Reflections on Foundations, ALEC and Higher Ed Reform in Wisconsin

Sunday, June 24, 2012
Last week, a fellow Madison blogger drew our attention to some potentially troubling relationships between a major higher education foundation, a DC-based consulting group, a conservative political organization, and a new initiative in the UW System.  Scott Wittkopf at Badger Democracy is playing a critical role in attending to the relationships among funders of higher education reform efforts, and political constituencies.  He has since mapped in greater depth the work of one foundation, Lumina, and another blog post is forthcoming.

Since I have established relationships with both Lumina and HCM Strategists, the consulting group in question, and have blogged (and hosted guest blogs) before on the large role that foundations are playing in pushing the higher ed reform agenda, I want to fully disclose as much as possible my role and assessment of this situation.

First, readers of this blog know my work as an expert on college student success, and as an outspoken champion for expanding college access to underserved populations. I am proud of the major role I played in the fight against the New Badger Partnership and other local efforts to prioritize institutional prestige over the needs of Wisconsin residents. I am constantly engaged in the struggle to ensure that public institutions of all types survive and thrive. At this point I have been active in Wisconsin research, policy, and activism circles for more than eight years. 

In my work I spending a lot of time interacting with the higher education reform movements nationally.  It is for this reason, over the last decade I have engaged with both Lumina and HCM many times. I am also very well-acquainted with the Gates education initiatives, having been both a grantee (to the tune of $1.2 million for the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study) and a consultant. Moreover, I participant frequently in the bipartisan higher education working group hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and funded by Gates.  

Why do I do these things, despite recent evidence that these places have ties to ALEC and others?

Good question, and one I'm thinking a lot about.  I think it is because at the heart of it, the main thrust of reform efforts to improve higher education are bipartisan. We on the Left and the Right share a desire to get colleges and universities (and state legislatures) focused on college completion rather than enrollment, and to make opportunities for all people more affordable.  

We diverge most often on the methodology-- what approach we think will work best.  Some people I work with really think innovation is encouraged by competition, while others (including myself) advocate for greater cooperation, and a strong faculty role.  But I have found over time that it is far better to be in active conversation with those I disagree with rather than limit myself only to relationships I am in alignment with because: 
  • It makes me much more cognizant of what other points of view mean and how people argue their case 
  • It helps me sharpen my own lenses and causes me to ask more relevant questions in my work
  • Being around others with differing points of view doesn't change my fundamental principles or make me their pawn but rather helps me establish credibility on both sides of the aisle.  It is because of my continuous willingness to show up and engage-- to banter, to debate, and to speak freely--that both Democrats and Republicans now talk with me about higher education
So, yes, here's the truth: I have received substantial funding from both HCM Strategists and Gates. I talk with HCM partners Kristin Conklin and Terrell Halaska regularly, including about Wisconsin. Kristin is an old friend of my husband's, from when he worked at National Governors Association, before coming to work as Governor Doyle's education policy advisor.  And, I helped Wisconsin become a College Productivity Strategy Lab state.  I did this because Strategy Labs bring money that help us to get people informed on key issues, bring in speakers, and open doors to conversations with other leaders nationwide. The fact is that obviously Wisconsin has had a fair amount of academic and political transition and has not engaged much in the Strategy Labs since Lumina invited it to be part of it in 2010. There is no fee to join, just a commitment to try to improve system and state policies for students. 

Furthermore, despite my known feelings about the current Governor, I have engaged in conversations with his office about the UW online initiative.  To me this is the true fulfillment of the Wisconsin Idea: a government official asked me for input, and rather than put my partisan political feelings in the way, I provided honest, candid feedback and advice.  Given their reputation among education leaders in other states, I didn't want Western Governors University to come to Wisconsin, and I felt it very likely that Walker was already talking to them.  In these conversation I expressed concern about WGU and I suggested that another approach--- making it an in-house public UW initiative-- would be more effective.  The effort to advance an online program was not encouraged by HCM or supported by its technical assistance. The concepts in the program are advocated by organizations like CAEL and in place or under consideration in many states. As UW moves to implement its ideas, the lessons learned from states like Maryland's University College or through SUNY's Empire State college could be accessed through the Strategy Labs.

Yes, online competency-based instruction is now here.  I'm not taking credit or blame for it.  As I wrote recently, we shouldn't be quick to judge a pedagogical technique that has the potential to bring education to people who otherwise wouldn't get any college instruction at all.  Of course we don't want it to fully replace face-to-face instruction, nor should it be operated for profit or cause students to require large loans to afford it.  Of course it shouldn't displace faculty, or be privatized.  But online instruction is likely to be about as uneven in quality as face-to-face instruction, which let's admit it, is quite uneven.

Supporting a position that is also supported by a conservative group does not mean that's the driver of the position.  Not once has HCM or Lumina or Gates ever dictated to me what I should or must say about anything. I have always been my own voice.  I speak truth to power with solid data and a clear stance in favor of students, staff, and faculty.  I know it's hard to believe, but given my disposition and the fact that my core salary comes from UW-Madison, nothing, nothing could ever change that. Sure, I could easily forgo taking their money, but honestly it would make me less effective as a researcher, and less able to have a voice in ongoing policy debates.  I couldn't conduct my large-scale expensive research, couldn't train students to think critically about these issues by actively engaging in them, and couldn't participate in these foundation and policy meetings. In the end, my absence would perpetuate their groupthink.

The fact is that since 2008 Lumina has made many, many grants under the broad umbrella of "productivity." This includes grants to the National Research Council, Public Agenda, and the National Governors Association.  I wrote a paper with Doug Harris on productivity that was funded by HCM.  Through the writing, Doug can attest that I continually worried about that term and all it means, and I tried to make the paper reflect that (the latest version, now under review, finally does). Not once did a funder object, and in fact they brought me many places to speak my mind on the topic without censorship.

As for HCM, those consultants lead a state policy network and advocate changes consistent with Lumina's Four Steps.  To build understanding among state leaders, they bring peers together and give states access to experts. I have helped by writing op eds about financial aid in several states, where policymakers want to strengthen "student incentives," and I push for them to do it in the ways that most help the truly disadvantaged.  The fact that those op-eds are bipartisan (written with Mark Schneider, a Republican), seems to be part of why Wisconsin Republicans are willing to even speak with me.

Locals might also want to know that leaders of HCM Strategists were helpful in the fight against the New Badger Partnership, prodding thoughtful higher education leaders around the nation to weigh in with their opinions. These experts did not support Biddy Martin's plans, noting the very real consequences for access to the general public.  There's no way this was in service of Walker -- or ALEC's -- agenda.

Scott isn't alone in his concerns. Other researchers have examined the issues surrounding Lumina and reached similar conclusions. In a paper presented at AERA this spring, Cassie Hall and Scott Thomas (one of my mentors) noted that Lumina's approach was uncommonly activist, and focused on student success and productivity. I completely agree with that-- but would note that being pro-student success and pro-productivity is not inherently liberal or conservative.  The approach itself could go either way, but the fundamental stance is pro-student, rather than pro-institution-- a stance I firmly agree with and have written much about. As Hall and Thomas write, this stance is driven by "an increasing level of distrust that higher education institutions can successfully enact reforms that will result in meaningful changes to our postsecondary system.”  I think that's well-placed mistrust, given the tendency of most top-level higher education administrators to advance "institutional" interests over those of faculty, staff, or students.  To be clear, I firmly believe that educators, rather than legislators or foundations, should be charged with this work. But the problem is that boards of visitors and high-level administrators tend to alienate faculty and staff, disempower them, and even portray them as the source of inertia rather than the rightful agents of change.

Yes, I would much prefer to see Lumina and Gates, among others, embrace the talents of faculty in rethinking how we can best serve students.  I said this over and over again at a Gates Foundation convening last week.  Recent discussions about the governance crisis at UVA reveal that many professors there have, and are plenty happy to, teach online-- and had they been included in the conversation they would have found good solutions to the problems identified by Helen Dragas and the Board of Visitors.  The same thing could be said about last year's discussion about the NBP -- Biddy Martin and her team did not engage the faculty, staff, or students in the problem-solving needed to address UW-Madison's financial woes.  They went straight to Scott Walker, and embraced an agenda that has demonstrably been shaped by ALEC's desires. This reflects an unfortunate move over the last 20-30 years to portray faculty, staff, and students as naive, ill-equipped obstacles to change, and this I think is not a coincidence-- it is a move to disempower the most expensive part of colleges and universities: the full-time tenured labor. If Lumina, HCM, or anyone else were to support that approach, I'd be utterly opposed to it.

I also fully support and echo Hall and Thomas's concerns about the role these major foundations have played in limiting what is studied and how it is studied, given their small emphasis on peer review and high priority on strategic goals that often do not seem to align with research evidence. In other words, even having been funded by them, I am far from satisfied with their approach and as you can see I still feel confident that engaging in this type of critique will not result in my being deemed ineligible for their support. Recall that I helped bring Robin Rogers' wonderful critique of Gates to the public eye by first running it here before it was in the Washington Post.  For Gates to retaliate would be incredibly unwise, and they know it.  They don't ask me to give them a pass for their errors-- in fact at a recent Gates convening I tweeted openly of my discontent with some of their practices, and their program officers were open to that conversation. 

Perhaps the best way to wrap up this little tell-all is with a quote from Jamie Merisotis from Lumina: All we can do is be transparent about what we’re trying to achieve and let people decide how we’ve done." While I might prefer to remove the word "all," I think this is basically right. We should hold foundations and public officials, including educational institutions, to full disclosure. In turn we have to consider all potential interpretations of the evidence we have.  And we must weigh their approaches against the alternatives.  In this case, I think the agenda is focused improvements in student success accomplished by increasing the incentives for colleges and universities to focus mainly on high-quality education, rather than competing for rankings driven by dollars spent and enrollment of elites.  That sounds good to me.  Yes, let's keep our eyes on ALEC.  Yes, let's always question and critique.  We must avoid privatization of public education-- and we want to educate people while growing and expanding the labor market so there are jobs waiting on the other end.  But the goal of expanding access to a high-quality education while driving down costs is a laudable one-- as long as the role of public democratic governance of that education is preserved.  Let's focus on that, and together find the best way forward.