National issues affecting higher education

06-22-2007

I’ve had several opportunities to visit Washington, D.C., in recent weeks. Once with our national championship hockey team and again to take part in meetings that addressed national issues affecting higher education. I know you’re well aware of the hockey team and its successes and that you share my pride in the team’s accomplishments. But it’s equally important that you be aware of key issues in higher education and how they’re being addressed at a national level.

On June 10, I attended a meeting of the National Higher Education Security Advisory Board. This group, composed of presidents and chancellors of several prominent U.S. universities, consults regularly with the national agencies responsible for security, intelligence and law enforcement to ensure the needs and values of institutions of higher education are well understood. The group also provides advice on developing a research agenda that can facilitate national security.

Over the next two days, I participated in meetings as a member of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) board. The discussions revolved around the continued focus in Washington, D.C.—by both Republicans and Democrats—on the perceived need for greater accountability to the public and the federal government on the part of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Following release last year of the Spellings Commission report, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” the U.S. Department of Education took the unusual approach of using the federal government’s “negotiated rulemaking process” to attempt to make far-reaching changes to the nation’s accreditation system. The new model would empower the federal government to set the standards for accreditation, replacing the long-standing peer-review model. While this might seem innocuous, in reality it would radically alter the nature of the relationship between the federal government and the higher-education community. It would allow the federal government to force accrediting agencies to demand a variety of new requirements on universities without ever negotiating directly with the universities.

The final session in the negotiated rulemaking process took place June 1. There was no consensus on the total package of issues advanced by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. As a result, the negotiated rulemaking failed. Despite this outcome, the department had indicated it would proceed with issuing its own proposed rules by early next month. Recently, however, the department bowed to warnings from Congress that it would move to block the department from promulgating or implementing rules ahead of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is underway, and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced in a letter that no rules will be issued. Meanwhile, the eventual legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is expected to reflect Congress’ growing concerns about accountability, access and transferability of credit.

The irony of this intense interest in increased federal involvement in higher education is sharp. The U.S. system of higher education is a shining star, the most creative and diverse in the world. It’s critical to American competitiveness. It has become too important, it seems, to be left to its own devices. But it’s the culture of peer-review by those informed enough to understand the varying missions of the many institutions involved and the lack of federal control that created the excellence that has been the envy of the world. Further, institutions of higher education exist in a competitive marketplace and are driven to strive always for greater success, which is surely a better incentive structure than regulated progress.

At MSU, we have long talked about the ways in which we create value and the importance of our covenant with the public in maintaining trust. Like other NASULGC universities, and in particular like our sister Association of American University (AAU) institutions that represent the top 62 universities in the world, our mission is complex. It encompasses research and discovery, undergraduate and graduate education in many modes, outreach, economic development and technology transfer. It isn’t a single activity in which we engage, but the interconnected way in which we execute all of these activities that is essential to the competitiveness of Michigan, the Great Lakes region and the United States. And helping our constituents understand the impact of our work in these areas generates support.

As we work to shape the ongoing and inevitable discussion in Washington, D.C., it’s important to reflect upon areas of agreement between the higher-education community and those who have the urge to regulate it. Universities embrace the value of communicating return on investment, and we also understand that the public and elected representation increasingly are looking for ways to compare with greater ease various institutions and the value they deliver. The AAU is working to establish voluntary and appropriate benchmarks that truly measure the value of the world’s top universities. These benchmarks will include data on student learning and outcomes, but also will reflect other critical contributions such as research dollars secured and economic development impact.

At the NASULGC board meeting, we spent a great deal of time discussing a revised voluntary accrediting system that would create a more evidence-based approach and yield comparable data for each institution accredited so that any member of the public could review our institutions and compare them on certain measures. This proposal will move to NASULGC’s Council of Academic Affairs this summer for further action.

While the Spellings Commission report certainly touches upon many issues that leaders in higher education and government should and do think about and work on daily, the policy direction the U.S. Department of Education has embarked upon is a misstep. No nation ever created world-leading colleges and universities by having the government take greater control of them and that certainly is counter to our history and our culture in the United States.

I want to end by saluting Judith Eaton, president for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, for the strong stand she has taken against the move to federalize accreditation. As a nongovernmental participant in the negotiated rulemaking process, she refused to agree to have the government define appropriate student-learning outcomes at the college or university level, set policy determining transfer of credit from institution to institution or expand the role of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which reviews accreditors for national recognition.

She spoke at the NASULGC board meeting, and we in higher education should be grateful to have such an articulate and staunch advocate for the value of peer review and the need for colleges and universities to have a voice in the accreditation process. She deserves enormous credit for helping shape the conversation in more positive directions over the last two years, and I have no doubt she’ll continue to play a key role in the critical months ahead.

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