It’s strange to be looking back while we’re still in the middle of the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, but the hiatus since the Senate passed its version of the legislation is the first chance those of us interested in higher education policy and quality assurance have had to catch our breath in almost two years.
Certainly the almost unending stream of initiatives from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, beginning with the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, and then, in quick succession, the commission summits, the big changes at the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, negotiated rulemaking on accreditation and the HEA have kept us alert, attentive -- and scared.
The secretary wanted quantitative measures of learning and performance metrics, and we in higher education were hard pressed to establish that currently available learning measures were not reliable, valid or comprehensive. It took all we had to explain that her goal of ensuring comparability on learning measures among the many differing types of institutions would create a ‘one size fits all’ model for higher education, and lead to tragically misleading results. We faced, and faced down, pressure for a level of transparency that would compromise accreditation.
These last few months have not been a happy time: purgatory never is. But things look a lot better when it’s over. For the first time in decades, the ferment, the scrutiny and criticism of higher education made headlines. The debate, the close examination of ideas and the resulting clarification turned out to be immensely helpful. Suddenly, the negative implications of the new proposals became clear, and college and university presidents in unprecedented numbers came to the defense of a diverse and independent American higher education.
The learning outcomes language that emerged from the Senate, substantially unchanged from current law, could never have come about were it not for the fact that everyone understood the stakes. The debate, the controversy, the proposals and even the intrusion all played their part.
In essence, Secretary Spellings did what education secretaries are supposed to do: she pushed higher education higher on the nation’s agenda, she stimulated a cauldron of healthy controversy, and she energized our college and university leadership in a way I haven’t seen before.
I was one of those who disagreed most vigorously (but respectfully, I hope) with some of the secretary’s initiatives. And if circumstances warrant, I will not hesitate to venture an opposing view in the future.
For the time being, retrospect has its own prerogative. Surveying the temporarily empty playing field, I would empathetically score one for the secretary.
Bernard Fryshman is executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools’ Accreditation Commission and a professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.
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