Reshuffling the Deck at the Department

Frank Brogan, a former top higher ed official in Pennsylvania and Florida, will serve as U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education on an acting basis.

February 1, 2018
 
Frank Brogan, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education

The Education Department on Wednesday announced a reshuffling of key employees involved in federal higher education policy making.

The staffing moves are part of a retooling of leadership at the Office of Federal Student Aid, which oversees the government's $1.4 trillion student loan portfolio, but they also reflect the Trump administration's slow progress installing permanent leaders on postsecondary issues.

Kathleen Smith, who has served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education since June, was named deputy chief operating officer at the Federal Student Aid office. Replacing her, also on an acting basis, is Frank Brogan, who retired last year as chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The White House nominated Brogan in December as assistant secretary for K-12 at the department. But the Senate education committee has yet to vote on his nomination, so the department in the meantime has decided to put him to work on postsecondary issues. Rules governing the executive branch allow a political appointee awaiting confirmation to fill unrelated roles at an agency, and Brogan has an extensive résumé in both K-12 and higher ed policy.

Observers who follow the department say that assigning him those duties -- if only on a limited basis -- makes sense as a temporary fix for the department's lack of depth in political leadership.

A Jeb Bush political ally, Brogan served as Florida commissioner of education and, later, lieutenant governor. In that role, he oversaw education policy in the state. He also worked as president of Florida Atlantic University and, from 2009 to 2013, as chancellor of the State University System of Florida, which serves more than 300,000 students.

Brogan in 2013 jumped to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a 14-campus system serving more than 100,000 students.

"He is extremely qualified on both K-12 and higher ed," said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department. "We're just thrilled to have him on board."

John Cavanaugh, who preceded Brogan as chancellor of PASSHE, said Brogan provided effective leadership at the Pennsylvania system despite numerous challenges -- among them, a faculty strike and a budget impasse between the state Legislature and the governor.

"His extensive background in elementary and secondary education was a strong asset for the system, given that its heritage was teacher education," said Cavanaugh, who is now president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. "He is one of the few individuals with significant experience across the whole spectrum of education."

Brogan's approach as chancellor didn't always endear him to faculty in Pennsylvania, however. Under his leadership, faculty members at the 14 state institutions went on strike for the first time in their history -- partly in response to an attempt by the system to reduce the pay of instructors, particularly adjuncts.

Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, said Brogan has the requisite experience in higher education and understands the financial strain facing many universities. But professors felt he was not appreciative of the work they did, Mash said.

"I think among the faculty there was a sense that he wasn't a real advocate for increasing funding. Instead, he talked about what they were doing to eliminate programs and faculty, and things of that sort," he said.

Brogan also ruffled feathers by pushing for a study of the system's operations and declaring at the outset that all options were on the table, including campus closures. (The final report, released last year, did not recommend closing campuses.)

“I think he did what he needed to do -- or believed he needed to do -- in speaking to a Republican-majority Legislature,” Mash said. “But I can also say that among those in the system there was a sense, particularly among the faculty, that he wasn’t a good advocate for the universities.”

The move to place Brogan in a position of authority over higher education programs follows an announcement last week that A. Wayne Johnson, then head of the Federal Student Aid office, would step down as chief operating officer to lead a new strategy and information office within the organization. In that role Johnson will oversee several ambitious efforts, including the rollout of a mobile app and a prepaid card for federal student aid accounts and a restructuring of the federal loan servicing system. Jim Manning, the acting under secretary of education, will also pick up the responsibilities of chief operating officer at Federal Student Aid.

With Manning juggling multiple roles and unconfirmed appointees like Brogan plugging holes elsewhere at the department, some who follow federal education policy have questioned whether the administration is struggling to recruit political leadership one full year in.

According to data from the Partnership for Public Service, the Trump administration has made 14 nominations for political positions at the department -- roughly on pace with previous White House records -- but has had only four officially confirmed by the Senate, while four others have failed to be confirmed.

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the lack of high-level appointees would only matter if there was evidence that the Trump administration was interested in having a higher education agenda.

"But instead we've gotten gaslighting about how this is the only administration to talk about how postsecondary education is more than a bachelor's degree and a reflexive undoing of anything Obama did," Miller said. "Given that the only new higher education ideas we've seen have come out of FSA, I guess it makes sense to put the most knowledgeable senior higher education staffers they have over there."

But Jeff Andrade, a Republican consultant who has worked in the Department of Education and on Capitol Hill, said it's not at all unusual to see a long wait for a permanent assistant secretary for higher ed. And there hasn't been a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary in that role since July 2012.

"Let's also keep in mind that for the entire eight years of the Obama administration, there was only a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for two years and he did not start until a year and a half in," he said. "While Republicans generally have a little tougher time finding folks because higher ed is so flooded with Democrats, they didn't do so well finding appointees for this job, either. And even when they get one, they typically last only about two years or less."

Changes to the structure of the department have also reduced the prominence of the position, Andrade said, and many college presidents -- who would conceivably be qualified for the job -- no longer see the post as holding much prestige.

Vic Klatt, a principal at the Penn Hill Group and a former Hill staffer, called Brogan an "outstanding nominee" but said it was hard to see how he could effectively fill three different jobs -- deputy assistant secretary at the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, acting assistant secretary for higher ed, and, soon, assistant secretary for K-12.

"I’m not sure why they don’t just name him under secretary -- since that is effectively what he has now become -- and then finally find people to fill the other jobs, which are among the most important in the entire department," Klatt said.

Both the under secretary job -- currently filled by Manning -- and the deputy secretary job are currently vacant. The Senate education committee voted this month to advance to the full Senate the nomination of Mick Zais for deputy secretary.

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