A quick plunge into national politics

November 18, 2010

Yesterday and today I’ve been in Washington, DC for the fall leadership gathering of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Uinversities (NAICU) and a dinner with other Presidents in the Annapolis Group.

NAICU represents about 1000 independent colleges and universities, large and small, rich and poor; it is our advocacy and lobby organization.  A few years ago, I served on its Board, and served as its Board Chair towards the end of that stretch.  The Annapolis Group, on the other hand, is a looser organization of about 130 relatively prestigious, national, residential liberal arts colleges.  Most Annapolis Group members are also members of NAICU, so Annapolis schedules one of its two annual gatherings to coincide with NAICU’s fall leadership gathering.

Yesterday afternoon, NAICU treated us to presentations and Q&A sessions with Eduardo Ochoa, the relatively new Assistant Secretary for Post-Secondary Education in the Obama administration; Arnold (Mitch) Mitchum, President of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a leading advocacy voice for low-income and first-generation college students; and Stuart Rothenberg, a highly regarded political analyst and commentator.  Of course the main topic running through the three presentations was the meaning of the recent federal elections and what they portend for higher education.

Rothenberg tried to help us understand how the new Congress would differ from this last one.  He stressed that many of the newcomers had essentially no prior experience of any sort with the political process, and noted that this did not bode well for the Congress actually accomplishing anything over the next two years.

Issues of access and of assessment were very much at the forefront of Ochoa and Mitchum’s remarks, though neither had much good news to impart. Ochoa is clearly still finding his sealegs in the administration.  I later learned he has offices in a different building from the rest of the Department of Education, so he may never be much of an insider.  On the other hand, it was cheering that he is a Reed graduate, and has considerable experience both as a teacher-scholar and as an administrator (the latter in the Cal State system) in higher education.

NAICU folk, especially those from the state associations of independent colleges, worked to be sure that Ochoa understood how many low-income and first generation college students came to independent colleges, and how much more successful we are at educating and graduating such students than for-profits, community colleges or public four-year institutions.

Mitchum, for his part, reprised testimony he had given to a Congressional committee about the high-pressure salesmanship and deceptive marketing of for-profit institutions in enrolling low income students, signing them up for federal loans, then letting them drift away with no education, no credentials and yet big loans to pay back.

Flying back now, I find myself wondering what in all this I should try to convey to faculty members, students or board members.  What does all this mean for Earlham? The federal context doesn’t seem quite real for us, and yet it creates an environment that could shake up our terms of functioning pretty significantly:  not yet, but perhaps soon?


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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