our concerns to folks [elsewhere in the administration] who weren't as familiar with higher ed."
That has been especially true as interest in regulating higher education has grown at agencies -- such as the Department of Veterans Affairs -- that have traditionally had comparatively little involvement in the sector. From her perch at the White House, said Timmons, Smith has helped to coordinate the agencies' work to avoid overlap (to the extent possible), and to keep open the lines of communication between the agencies and college officials.
Timmons and others also credited Smith with helping to ensure that even as President Obama toughened his rhetoric about college prices as the Occupy movement and the presidential campaign heated up, the administration has "engaged in a conversation [with higher education] instead of simply handing down a mandate," Timmons said.
"For us in many ways she was the face of the administration," Timmons added, "and it'll be a real loss for us if they don't fill that job with somebody who likes to operate in that mode."
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