Saying she believes the United States needs a “comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education,” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Monday announced the formation  of a national commission on the future of higher education.
In a speech  at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Spellings said the 19-member panel, an eclectic mix of business executives, current and former college presidents, higher education researchers and experts on minority students, would explore such issues as student access, college prices, and how well the higher education system is “preparing our students to compete in the new global economy.” The panel’s first meeting is scheduled for October 17 in Washington.
Spellings went out of her way to say that in creating the commission, she was “not advocating a bigger role for the federal government in higher education,” which has long been seen as a world leader in large part because it is so decentralized, promoting competition and innovation. But the education secretary also made clear – in language that is likely to make some college leaders nervous – that an underlying premise behind the panel’s creation is that the federal government has every right to examine academe more closely.
“Most people don't realize that federal dollars make up about one-third of our nation's total annual investment in higher education,” compared to the less than 10 percent the government puts toward the national cost of elementary and secondary education, Spellings said. “But unlike K–12 education, we don't ask a lot of questions about what we're getting for our investment in higher education.”
“It is time,” she added, “to examine how we can get the most out of our national investment.”
To undertake that examination, Spellings has turned to top officials at corporations like IBM, Microsoft and Boeing, former college presidents such as James J. Duderstadt of the University of Michigan and Charles M. Vest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocates for minority and other underrepresented students, including Kati Haycock of the Education Trust and Sara Martinez Tucker of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and ex-politicians like James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina.
The panel includes two sitting college presidents -- Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College, and Robert Mendenhall, president of the online Western Governors University – as well as Jonathan Grayer, CEO and chairman of Kaplan, Inc., which among other things is a for-profit provider of higher education. David Ward, head of the American Council on Education, higher education’s umbrella lobbying group, is also a member.
College groups had relatively little to say about the national commission, mostly because they knew virtually nothing about it. (Ward told a group of officials from other higher education associations Monday morning that he could offer little insight on its goals.) Members of the panel apparently were approached in late August and have received only a brief form letter outlining its mission in the broadest terms. The commission grew out of two roundtables that Spellings organized, an April one in Washington and a more recent one in Denver, for government officials, university officials and policy makers.
Higher education officials who did have something to say about the panel offered a range of perspectives. Ruth Flower, a top official at the American Association of University Professors, said the faculty group was concerned by the heavy representation of corporate leaders and for-profit higher education officials, and the American Federation of Teachers, in a letter to Spellings, complained about its dearth of voices representing rank and file faculty members who are on the front lines.
While several of the former college presidents on the panel are now professors, the only full-time professors on the panel are Arturo Madrid of Trinity University, who is an expert on Hispanic education and a former Education Department official, Robert Zemsky, an expert on higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who writes widely and critically about rising college prices, among other things. (In fact, he and David Ward have been sniping at each other in the pages of The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks over an op-ed that Vedder wrote on tuition prices. The meeting planner might want to make sure someone sits between them.)
From a slightly different angle, Neal McCluskey, an education policy maker at the Cato Institute, expressed concern that the panel would involve the federal government more in the goings-on of a higher education system that has benefited from operating in a relatively free market. "This would be taking higher education in exactly the opposite direction of where we'd want it to go," he said.
"The reason American is still considered by far the leading system in the world is because there's so much competition -- no direction from a single government entity saying, 'All colleges have to do X, and our national goals are Y.' Students are choosing which innovations they like, and they're not all getting the same USDA-approved higher education that has everything the leaders in Washington think is appropriate."
Heading up the national panel -- and in the potentially unenviable position of weaving together those and other widely varying perspectives -- will be Charles Miller, an investment executive who until last year was chairman of the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents, a position to which he was appointed by then Gov. George W. Bush.
Miller said the intensifying talk among business leaders about America's declining competitiveness and the public's increasing concern about rising college prices are "pretty strong signals" that "something isn't quite right" in American higher education. "It's not a surprise that somebody alert to what’s going on in America would say we need to talk about this more," he added.
While he understood that the idea of a national commission might provoke concern among some people in higher education about heightened federal intervention, "the federal government isn't going to run the higher education system," and "we're deregulation and local control people," Miller said. And while it's true that decentralization has been a hallmark of the American higher education system, he said, "we have a long tradition of federal support for higher ed," and "the idea that our system somehow happened by osmosis" is off-base.
He added: "Accountability and deregulation go together."
The members of the new commission are:
- Carol Bartz, chairman and CEO, Autodesk, Inc.
- Nicholas Donofrio, executive vice president for innovation and technology, IBM
- James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus and director of the Millennium Project, U. of Michigan
- Gerri Elliott, corporate vice president, worldwide public sector, Microsoft
- Jonathan Grayer, CEO and chairman, Kaplan, Inc.
- Kati Haycock, director, The Education Trust
- James B. Hunt, Jr., chairman, Hunt Institute for Educational Policy and Leadership, former governor of North Carolina
- Arturo Madrid, Murchison Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Trinity U. (Tex.)
- Robert Mendenhall, president, Western Governors University
- Charles Miller, private investor; former chairman, U. of Texas System Board of Regents
- Charlene R. Nunley, president, Montgomery College
- Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president and counselor to the president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; president emeritus, Lafayette College
- Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration, Boeing
- Louis M. Sullivan, president emeritus, Morehouse School of Medicine; former secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Sara Martinez Tucker, president and CEO, Hispanic Scholarship Fund
- Richard Vedder, adjunct scholar, American Enterprise Institute; professor of economics, Ohio U.
- Charles M. Vest, president emeritus and professor of mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- David Ward, president, American Council on Education
- Robert Zemsky, chair and professor, the Learning Alliance, U. of Pennsylvania