Federalization of Higher Education and the Expanding Data Bubble

Copper Mountain College

The following is a speech presented by Greg Gilbert, Copper Mountain College to attendees at the Fall Session Plenary on November 12, 2010. Faculty requested that this article be printed in the Rostrum.

Good afternoon. I am pleased to be joined today by Lee Fritschler, President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Education. In this problem-solution presentation, I will play the role of the problem and Lee will posit the solutions.

Frank Luntz, a statistician and communications professional, writes in his book, What Americans Really Want, that Americans see the greatest need in government is for “Accountability.” This hunger for data is endemic throughout our society and as global as climate change. Unfortunately, this fondness for numbers is accompanied by a prevailing penchant for simplistic, opportunistic analyses, hasty generalizations, and a lack of patience for nuanced commentary. The result is a system that favors uniformity and for-profit opportunities. And make no mistake, the uses of data and the people who manipulate and interpret data will be part of an expanding bubble well beyond the foreseeable future. Anyone who believes that accountability is a passing fad is not paying attention. Needless to say, the federalization of education is part of that expanding bubble.

Against the backdrop of growing accountability there remain the day-to-day responsibilities associated with teaching and governance.

Here, then, is the story of teachers at a small, rural college, people typical of community college faculty who employ data in local decision making in an effort to better serve students – and this is also a story of bigger dogs.

I begin by quoting Woodrow Wilson: “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

The story you are about to hear is a direct result of what I have borrowed from a number of people, particularly a professor who teaches at my college, Doug Morrison (Ed.D. in Business, MBA, CPA). What I’ve learned from Doug is to focus unflinchingly on student learning and advocacy for student needs. He’s taught me how to provide administrators and boards with the data they should want concerning the allocation of resources in support of student learning. He’s also taught me that when all appeals to reason fail, it’s time to go and get a bigger dog. I’ve also learned from Doug the sheer energy-infusing joy of collaborating across the curriculum in support of student learning, both in the classroom and throughout the system. Here’s what happened. In 1999 my college separated from its parent college and became an independent district. We achieved full accreditation under the old ten standards, a process that said, in effect, if you can demonstrate that you have the tools and resources to do a good job, we’ll assume that that is exactly what you’ll do, a good job. There was no thought of micro-managing professionals, particularly within a system with so many checks and balances.

Really, all of the employees, faculty and staff at my college were having a love fest back then. We’d pulled together in a collective effort to accomplish separation and accreditation. But then, fortune’s wheel turned a few degrees, slipped into a rut, and we found ourselves below 40% on the 50% Law and at 49/51 on the 75/25. It seems that the administration team had become focused on reorganization, added several additional layers of management, and distanced itself from the instructional side of the house. Doug’s response was to suggest that our senate meet a half-hour early each time to focus on how we could better serve our students and collect data toward that end. The faculty managed to work with the college’s constituencies, including the foundation and administration, and together we all fashioned a new mission statement that aligned with the 2002 accreditation standards. We also developed a matrix that associated our mission elements with every category of people who attended our college and with every service that we provided. It was a living, responsive educational master plan.

Then, 19 of the 23 faculty in our senate-of-the-whole participated in the drafting of white papers on such topics as advising, distance education, student success, governance, and minimum standards, among others. We worked across-the-curriculum and relied on one another’s strengths to quantify, analyze, employ computer graphics, and write. Each paper was succinct, polite, and focused on serving the mission. We also formed a taskforce that worked with the administration to achieve an agreement wherein 65% of all new monies would go toward our becoming compliant with the 50% Law. Though labor intensive, our efforts drew the faculty closer together in support of our students.

Here I will compress a story of years into a few short lines. The administration reneged on the 50% Law agreement, ignored our papers, treated us like interlopers within our own village, and stonewalled any additional requests to address our concerns. When the next ACCJC (Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges) team arrived, Doug and a gifted statistician from our math department, Mike Chlebik, and I met with the visiting team leader and provided him with what was in effect a shadow report, detailed evidence of denied faculty efforts on behalf of students: our agendas, minutes, documents, white papers, everything.

With all of that, in June of 2007 the ACCJC granted the college five years of accreditation with a midterm report and a list of recommendations. While recommendations included issues of campus climate, referred to the need to improve governance, and alluded to the white papers, the provision of five years of accreditation and the general tone of the report left the faculty believing that their voices had been marginalized and that the administration had, in effect, had its dismissive attitude toward the faculty validated.

Then a student, Yaniv Newman, came to the senate (some of you may recall Yaniv was active in the formation of the Statewide Student Senate for California Community Colleges). He demanded that the faculty step forward on the issue of funding for instruction – and that is exactly what we did. Heartened by Yaniv’s encouragement, we filed an appeal to the Chancellor’s Office that challenged the college’s request for exemption from compliance with the 50% Law. We went and got a bigger dog.

The result is that fortune’s wheel lifted out of its rut. The Chancellor and Board of Governors denied the college’s request for exemption, a denial that had repercussions around the state as small, rural colleges could no longer assume that they had the right to an exemption just because they were small. At about this same time, as fate would have it, in April 2008, Barbara Beno made a special trip to our college. She met with our administrative team and invoked the two-year rule. We were placed on warning.

While the payout on 50% was significant, faculty said that they would prefer to earn the money, so we worked on program reviews and accreditation outside of our normal contracts at the part-time rate, and about 15 faculty donated a thousand dollars or more to student scholarships. The big dogs had provided the resources necessary for my college to begin setting things right.

Then the faculty stepped forward to design our program review process:

  • Established a Blackboard template for minutes and documents
  • Worked with all constituencies to adopt institutional student learning outcomes
  • Designed program review templates
  • Arranged for data collections
  • Moved ALL calendars, processes, and templates through participatory governance
  • Adopted an annual program review cycle
  • Arranged for accreditation training by the Academic Senate
  • Conducted in-house training of all administrators.

Results as of June 2010:

  • Warning was lifted; accreditation was reinstated
  • A new administration team was in place
  • Annual compliance with 50% Law was achieved
  • An improved climate was being built
  • A new enterprise system was purchased and installed
  • A full complement of Tenure Track faculty was hired
  • Forty two program reviews are conducted annually and linked directly to the college budgeting process.

Today, we are a better school because with Doug’s wisdom at the forefront, the faculty remained focused on student success, even to the extent of getting bigger dogs. The collection and application of data specific to our situation was a vital part of our local effort.

So, here’s the dilemma. The same ACCJC that is non-responsive to the Senate concerns, the same ACCJC that pulled Compton’s accreditation and between 2003 and 2008 placed 37% of California’s community colleges on sanction, this same agency that cannot itself be accountable for its decisions, came to my college, respected faculty findings, and used its authority to set things right.

In 2004, I authored a Rostrum article, “Thinking Outside the Horse,” which compared external accountability to a Trojan Horse that contained within its dimly lit interior legions of functionaries intent on a singular mantra: “What cannot be measured cannot be assessed and what cannot be assessed cannot be controlled and what cannot be controlled cannot be permitted.” Now I wonder if it isn’t more appropriate to point an accusatory finger toward the federal government.

I am reminded of this quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” While I take great issue, and have for many years, with the noblesse oblige of the ACCJC, I believe now that we must do all that we can to keep collegial peer review in an intermediary role between the classroom and the federal government. We will have to think in many directions at once to accomplish this, but I believe that without collegial peer review, the role of local decision making will experience disheartening and debilitative erosion.

Consider the following: Not counting the 20 faculty serving as commissioners on California’s two regional accrediting organizations (WASC, ACCJC), of the 133 regional accreditation commissioners serving nation-wide, outside of California, only ten are designated as faculty. Ten out of 133 commissioners. Presently, tenure levels throughout the US are estimated to have fallen to about 30%. Set against the growing influence of external auditors and big money, it takes little imagination to understand that the influence of educators within their own profession is in serious decline.

During George W. Bush’s Presidency, Texas businessman Charles Miller, designer of No Child Left Behind, worked with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on her Future of Education Commission and produced copious documents alleging that because of academic freedom and adherence to local missions, universities had fostered a decline in institutional accountability and public oversight. Furthermore, the Spellings Commission asserted, tenure had become a costly, inflexible system dedicated to the protection of job security.

Had the Bush/Miller/Spellings vision of market-driven accountability and a federalized system of higher education prevailed, colleges and universities would have been reduced to legions of untenured faculty, and a proliferation of bright line indicators leading directly to Washington, D.C.

And lest you think that we dodged that bullet and can breathe easier with President Obama, Arne Duncan and Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter are on the same path as Bush/Spellings, only they are better financed. Even though Martha Kanter was a vice chancellor for policy and research for our Chancellor’s Office and President of De Anza College and eventually its chancellor, we have no assurances that the present Department of Education respects educators and local institutions any more than did the previous administration. By way of example, an ominous cloud on the horizon is the recently approved federal credit hour.

The federal definition of the newly designed credit hour describes it as "an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement," establishing a "quantifiable minimum basis" as a means to "quantify academic activity for purposes of determining federal funding." The credit hour will become enforceable in July 2012. The pleas of educators, administrators, CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation), and others was that the Department of Education not impose uniformity on a dynamic system, but they were summarily ignored.

And mark my words, you can be certain that just like when No Child Left Behind was implemented, the next wave to break over our nation’s colleges will be a tsunami of consultants prepared to make our lives easier and to help us with the new accountability. There’s a lot of money to be made from the new accountability.

And while I wouldn’t say it’s entirely about the money, consider that the National Education Budget for 2007 was $972 billion (public and private all levels), and this is when Arne Duncan was the Deputy Secretary of Education.

In Washington’s halls of power, lobbyists spent $3.49 billion in 2009, the equivalent of a senior professor’s annual salary every two-to-three minutes that Congress was in session, and this was prior to the recent Supreme Court decision allowing lobbyists to spend without limits.

There are those who see our students as potential customers. After all, total US enrollment in all education, K-Ph.D. is 76.6 million students. Post-secondary education alone is 17.6 million students. If we consider only California, there are 3,600,000 students in higher education, more than 20% of all the higher education students in all of the United States.

What I’m alluding to here is clout. California has the largest system of higher education in the world, and California’s Community College System alone is responsible for 17% of all higher education in the United States. Our nearly 60,000 faculty prepare the most diverse student body anywhere for the greatest number of career and academic choices anywhere. We respect local control while overseeing the most massive transfer and articulation system anywhere. We prepare more students to take their place as responsible participants in a democratic society than any system anywhere. Our students are the primary source of enrollments for the UC and CSU systems, and the primary source of training for our state’s teachers, police officers, nurses, and fire fighters. We manage our complex mission because we respect local decision making and work system-wide in support of student success.

Surely, everyone here understands the direct link between American freedom and academic freedom and that tenure may well be the parakeet in the mine shaft. As the federal government tightens its control over America’s schools and colleges, the nation is looking to California. That’s no exaggeration. We are the only state where academic authority is enshrined in law. Governance is bargained in other states, and as tenure slips away so does the ability to bargain. We know that power in the new data driven world will belong to those who define the data and determine how it will be interpreted and used. We know that collegial peer review can only succeed if it is collegial, rigorous, and respectful of local decision making. We know also that Washington will never be our colleague. While juggling a range of contrary thoughts, we must act wisely, and as Doug Morrison would tell us, keep the needs of our students at the forefront of everything that we do. As individuals, as members of our professional organizations, and as patriots, we must link arms to defend our nation’s glorious mind: a free academy.