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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

2 of 3 Stories

Who Is Leading?
College presidents and higher education policy

By Robert H. Atwell and Jane V.Wellman

After a time when the elementary and secondary education agenda has dominated the public policy agenda, the next decade promises to be a time of increased attention to postsecondary education. Several very serious issues are already clearly on the agenda: how the next generation of students will be accommodated (through distance learning, community colleges or four-year institutions); how their education will be financed; how quality will be assured; and how the effectiveness of teaching and learning will be measured.

Most of this will occur at the state level, but there will be a national and federal dimension as well.Yet the leaders in the higher education establishment, notably the presidents of major institutions, are not prepared to enter into conversations about public policy and higher education. Accustomed to speaking only on matters of institutional self-interest, most presidents have opted out of the larger policy conversations at both the national and state level.

In their absence, governors and legislators (and, more often, their staffs) are making decisions about how to accommodate—and pay for—the next generation of college students, about institutional governance, and accountability structures. These decisions would benefit from the thoughtful participation of college presidents, who know a good deal about what works (or doesn’t) in higher education.Without their involvement, the results will almost inevitably be a continuation of status quo patterns for higher education, usually to the advantage of politically connected research universities and selective private colleges, and to the detriment of community colleges and low-income students.

College presidents do an effective job of advocating for the interests of their institutions, but they rarely venture into larger policy issues.And it is almost unimaginable for a president to advocate a public policy initiative which, while better serving the larger interests of the state or the nation, could be seen as having an adverse effect on the institution he or she serves.

But the public interest and institutional self-preservation and promotion are not always in harmony: Both are worthy causes, but they are occasionally in conflict, and they certainly are not synonymous. For instance, the major issues that will frame the higher education public policy agenda for the next decade are not single institutional or sector interests, but ones that transcend K–12 and all of higher education: how to maintain quality and integrity in the college degree in a market increasingly driven by student consumers; whether distance learning and technical education are viable alternatives to the baccalaureate degree for the majority of new students; roles and responsibilities of the federal and state governments with regard to student aid; and preparing future faculty. The issues are not confined to educational policy, but affect the intersection of educational policy with larger issues of state finance.

There are very few college or university presidents in the country who are prepared to step up to lead public policy agendas on these issues. As one point of evidence, consider the reactions to the National Report Card on state performance and higher education, issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which was greeted with what could only be called deafening silence from the college and university presidents.Those who did speak up generally did so to criticize the report for failing to note the differences in performance between institutions and sectors within states.The message from college presidents seems to be that preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits and learning— the elements of the Report Card—are either not relevant or are someone else’s problem.

There are reasons why this generation of leaders is so loath to play a public policy role, and not all of the problem originates within higher education.

  • Their most important responsibility is to raise and protect the resources available to their institution. This means fundraising from public and private sources. The last thing any politically astute president would want to do (and most are quite politically astute) is to take positions which their employers and other public and private patrons might find offensive.Keeping one’s head down seems wiser than taking risks.

  • The jobs of system heads—those public sector jobs for presidents and chancellors who have primary responsibility for working with the state and federal governments and for overall institutional planning—have become almost impossibly politically complicated. Many of these presidents and chancellors live with uncomfortable ideological divisions within their boards, as well as tepid support from campus presidents and faculty within the institutions.They learn to survive by picking two or three issues where they have the best chance of making a contribution before their political capital runs out. Since they have just about the same chance of being hit by fire from the rear as from the front, this leaves them with little maneuvering room in public policy arenas.

  • Institutional autonomy is viewed in almost theological terms, and this translates into the view that the path to excellence is to be found through competition and promotion of individual institutions rather than through collaborations across sectors. College presidents and institutional governing boards have generally resisted efforts to strengthen state higher education planning and policy agencies, viewing them as extensions of a state bureaucracy bent on seeking power for their own promotion. Never mind that weak state coordinating and planning capacity results in an ultimate strengthening of the power of governors and legislators, who are forced to preside as final arbiters in the Darwinian atmosphere of state decision-making. In this atmosphere, the politically strongest— those with the strongest alumni base, the best football teams and the biggest capacity to marshal extramural funding—are best able to prevail.

  • At the federal level, where there is little general institutional funding, presidents generally defer to the Washington associations to represent their interests on public policy issues. However, it is very difficult for membership-based associations to do much to advance any agenda which advantages one sector over another and leads to publicly embarrassing squabbling between institutions. The associations have learned to navigate around the most sensitive issues by deferring to “lead associations” to carry the water on their collective behalf (such as community colleges on workforce development, or research universities on graduate education).This leaves them in an almost entirely reactive posture, and they typically fire up their public policy capacity only to kill the occasional wacky idea that emanates from some think tank or staff member.The agenda that emerges has a weary predictability to it, and almost guarantees that new initiatives are ones that fit well within the existing division of labor in higher education. Since the cross-sector issues that require new attention do not fit within that division, the status quo prevails.

  • The last two decades have been characterized by a de-emphasis on public policy solutions in all areas of government except for elementary and secondary education.This has been a time of romance with the presumed benefits of market-based approaches —in contrast to those that are regulated or managed.This hasn’t been all bad in higher education, and has helped to get rid of (or to reduce the roles of) some of the overly regulatory state agencies. But the industry has become accustomed to viewing public policy as a zero-sum game to be played almost entirely defensively: The job is to protect the status quo, increase institutional funding and stamp out bad ideas.

How would we get from here to there, given all the factors at work that inhibit presidential participation in a serious agenda of public policy affecting higher education? Progress would begin with a willingness on the part of governing boards to encourage their chief executives to participate in public policy debates that go beyond—and even occasionally work against—institutional self-interest. That is a big order, but without such encouragement, presidents will continue to hunker down.

A second route is to be sure that in every state there is at least a coordinating mechanism with responsibility for statewide planning and accountability reporting for K–16 education. This does not mean a return to “super boards” with governing as well as broad policy authority, but it does require new attention to the importance of planning and accountability structures that cross institutional and sector boundaries. In addition, states should have organizations which bring together the public and private college presidents with public school superintendents and chief state school officers and higher education coordinating bodies. These organizations may require some state funding and should be charged with addressing the kind of issues identified by the Report Card.

The last time America paid serious attention to the public policy agenda of higher education was in the 1960s—a time of building of institutions and programs. The junior colleges were vastly expanded in number and became community colleges with a broadened mission, and the “multiversities” grew and prospered. The student aid programs and the partnership between the federal government and the institutions were shaped. That agenda was championed by leaders in government at both the state and national level, but it was importantly shaped by sitting college presidents such as Clark Kerr at the University of California, Reverend Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame, and Robert McCabe at Miami-Dade Community College, who had credibility both with their peers and with elected officials.They spoke not just on behalf of their particular institutions, but about all of higher education and the social good.

The generational policy course has almost been run, and a new agenda needs to be built—one that is capable of guiding decisions for the next twenty years. Political will and intellectual capacity are needed from within higher education to step up to the responsibility.

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