Operating Characteristics that Led to Success
By Charles I. Bunting, Lynn DeMeester, Russell Garth, Richard Hendrix,
David O. Justice, Ray Lewis, Grady McGonagill, Virginia B. Smith, and Carol Stoel
The legislative authority for what later became the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education was contained in the Educational Amendments of 1972-authorization to spend $10 million "to improve postsecondary educational opportunities by . . . encouraging the reform, innovation, and improvement of postsecondary education. . . ." This language was the surviving trace of the two versions of the proposal, never enacted or even taken very seriously by the full Congress, to establish a "National Foundation for Higher Education."
Truly an orphan of the legislative process, this authorizing language provided neither a structure nor even a name to give it identity within the cavernous bureaucracy of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Indeed, it is fair to say that the authorization to bring about "reform and innovation" was to be located and managed somewhere within a federal education bureaucracy that had a well-deserved reputation for anything but reform and innovation. The premise that such an ambitious and idealistic mission could even be approached within this, or perhaps any, area of the federal government seemed a bit preposterous to educators-those few who were aware of the existence of the new legislative authority and its tiny first appropriation of $10 million in program grant funds.
Yet by all accounts, throughout the 1970s and beyond, FIPSE emerged and sustained itself as a federal program unit with a distinctive reputation for its flexibility, its willingness to take risks, its high program integrity, and its "field orientation," among other attributes-and it did so within that same federal education bureaucracy. That FIPSE emerged and evolved in such a unique fashion was no accident-nor was the encompassing bureaucracy indifferent to its distinctive evolution (to borrow language from that era, FIPSE's evolution was not the result of "benign neglect").
Many helped to shape the organization. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Education and a planning team drawn from several units of HEW worked hard on the various options. Advice was sought outside the government as well. The planning group talked to many in higher education, and Sidney Marland, the assistant secretary of education, convened a group to advise him on the various options. In that group were Roger W. Heyns, president, American Council on Education; Morris Keeton, president, American Association of Higher Education; G. Theodore Mitau, chancellor, Minnesota State College System; Richard Hagemeyer, president, Central Piedmont Community College; K. Patricia Cross, senior research psychologist, Educational Testing Service; Virginia B. Smith, associate director, Carnegie Commission on Higher Education; Samuel Baskin, president, Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities; Frank Newman, chairman of the Newman Report and director of university relations, Stanford University; and Elias Blake, president, Institute for Services to Education. The recommendations of this group informed those of the planning group and Assistant Secretary Marland, who in turn passed them on to Secretary Elliot Richardson of Health, Education, and Welfare.
The recommendations made clear that in order for FIPSE's founders to have the opportunity to develop a program model which would "fit" its unique mission, several essential strategies needed to occur-and they did:
Before we turn in subsequent sections to program strategies, what were the key components of FIPSE's within-government organizational model?
- thoughtful options for effective implementation of the legislative authority were identified and analyzed;
- initial decisions and choices among those options were made at the departmental (Secretarial) level, somewhat blunting lower-level, narrow program interests; and
- FIPSE leadership and staff persisted in evolving an effective program model and protecting it within the encompassing bureaucracy.
FIPSE's level of funding was in great contrast to its mandate. In essence, FIPSE was asked to reform higher education with very few dollars. Yet its small size quickly proved to be a political asset; FIPSE was too small to be noticed by those who otherwise might seek to intervene inappropriately. Another virtue of small size was reflected in FIPSE's dominant strategy of awarding relatively small seed grants, which required significant support from within the grantee institutions, rather than large operational grants. This strategy, born of necessity when many strong proposals confronted few program dollars, had two salutary effects: individuals (and sometimes institutions) willing to strive for such small grants were very committed to their projects; and, again, the grants were far too modest to attract the "wrong" kind of interest within the famous Beltway. The small grants also carried less risk to the institutions applying for the grants: there was no unnecessary skewing of the institutional budget and, if the project was successful, the amount that would be needed to maintain it could probably be found in future institutional budgets.
- Unique organizational location. The HEW Secretary located the new program authority within the office of the new assistant secretary for education (ASE), also created in the Education Amendments of 1972, rather than within the established Office of Education (OE). Although the ASE was not a program unit and FIPSE still needed to rely upon the Office of Education's (OE) service units for processing staffing and resource needs, as well as the paperwork required for awarding grants and contracts, this placement strengthened FIPSE's arguments (and advocacy) for unique or differentiated approaches to program management. Organizationally on a parallel with the larger OE and National Institute for Education (NIE), this location also provided more direct access to higher authority when needed for protection or support. Additionally, this "outside" location helped FIPSE staff avoid much involvement in ongoing OE policy and program agendas and enabled them to devote that much more time and energy to FIPSE's own substantial needs.
- Field-oriented personnel. FIPSE developed and pursued a model for program personnel that represented a radical departure from the federal norm. FIPSE sought knowledgeable and experienced individuals from higher education to serve in key program positions, rather than those who had extensive civil service tenure but no experience in the field. Hiring from outside the civil service system required FIPSE's leadership to sustain a continuous battle within the federal bureaucracy and to devise creative solutions, such as establishing limited term "field" appointments and using existing internship programs in higher education and the nonprofit sector. As a corollary, some FIPSE personnel needed to be experienced in the ways of government, in order to protect and represent FIPSE's interests.
- Governance-style advisory board. FIPSE's founders gained approval to establish an external advisory board to help guide the program's policies and grant decisions. The original proposal to create a foundation had called for the creation of an external board in order to provide the foundation greater autonomy within the federal government. Although the final legislation did not afford FIPSE the same level of autonomy that the original proposal would have lent the foundation, it did grant the Secretary of HEW broad discretion in administering the newly authorized funds. Within this broad mandate, FIPSE managed to retain the trappings of autonomy. Although the board was technically advisory and had no ultimate authority, it functioned as if it were a governing board, and the caliber of individuals appointed to the board was consistent with that design. Furthermore, unlike some other foundation boards, a majority of the members were drawn from civic or public fields rather than from higher education. Higher education leaders were represented, but the mix was far more diverse in all respects than that of other boards at the time. The staff sought board approval for program guidelines and criteria, as well as for individual grant decisions that were either large, by FIPSE standards, or represented a new direction of funding. The role, stature, and image of the board, in turn, strengthened the staff's capacity to advocate for its priorities, to get approvals for unusual or "risky" grantees, and to resist pressures to award weak or non-competitive grants.
- The strengths of being "small." Throughout its first decade, FIPSE was extraordinarily free from political or other external pressures.
It must be added, however, that FIPSE's very survival-and particularly its flourish, if you will-was perilous. FIPSE's founders fashioned it to look like an agency, but in fact it could have been eliminated entirely by budget-writers in Congress or absorbed into another administrative unit at any time by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, since FIPSE was not an authorized agency. Significant staff time was spent battling Office of Education attorneys, and grant officers and personnel chiefs throughout the civil service bureaucracy, in order to establish and then maintain different ways of writing guidelines, procuring staff, and awarding and monitoring grants. These officials had no problem with FIPSE's purposes-indeed, they didn't really care about them-but they did contest its processes, since these posed a challenge to the established protocols of government.