The Trump administration’s pick to oversee higher ed policy at the Department of Education is out of the running.
In an email last week, Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, said he was withdrawing his name from consideration for the job of assistant secretary for postsecondary education.
It’s the second time in recent weeks that a candidate for a high-profile role at the department has said “no thanks” to the department deep in the vetting process. And it underscores the slow progress since January in making key political hires to round out Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team.
Pressnell said in the email to presidents of TICUA member institutions that he and DeVos had discussed since April the possibility of his being appointed to the assistant secretary position by President Trump.
“Whereas it was a great honor to be approached about accepting the appointment, after arduous consideration I have decided to withdraw my name from consideration,” he wrote. “The TICUA Board of Directors very graciously worked with me through this process. This was one of the most difficult decisions of my career, but I am thrilled to continue my work with TICUA.”
Pressnell declined to comment on the email or the reasons for his decision.
The department declined to comment about its hiring efforts. Some well-connected Republicans cautioned that filling senior staff positions doesn’t always happen quickly and said several experienced officials are helping manage the department on an interim basis.
But others have expressed frustration with the slow pace of the personnel moves five months into the administration. And it doesn’t appear that there is a pipeline of other candidates to fill the assistant secretary job or the deputy secretary position turned down by the E&A Industries co-founder Allan Hubbard earlier this month.
“It’s depressing, and they really need to get somebody and get somebody soon,” said Vic Klatt, a principal at the Penn Hill Group and a former education staff member for Republican lawmakers in the House. “Particularly with an upcoming negotiated rule-making process scheduled and the fact that they’re supposed to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this Congress, we need somebody and we need them quickly.”
Kathleen Smith is currently serving as the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education. Smith previously was the higher ed policy adviser for Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee.
Several other recent hires are filling senior roles on an acting basis -- among them, Under Secretary Jim Manning, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson and Jason Botel, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. The under secretary's job is widely expected to be eliminated in the new administration.
The acting designation means those officials won’t immediately require Senate confirmation. But having personnel filling key roles on an acting basis may signal difficulty in filling those roles long term.
Klatt said he knows both Manning and Smith personally and seeing either nominated for Senate confirmation would be “great.”
“If they’re not going to do that, we need to have people filling those roles in permanent positions,” he said.
The department announced last week that it would overhaul two major Obama higher ed regulations via the negotiated rule-making process. The first set of public hearings in the rule-making process is set for next month. That means a department that has been slow to take major policy initiatives in higher ed will likely find itself very busy over the second half of 2017.
Senate confirmation allows officials to have the full authority of the office, Klatt said, but right now officials are in a kind of limbo.
“I don’t think that’s good for anyone,” he said. “I think you get your people in place and charge forward.”
The administration has only nominated one department official, the general counsel pick, Carlos Muniz, for Senate confirmation so far. Many of the roughly 150 political appointments at the department remain vacant entirely.
Every new administration can face challenges filling key positions at federal agencies. But even prominent conservatives have acknowledged the difficulty finding officials with the right combination of credibility and experience who are also willing to work for an administration that is perceived to lack stability and a president who demands personal fealty.
The apparent selection of Pressnell before he removed himself from consideration may signal the kind of person the department is looking for to fill the assistant secretary position.
He’s a widely respected veteran of higher ed who has testified before Congress and provided input to lawmakers and the executive branch as a member of the now-defunct Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid. The department recently appointed him to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which oversees accreditors.
Pressnell is also from Tennessee, home to Alexander, who as head of the Senate's education committee is widely seen as the most influential higher ed policy maker in the nation's capital right now.
Tennessee is also a state seen by many as a laboratory for experiments in higher ed. Before free college became a major issue in the Democratic presidential primary last year, Republican Governor Bill Haslam pushed a plan to make community college free in the state. This year, the state expanded the program to include adult learners as well.
Private institutions in Tennessee initially reacted skeptically to Haslam’s proposal, but Pressnell was viewed as a deal maker, helping to ensure that students taking advantage of the program would be able to transfer to private colleges to complete four-year degrees.
Jamienne Studley, a former acting under secretary of education under President Obama while Ted Mitchell awaited confirmation, also served on an acting basis in two other Senate-confirmed roles at the department. (Note: this article has been updated to clarify Studley's role at the department.)
“That’s different from the very beginning of an administration, not bringing people forward in these high-level jobs,” she said.
Studley, who now works as a consultant and as national policy adviser at Beyond 12, said she was surprised at how few officials in this administration had even been nominated for Senate confirmation.
While career officials have the capacity to handle operational issues, she said political appointees have an important role to play in deciding direction at the department and listening to outside input.
“Not having folks who are in a position to hear external ideas and draw on internal experience and recommendations can be a serious limitation,” Studley said.