Margaret Spellings's Vision for Higher Education

What might the new head of a leading university system do as president? Johann Neem looks at her federal commission's report for clues, and is not heartened.

October 27, 2015

In the week between the revelation that the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors was looking at former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to lead the 16-campus system and her ultimate selection last Friday, most of the reporting and commentary focused on whether the board and the presidential search committee were following procedures.

Now that she has been selected to run one of the country’s best-respected public university systems, however, we need to understand her vision for the future of American higher education. As secretary, Margaret Spellings put together one of the most high-profile commissions on higher education in American history. In 2006, the commission issued the Spellings Report, or as it is formally known, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”

That document sought to transform the purpose and structure of American higher education to, in the report’s words, ensure “future economic growth.”


At the heart of the report is the desire to transform universities so that they serve solely the needs of the market. Students need credentials and skills to get ahead and employers want programs and research that meet their needs. Thus, the report seeks a higher education system “that creates new knowledge, contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and empowers citizens.”

It becomes clear, however, that only the central phrase matters. There is nothing in the report that recognizes the need for basic noncommercial research in the arts and sciences, or that states why intellectual inquiry is good on its own terms. And citizenship barely registers in the rest of the document.

The commission's report completely ignores the American tradition of liberal general education. In fact, the phrases “liberal education” and “liberal arts” do not even appear in the document. Citizens, then, need to be empowered to get ahead, but not to be part of a democratic polity.

While the report seeks to promote “social mobility,” it does not seek to offer more students access to the knowledge offered by a college education but to develop what the report calls “intellectual capital.” This is made clear by what the report states to be the “value of higher education” -- to feed the “new knowledge-driven economy.”

In fact, the civic and other benefits of higher education are presented as a byproduct and not a purpose of higher education. In the section “Findings Regarding the Value of Higher Education,” at the end of a long list concerning “the transformation of the world economy” and the relationship between degrees and salaries, the report acknowledges as an afterthought that higher education “produces broader social gains.” Yet the report clearly places the civic and cultural purposes of higher education as secondary to the economic: “Colleges and universities are major economic engines, while also serving as civic and cultural centers.”

In the section entitled “Findings Regarding Learning,” the meaning of citizenship is linked to people “who are able to lead and compete in the 21st-century global marketplace,” not who care and think deeply about the public welfare because they have received a serious general education in the arts and sciences. According to the report, the purpose of learning is not to gain wisdom, ethics or insight, but to develop intellectual capital, or, stated more clearly, to reduce one’s mind into a profit-generating entity that improves one’s own salary while serving the needs of American business.


The Spellings Report recognizes that higher education exists in a “consumer-driven environment,” but rather than resist the commodification of education, the report instead uses this as context to argue that student consumers care little about “whether a college has for-profit or nonprofit status” and whether classes are online or in buildings. But students are not consumers but students, and institutions of learning have the responsibility to educate those who do not yet know what they are seeking nor what they need. To treat education as just another market good is to mistake its very nature.

Because the commissioners expected resistance from traditional higher education institutions, the report embraces all the buzzwords that have come to be associated with the idea of disruptive innovation. Its authors presume that higher education is a “mature enterprise.” “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril,” did not respond to a changing society, the report warns. New technology and global competition mandate a fundamental transformation of education institutions. Given the growing cost of tuition and that “the prospects for a return to a time of generous state subsidies are not good,” the report urges “a focused program of cost cutting and productivity improvements.”

The question, then, is how these cuts and productivity gains will be achieved. While the report does not explicitly advocate doing away with expensive things like faculty members with tenure and academic freedom and campuses with classrooms in which students interact with teachers, these goals are hinted at. The report explicitly embraces “new providers and new paradigms, from for-profit universities to distance learning.” It urges states to promote “both traditional and electronic delivery of college courses in high school.”

The report aspires to see “the dissemination of technological advances in teaching that lower costs on a quality-adjusted basis.” It urges the elimination of “regulatory and accreditation barriers to new models in higher education that will increase supply and drive costs down.” That final phrase refers to institutions like Western Governors University, which, as I have argued elsewhere, eliminates the traditional role of faculty members, offers no meaningful liberal education and outsources curricular design. (Western Governors’ president, Robert Mendenhall, was one of the report's commissioners.)

Finally, the report embraces the accountability movement. It advocates a national “consumer-friendly” database, a recommendation that President Obama has made one of his priorities. His recent College Scorecard offers the public information about institutions’ cost, graduation rates and graduates’ salaries, reinforcing the Spellings Report’s presumption that a successful college generates intellectual capital as measured by graduates’ earnings.


The Spellings Commission’s ideas and conclusions did not, of course, emerge from terra nova. For decades, the “culture wars” have convinced conservative critics that liberal professors in the liberal arts are not to be trusted. But if the professors can’t be trusted, policy makers have had to find a group of people they could trust. They found those people in the business community. Yet business leaders are no less biased than college professors.

While many in the business world no doubt value their own liberal education, when it comes to higher education, at least according to the Spellings Report, employers want graduates that meet the workforce’s needs. They want skills, but there is nothing in the report to suggest that the report’s authors (nor its sponsors, like Spellings) nor employers care about the actual knowledge and insights that come from a good college education.

The shift to treating higher education as a consumer good also reflects a broader decline in our faith in the authority of the university. Faculty members themselves lost faith that they have something to teach young people. Over time, core curricula gave way to electives, as exemplified by Brown University’s 1969 New Curriculum, which removed all general requirements in order to empower students to find their own way to the truth. Brown’s approach at least was intellectual, but across America, colleges and universities sought to appeal to consumer tastes. They offered the programs that students wanted along with the pools, climbing walls and other amenities that they desired. It is not surprising that business is today the largest undergraduate major in America.

Finally, the UNC case demonstrates a changing understanding of the role of trustees. Groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have urged university trustees to play a more active managerial role in shaping the university. They urge trustees to defer less to presidents and faculty. Yet, as the former University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III wrote in the wake of the UVa Board of Visitors’ own efforts at disruptive innovation, “trustees are fiduciaries -- legally responsible for assets, financial and other. As a condition of office, they accept obligations to sustain assets that do not belong to them, and to serve the interests of others.” They are “people with obligations, not people with powers.” And at the heart of their obligation is to ensure that the institutions with which they are entrusted carry out their purpose.

The End of the University?

But what is that purpose? Trusteeship entails responsibility for that purpose, not efforts at disrupting it. According to Margaret Spellings, universities do not exist to cultivate the life of the mind. Intellectual exploration does not count if it cannot be commercialized or be proven to generate “intellectual capital.” In reality, Spellings’s report offers a vision of the university without its academic purposes, personnel and practices. In short, Spellings forces us to ask whether American universities ought to be academic institutions. And by hiring her, the members of UNC’s Board of Governors have made their answer to that question known.

But for those of us who think that universities exist for academic purposes -- to teach academic knowledge and skills, to pass on academic virtues, and to sustain academic research -- the stakes could not be higher. Spellings offers an anti-intellectual understanding of the university. For Americans who think intellectual life still matters, there are two choices: fight back and, if that fails, take the academy into exile.


Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.


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