WASHINGTON -- On the day that Education Secretary Arne Duncan made his first public appearance before a higher education group Tuesday, speaking at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities here, a financial aid expert and Clinton White House veteran began a key -- if temporary -- role in the Obama Education Department.
Tuesday was Robert Shireman's first day as a consultant and senior adviser to Secretary Duncan, a status he assumed after playing a central role  on postsecondary education issues in now-President Obama's transition. Because Duncan and his team have relatively little experience in higher education, and most of the department's key positions related to higher education (notably under secretary for education and assistant secretary for postsecondary education) remain unfilled, Shireman assumes a key role in the early days of the new administration.
He joins Marshall S. (Mike) Smith, who was under secretary of education in the Clinton administration and spent most of the past decade heading the education program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, on what are expected to be 3-to-6 month stints helping to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Education Department until the key permanent positions under Duncan are filled and confirmed. So far, Obama has nominated people  to fill two assistant secretary positions, for communications (Peter Cunningham, who worked with Duncan in Chicago) and policy and planning (Carmel Martin, who headed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's education staff), but most of the dozens of political appointments are unfilled. Legions of permanent, "career" employees, of course, remain at the department.
Shireman is founder and president of the Institute for College Access and Success , which has quickly become an influential voice in policy discussions, both federally and in some states, about financial aid, student loans, and other issues related to students’ ability to go to college. Through its research and advocacy, it has prodded changes in federal policy related to income-based repayment of student loans and simplification of the federal student aid process, and held colleges accountable for their success (or lack of it)  in enrolling low-income students.
Shireman said in an interview Tuesday that -- given that it was his first day -- the exact shape and structure of the job were uncertain. He said he envisioned "advising the secretary on policy decisions that need to be made now," before permanent appointees fill their jobs. While Shireman's extensive experience in higher ed policy will certainly play some role as department officials craft plans in the weeks ahead, his main role may lean more on his previous work in the White House National Economic Council during the Clinton administration.
The department, like most major agencies in the new Obama administration, will be trying to juggle numerous major tasks in the months ahead, and doing so without appointed leaders familiar with higher education: developing a 2009-10 budget (something that career staff have surely been working on for months); figuring out how to carry out what could amount to a doubling of funds depending on the size and shape of the economic stimulus package; and undertaking a process of negotiation  over rules to implement the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which created dozens of new higher education programs and will require enormous coordination of new and existing rules.
Shireman, who was widely expected to play a significant role in higher education in a Democratic administration, has maintained for months that he did not plan to return to Washington full time, citing family considerations and a desire not to leave California. "I'm looking at this as a temporary job," he said Tuesday.