WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's highest-ranking higher education official, Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, is the latest in a string of departures  that has left the executive branch's higher education team awfully thin. An e-mail message to colleagues Tuesday evening said that she would "return to academia" this fall, but provided no details about where she would land.
Kanter, who joined the Education Department in 2009  from her position as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, was said at the time to be the first community college official to reach such a high rank within the agency.
During her time at the department, she took an active role in issues that had been near and dear to her as a California community college leader, leading the administration's efforts to bolster two-year institutions (many of which stalled amid budget constraints ) and promoting the use of open educational resources to try to lower textbook costs. She has remained highly accessible to higher education officials, who characterized her as someone who fully grasped their issues even as she pursued policies (like the one setting a federal definition of the "credit hour") with which campus leaders vehemently disagreed.
"She was the one person who really, truly understood what goes on on a college and university campus," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "She was always somebody who was easy to reach and talk to about the impact the administration's policies might have."
Kanter leaves the department at a time when, as she described it in her e-mail, the administration has an "ambitious statutory, regulatory and administrative agenda," including a redo of its botched effort to require vocational programs to prove that they are preparing students for "gainful employment" and the pending renewal of the Higher Education Act. President Obama has also stepped up his rhetoric promising a campaign to constrain higher education prices and compel colleges and universities to prove their value.
How the administration expects to undertake a multifaceted effort on those and other fronts with vacancies in its top two higher education political positions (Kanter's job and the assistant secretary for postsecondary education) and after the loss of several of its most senior career service officials is hard to fathom.
Hartle described Kanter's departure on top of the others as "very worrisome" given the agency's ambitious plans.