No Appointment in Sight for U.S. Higher Education Post
Lack of action draws increased concern among higher education officials.
By Charles Dervarics
With the start of the 2001-2002 academic year just under way, the U.S. Department of Education is still without an assistant secretary responsible for higher education policy. The Bush administration has no timetable for filling the post, and the lack of action is drawing increased concern among higher education officials.
The delay in naming a postsecondary education leader “sends a definite signal,” says Corye Barbour, government relations director for the United States Student Association. “Whether it’s willful neglect or just neglect,” she adds, “it reflects where higher education exists on the administration’s agenda.”
While President Bush had Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige in place soon after taking office, filling Paige’s senior management team has taken considerably longer. Some delays in the nomination process are inevitable in a new administration, many observers say, and 2001 may be a rockier year than most due to fallout from the 2000 presidential election and the sudden shift in Senate control from the Republicans to the Democrats in late spring.
But Bush has nominated — and the Senate has confirmed — assistant secretaries for many key department offices, including elementary/secondary education, education research, special education and vocational education. Yet there is still no nominee for the position of assistant secretary for postsecondary education, one of the most senior jobs in the department.
“Of course we’d like to have seen an assistant secretary in place a long time ago,” says David Baime, government relations director for the American Association of Community Colleges. But he noted that the administration is working hard on its appointments. “It’s a daunting task to fill all these posts,” he says.
The department “has put more emphasis on K-12 education so far,” Baime says. Yet, he notes, that is not surprising because the federal government’s main K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is up for its periodic review, or “reauthorization,” this year.
“If we had a higher education bill up for reauthorization, I’m sure we would have had an assistant secretary in place by now, too,” he says.
Congress is not scheduled to reauthorize the government’s main postsecondary law, the Higher Education Act, until 2003.
But, according to Barbour, Congress’ work on the K-12 law is no longer justification for such a long delay in filling the postsecondary slot, last held by Lee Fritschler during former President Clinton’s tenure.
“It worked as an excuse for a while, but not anymore,” she says. “It concerns me that (higher education) isn’t higher up on the administration’s agenda.” The delay, she adds, has effectively “stunted” development of Bush administration policy toward colleges.
Still, education department leaders say there are many staffers who can contribute expertise on higher education in the absence of an assistant secretary. At a recent news conference, Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok, former education chief in Pennsylvania, cited his own extensive background in postsecondary policy.
Deputy Secretary William D. Hansen, confirmed in May, also has a higher education background. And Paige, the education secretary, is a former higher education dean.
At the news conference, Hickok also emphasized it is important to find the right candidate for the postsecondary job — even if it takes longer than expected to make a selection.
With some analysts critical of the delay, however, the administration has touted its higher education record on several fronts lately. In mid-August, for example, it trumpeted its support for colleges and universities in announcing $27.2 million in new federal grants, most of it for institutions that enroll a large number of disadvantaged students.
President Bush is “committed to seeing that all students have an equal opportunity to receive a quality education,” Paige said in making the grants.
However, more battles are likely this fall that require input from senior higher education leaders. Most analysts predict a series of bruising budget battles on K-12 and higher education, with funding increases at stake for Pell Grants and college work/study, among other initiatives.
The education spending bill “will be particularly contentious,” Barbour says. “It’s a hard year.”
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