I have looked carefully at the backgrounds of the President’s two most recent nominees for upper-level positions related to higher education within the Department of Education. I have absolutely no personal animus against either of these nominees. In fact, they seem like well-intentioned individuals with a strong commitment to public service. But their backgrounds are very similar, and the pattern among Obama nominees that they extend gives me considerable pause. Like the president’s previous appointees, both have very limited or no postsecondary teaching experience, some experience in higher-ed administration but much more extensive backgrounds as successful entrepreneurs with education-technology firms.
To put this as straightforwardly as possible, I think that it is time to stop appointing business managers and technocrats, who have declared themselves and each other to be “educational reformers,” to leadership positions within the Department of Education.
For three decades, the proponents of “reform,” a code word for corporatization, have dominated discussions about higher-ed policy, and yet public higher education in America has not been in this precarious a state since the Great Depression. The “fixes” that these experts have initiated have resolved none of the issues related to access, affordability, completion rates, and quality. In fact, there is manifold evidence that they are succeeding only in making things much worse across the board.
It is critical that President Obama begin to add the voices of actual educators to the discussions about national higher-education policy. By actual educators, I mean faculty who have stayed in the classroom, who have invested themselves in the futures of their students and their institutions, and who have an acute understanding of the challenges that those students and institutions are confronting.
It is also time to move things to the middle, to insure that national higher-education policy addresses the needs of and fosters, rather than frustrates, the aspirations of the majority of students who attend colleges and universities that are never going to be elite but that are very much fulfilling their educational missions.
The American Enterprise Institute has applauded several of President Obama’s choices. That in itself ought to give very considerable pause to any president who asserts a commitment to progressive ideals and meaningful reform.
A token appointment or two will not be enough to insure substantive change, but let’s at least start by trying to get one actual educator appointed to a policy-influencing position within the Department of Education.