As she prepared to leave her role as the Education Department's assistant secretary for postsecondary education in late 2015, Jamienne S. Studley characterized the quest to strengthen how the federal government, states and accrediting agencies measure student outcomes and gauge colleges' performance as the "hardest [thing] to step away from."
She didn't step away for long -- only now, she's going to work on the issues from the inside.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Senior College and University Commission, the smallest and in some ways the most aggressive of the country's seven regional accreditors, is announcing today that it has chosen Studley as its new president, beginning in January. Before her job in the Obama Education Department, Studley headed Public Advocates, a consumer advocacy group, was president of Skidmore College, and for a time was the Clinton Education Department's chief lawyer.
Leading up to her time in the Obama administration, Studley headed the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal panel that advises the education secretary on accreditation issues. Through those roles, she had her share of conflict with accrediting agencies and many college leaders over efforts to hold higher education accountable, most notably the administration's failed initiative to rate colleges and the data-rich College Scorecard that was left when the ratings plan collapsed of its own weight.
Despite the occasional flare-up (like Studley's infamous comment some viewed as comparing higher education to a blender -- more on that later), she and her colleague at the Education Department, then Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, largely managed to stay on good terms with many college officials even amid their disagreements about their wisdom of some of the administration's policies. Most college leaders viewed Mitchell and Studley as trying to find a way to turn a bad idea conceived by the White House into reality, and as taking their views seriously.
"Both of them I found willing to listen to us," said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, like WSCUC a regional accrediting agency. "They clearly had an agenda, which I had a lot of respect for even as I disagreed with parts of it. But they always made themselves available to listen to us."
Now, both Studley and Mitchell, who just took the reins of the American Council on Education, the association of college presidents that is higher education's main advocacy group, are rejoining the industry they first worked in and then regulated.
In an interview, Studley said the roles are far more similar than different, and that she doesn't see herself sitting, as a reporter suggested, on the "other side of the table" from where she sat before.
"To me, it's a round table," she said. "I have the same commitment in everything that I've done, a student-focused commitment. I ask the same questions: What can we do better for students of every field, age, background, part of the country? How can we advance the same issues I pursued at the department: access, affordability, outcomes. What can each player in the ecosystem contribute so it can be done smoothly, effectively, in a nuanced way with as little burden as possible."
Studley acknowledges that the administration she was most recently a part of put a lot of pressure on accreditors and the colleges that make up their members; in July 2015, then Education Secretary Arne Duncan called accreditors "the watchdogs that don't bark" (mimicking the title of a harshly critical article in The Wall Street Journal), and steadily upped the pressure on them to scrutinize colleges' success in helping students get jobs and repay loans.
Many accrediting officials and college leaders pushed back, arguing that the federal government was continuing a decade-long push to transform the agencies into federal regulatory bodies rather than peer reviewers focused on institutional self-improvement.
Studley admits to a misstep or two of her own. Her comment to a group of private college presidents that a rating system for colleges might draw from other regimes that assess products based on a complex mix of multiple dimensions -- like Consumer Reports or Cook's Illustrated's reviews of blenders -- became a mini cause célèbre.
But ultimately, Studley believes that she maintained a good relationship with her new peers in the accrediting world during this contentious time, and that the "sense that I was candid, professionally respectful and looking at how we could do things better in the interest of students came across."
"The conversations that the department and accreditors had back in fall 2015 made us all realize that there's room for improvement on every side" -- states, the feds themselves, and accreditors and colleges, Studley said.
And she asserts that accreditors have responded. "As we saw with the Scorecard, once you get people's attention, and start asking the right questions and focusing on things that really matter," she said, "people who are in this enterprise because they care about students, about colleges and universities, will move in positive directions."
At least one accreditor -- Brittingham, of the New England group -- says she's "thrilled" that Studley will be a peer, and that having her and Mitchell representing higher education "will be of great benefit."
Under Studley's predecessors, Ralph A. Wolff and Mary Ellen Petrisko, the Western association, which accredits roughly 200 four-year colleges and universities in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands (wholly separate from the troubled agency that accredits California's community colleges), has in many ways been out in front of pushing the boundaries of accreditation accountability. Under Wolff, the agency became the first regional accreditor to post all of its institutional reports publicly, and under Petrisko, the Western agency pioneered a graduation rate dashboard for all of its institutions.
"[WSCUCU] means to continue to be a leader and to play a constructive part in the wider conversation," Studley said of the agency she is inheriting. But she thinks her peers are buying in, too.
"I think there's been a recognition of the urgency of doing better on these issues," she said. "One reason I think it's a good time to do this is that [WSCUC] has been a leader, but it's not alone in being prepared to accelerate effective practices, to demonstrate confidence that accreditation serves the role it has and to make the case for the value of the higher education."
Reed Dasenbrock, former vice chancellor for academic affairs and now a professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is chairman of WSCUC. He called the selection of Studley a "sit up and take notice hire," designed to signal, in response to what he called a "broadly based, bipartisan critique," that "we’re not our father’s accreditor."
Dasenbrock said accreditors are at what he called both a "fork in the road" and, at the same time, a bit of a "false dichotomy."
"There's this sense that we're faced with two choices: either hunker down and tend to our own garden, ignoring the swirls of controversy around us, or lean into the public conversation about our value" and change dramatically in response to it, he said.
Some of the criticisms of accreditation are well founded, and others less so, Dasenbrock continued. The appropriate response, he said, is to "continue to change as we've been, because higher education is changing and institutions are changing, and at the same time to contest criticisms that are based on inaccurate information."
In selecting a new leader, he said, the commission's leaders thought they might have to choose between "someone who knows how accreditation works and why it matters and wants to continue doing all the innovative things we've been doing," and that can "be a voice in the national conversations about how accreditation needs to improve, which we can't afford not to be part of."
Choosing Studley as president, Dasenbrock said, essentially allowed the accreditor to follow the brilliant advice of the late Yogi Berra: "When you come to the fork in the road, take it … She can help us simultaneously defend the institution and critique the institution, do the work of improving it. She's the perfect president for the moment."