WASHINGTON -- When student aid advocates and federal officials gathered here in early January for the year’s first round of negotiations over new federal rules, Education Department representatives were quick to point out that a familiar face was missing.
A few days earlier, Daniel Madzelan, a senior department official, had retired after 33 years of helping shape federal education policy for six presidents and nine education secretaries.
The department’s most prominent figures are its political appointees, the secretary and his or her assorted Senate-confirmed assistants and deputies. But those posts are a revolving door: the longest-serving education secretary held the job for eight years. It’s the career staff who stay on, shaping the department’s policies under different administrations with divergent priorities, with a unique perspective on how the federal government has approached higher education in recent decades.
Madzelan had many titles throughout his long career, including a stint as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education; he retired as a senior analyst. He started work just as then-President Carter was centralizing what was then the federal Office of Education, and was present for the Education Department’s creation, its rise to greater prominence during the Clinton administration and its recent foray into regulation without legislation.
Among student aid advocates and others in higher education, Madzelan gained a reputation as a straight talker, unusually open to listening to institutions’ concerns -- even on contentious issues, including the switch to direct lending and increased regulation of for-profit colleges -- and perpetually willing to represent the department’s position in discussions with college groups.
“He worked through many different administrations, and through all of them he remained a consistent voice of reason, no matter what the proposals were from every administration,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “He didn’t try to dress anything up other than what it was. That earned him a lot of respect in our community.”
Madzelan joined the Office of Education in September 1978 and began working with the Bureau of Student Financial Assistance (now Federal Student Aid) on campus-based programs. But the newly created department had a much narrower focus than it would in later years, and in 1986 even opted to stay out of the Congressional amendments to the Higher Education Act, choosing to pursue policy through the budget process, Madzelan said.
The department’s focus shifted abruptly when President Clinton was elected in 1992, after campaigning on a platform that included student loan repayment based on income and national service programs. Clinton’s election led to an explosion of departmental and legislative activity: establishing income-contingent repayment, planting the seeds of the direct lending program, and creating tax credits for higher education.
“We’d just never had that focus and interest from an administration to the higher ed side,” Madzelan said. When the deputy education secretary, Madeleine Kunin, met with the career higher education staff in February 1993, it was a first. “It was very clear that to the incoming administration, higher education was very important,” he said.
When George W. Bush took office in 2001, the burst of new initiatives and programs briefly ceased, Madzelan said, replaced with a focus on administrative and procedural issues while the new administration pursued its elementary and secondary education agenda. The momentum on higher education picked up again in the second Bush term, including the report from Secretary Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007.
While many college leaders viewed the Bush administration's attempts to rewrite federal rules governing accreditation as a foray into regulating territory usually controlled by Congress, it was the Obama administration that almost immediately set out to reinvent how the Education Department does business, Madzelan said. When the administration, led by deputy undersecretary Robert Shireman, announced its intent to regulate for-profit colleges although another round of negotiated rule making was already under way, department officials were in uncharted territory.
“With gainful employment, we were doing stuff we’ve never done before,” Madzelan said. Entering a negotiated rule-making process based on a phrase -- “gainful employment” -- in the Higher Education Act, rather than new, specific Congressional legislation, “as an intellectual exercise, there’s nothing to compare to that,” he said.
Many in Congress viewed Spellings' attempts to change accreditation to focus on student learning outcomes to be pushing outside the bounds of Congressional authority. But Congress had expressed an interest in regulating student academic achievement with its version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2005, although that provision didn't make it to the final law, Madzelan said. In defining "gainful employment," a longstanding statutory term, the Education Department was venturing into an area that Congress had never even attempted to regulate, he said.
Officials in the Obama administration had assumed that existing higher education legislation would not be changed, and decided to work within its constraints through rule-making and other regulatory changes, he said. (Simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- which many career officials had assumed would require legislation, and which was accomplished instead by overhauling the online application and linking data with the Internal Revenue Service -- is another example.)
"Those of us in the agency said, 'You've got to change the law,' " Madzelan said. "As opposed to, 'Let's assume we can't change the law. What can we do?' That was the different thinking."
During part of the debate over gainful employment, Madzelan was serving as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education. Although he and for-profit colleges frequently disagreed, he was “open and honest and fair,” said Tammy Halligan, regulatory affairs director for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.
“He tried to be understanding and respectful of where we were coming from,” said Halligan, who worked with Madzelan on federal issues for 10 years through various bouts of rule making and regulation. “He knew we were advocating for our students and our schools the way other associations do, that we were trying to get the best outcome.”
The decision had a political dimension in choosing to circumvent Congress, Madzelan acknowledged. But he and other career staff were generally excluded from the political discussions.
“They wouldn’t put you, the career person, in that sort of partisan political argument,” he said. “My guess is there were not any sort of career people in the room when decisions were made to take an approach that might be viewed as thumbing your nose at the Congress or at the statute.”
Madzelan approved of this approach, calling it “very exciting” and saying Duncan was his favorite of the nine secretaries he’s worked for. But he acknowledged that pursuing policies via regulation and rule-making, rather than through legislation, was a departure for the department.
To some, the department’s regulation of for-profit colleges appeared increasingly political, with Congress recently joining the fray by attempting to overturn two program integrity rules. While Madzelan said that as a career official he was not involved in political discussions, he said that the Obama administration was more “policy-active” than its predecessor, but was not particularly partisan.
“I wonder if the perception is that it’s become more politicized,” he said. The department itself and the policies it pursues have not become partisan, he said. But as partisan warfare has intensified in Washington, higher education has become part of the crossfire and is viewed as more political than in the past (when higher education bills would routinely pass Congress with wide margins). The perception results from the overall environment, he said.
Madzelan, who frequently spoke at conventions of for-profit and nonprofit college groups, was occasionally the target of campus leaders' frustration. But he continued to do outreach for the department and was known as a good listener.
“Dan was one of the most accessible federal employees that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” said Cynthia J. Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Madzelan once spoke at an AJCU board meeting held on a Friday night in January, with a heavy snow falling, when he wouldn’t have been blamed for canceling, she said. “He went out of his way to spread the word and represent the department on multiple fronts.”