A textual analysis of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's speeches would turn up innumerable uses of a few key words: reform, improvement and, increasingly, innovation. The status quo in education at all levels is not sufficient, Duncan and his colleagues in the Obama Education Department frequently assert, which is why the administration has created (or sought to create) several new competitive funds aimed at stimulating new ideas.
"I want the department ... to become an engine of innovation that recognizes success and scales up best practices at the local level," Duncan said in one (typical) speech  to the National Conference of State Legislatures in December.
In the eyes of some observers, the Obama administration's focus on innovation and improvement makes it all the more surprising that the Education Department is contemplating a plan that would further erode the relevance of a longtime force for innovation within its own walls: the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which has a nearly-40-year tradition  of supporting and expanding creative ideas  within higher education.
Under a restructuring of the Office for Postsecondary Education, department officials are expected to separate FIPSE's international programs  from the main comprehensive grant program, and each of the two separate divisions of the office would have a new layer of bureaucracy between it and the department's senior management.
Separating the two divisions would further fragment the fund, resulting in more competition between the politically popular international programs and the traditional comprehensive fund that has historically been a rare federal engine of innovation in undergraduate education. Given how the comprehensive grant program has already been undermined by Congressional earmarks  -- forcing cancellation of the main competition in two of the last four years -- the new changes will further minimize FIPSE's influence, its supporters fear.
"If this happens, we lose the only opportunity to reform undergraduate education -- the only [Education Department program] really meant to reform institutions, to help them make big changes, is FIPSE," says Diane Auer Jones, president and CEO of the Washington Campus,  who, as assistant secretary for postsecondary education late in the Bush administration, strengthened oversight of the postsecondary improvement office but says she recognized its value. "From where will the impetus for innovation come?"
Education Department officials declined to comment on the proposed structural and other changes within the postsecondary education office generally, and any potential impact on FIPSE specifically. But the department's leaders briefed senior officials in the agency on the restructuring (they were careful not to call it a "reorganization," which would require union clearance) in March, according to several people familiar with the department's plan.
According to officials who were briefed on the matter, department officials said the changes were designed both to respond to Congress's 2008 creation of the new position  of deputy assistant secretary for international and foreign language education and to clarify the department's administrative structure in advance of the arrival of a new assistant secretary for postsecondary education, Eduardo M. Ochoa, whose nomination was announced  by President Obama in February. Ochoa is now provost and vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State University, in California.
Under the draft of the proposal shared with senior employees in March, the Office of Postsecondary Education would be subdivided into three instead of the current two parts, adding an international and foreign language office to the existing offices of policy, planning and innovation and of higher education programs. The higher education programs office would then be subdivided further into "institutional services" and "student services," each with their own directors, adding another layer of middle management to the department's administrative structure.
The draft proposal would place FIPSE's comprehensive grant program under the institutional service branch, while the postsecondary improvement program's international grants initiative would become part of the new international office within the Office of Postsecondary Education.
The new arrangement could undermine FIPSE in several ways, say supporters of the fund inside and outside the department.
First, it would bury the fund under another layer of bureaucracy. The agency would report to (1) a director of the institutional service branch who would (2) report to the deputy assistant secretary of postsecondary education who oversees the higher education programs office, and only then (3) to the assistant secretary for postsecondary education. That would represent a steep fall from the days when FIPSE, in part because its Congressional supporters knew its mission of trying to stimulate innovation would be controversial, structured it so that the fund's leader reported to the government's top education official.
A 2002 history of FIPSE's early years,  published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, described it this way: "FIPSE's place within the federal hierarchy also played an important role. The organization's director reported directly to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of [Health, Education, and Welfare] for Education, rather than reporting through intermediate offices. This gave FIPSE a remarkable degree of independence and authority that normally would be given only to a much larger organization, and it also provided much easier access to the Secretary of HEW. But despite this high bureaucratic status, FIPSE remained a small organization with fewer than 15 or 20 staff members, allowing much more flexibility, informality, and creativity than would be possible within a larger organization."
Only a Washington policy wonk would probably care too deeply about the internal administrative structure of the Education Department. But even non-wonks know that money talks, and FIPSE advocates fear that the proposed change would exacerbate a set of circumstances that have significantly corroded the program's influence in recent years.
FIPSE has become a -- choose your phrase: "slush fund,"  dumping ground, haven -- for earmarks awarded without competition by members of Congress, eating away at the funds that are supposed to be awarded competitively to identify and reward innovation. Twice in the last four years, FIPSE officials have had to cancel the annual competition  in the main comprehensive program because so much of the fund's budget has been eaten up by Congressional awards; the agency could well be on that path again this year, given the tens of millions of dollars in FIPSE earmarks in the 2010 appropriations bills, according to Inside Higher Ed's earmark survey  last week.
The erosion of the comprehensive program has been worsened, some FIPSE advocates say, because, in FIPSE's internal competition for funds, the international program often gets priority for political reasons. Presidential administrations of all political persuasions have sometimes used FIPSE as a tool in their diplomatic relationships, creating "special focus" competitions to finance research related to various countries or regions, such as Russia  and the European Union .
If the department proceeds with its plan to detach the international program from the rest of FIPSE, putting the two branches under different leaders, the move could exacerbate the competition between the international and comprehensive grant programs -- a competition the main innovation fund is likely to lose, says Jones of the Washington Campus.
That would be a major loss, FIPSE's supporters say, and, in an administration that says it is committed to fostering innovation in higher education, an ironic one.