The Education Department is controlled by advisers who have insufficient regard for the liberal arts and instead are intent on judging colleges largely by their ability to provide economically measurable talent for industry, a recently departed top official told The Chronicle.
Diane Auer Jones, who last month resigned as assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said in an interview on Thursday that her departure was driven in large part by her repeated inability to soften the department's treatment of colleges through the accreditation process.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings agrees that colleges should determine their own missions and be judged by them, Ms. Jones said. "But others in the department really had the mind-set of bright-line standards and tests, content-based tests" as gauges of how well colleges were performing, and they were repeatedly able to translate those beliefs into policy decisions, she said.
Ms. Jones announced her resignation on May 14, just one year after taking the job, to become president of the Washington Campus, a consortium of university business schools. At the time, she said her move, made with just eight months left in the Bush administration, was a case of "the perfect job coming at not the perfect time."
Differences Over Accountability Measures
On Thursday, however, she acknowledged that her departure also reflected the intensity of the Education Department's internal and external battles to force colleges to do a better job of proving the value they provide to their students and the taxpayers who finance their operations.
Ms. Spellings formed a study commission that issued a final report in September 2006 complaining that the accreditation process doesn't do enough to help outsiders, including prospective students, evaluate the performance of colleges.
"The growing public demand for increased accountability, quality, and transparency coupled with the changing structure and globalization of higher education requires a transformation of accreditation," the secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education said in its report.
Colleges need the approval of an accrediting agency recognized by the government in order for their students to be eligible for federal financial aid. The Education Department, in response to the commission's report, proposed a series of new standards that accrediting agencies would have to meet to maintain their federal recognition. The department's proposals included a suggestion that the accreditors require that colleges use standardized tests as one method for making comparisons between institutions.
Congress blocked those proposed rules last year at the request of college lobbyists, though accreditors and colleges have complained that the Education Department has nevertheless begun requiring that accrediting agencies demand colleges show greater proof of student achievement.
One of the clearest examples, Ms. Jones said, is the department's treatment of the American Academy for Liberal Education, an accrediting agency that serves a group of private, religiously affiliated liberal-arts colleges.
Ms. Spellings last year barred the academy, known as the AALE, from accrediting any new members after her accreditation advisory panel complained that the accreditor was not ensuring that its colleges prove their students were meeting minimum-achievement standards. The advisory panel recommended last December that the restriction be lifted, but Ms. Spellings has not yet acted on that recommendation.
The AALE is being penalized, Ms. Jones said, because department officials don't sufficiently appreciate the academy's efforts to verify quality outside of objective measures such as graduation rates or test scores.
"They were essentially dinged and, I think, blackballed by people who internally said, 'OK, see, there they go; they're telling us that they can't measure their performance, they can't measure student learning,'" Ms. Jones said.
"That was really the essence of what I saw as a misguided attempt to really narrow the focus of higher education and to almost vocationalize all of higher education," she said. "And that's inappropriate."
Limited Advisory Role
While saying she did not want to single out any particular department officials, Ms. Jones acknowledged her rivals in the battle for the ear of Ms. Spellings included Sara Martinez Tucker, the under secretary in charge of higher education and a former executive of AT&T.
Ms. Jones, a former community-college associate professor and lobbyist for Princeton University, said she became assistant secretary with the understanding that the position made her the secretary's primary adviser on higher-education matters. The under secretary's position, she said, had traditionally handled more administrative functions.
And yet, she said, "I never ever was allowed to have a conversation with the secretary to discuss my viewpoint" on accreditation.
Ms. Jones said she began seeking new employment after repeatedly failing to change that dynamic.
"I actually don't think that the secretary and I are in disagreement on accreditation or the direction," Ms. Jones said. "I think that the secretary is a very open-minded person who really wants to get it right. However I think there are others at the department who aren't so introspective."
Ms. Tucker was not available for comment, said Samara Yudof, an Education Department spokeswoman. Ms. Yudof offered no further comment on the statements by Ms. Jones.
But the chairman of the Spellings commission, Charles Miller, a friend of Ms. Spellings from Texas, said Ms. Jones's comments suggest someone who perhaps didn't fully understand the deliberative process within the department.
The AALE is a unique case that doesn't reflect the department's overall approach to accreditation, Mr. Miller said in an interview. "Nobody's trying to make these separations or differences," he said. "It's like somebody imagined a problem, is trying to create a bigger one, and made some public hay out of it."
At the same time, public demand for change in the ways that colleges prove their value is a reality that colleges need to recognize, Mr. Miller said. "People in accreditation are going to have to do some things differently and better on student learning," he said, "or it's going to be done for them."
Ms. Jones's defenders among higher-education leaders are more willing to accept her description of the department as hostile to a liberal-arts approach. "The only people who really understand the forces at work inside the Department of Education are those who have worked there, which would leave both me and Mr. Miller out," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.
That said, the arguments over the value society places on a liberal-arts education are long-standing and "aren't going to be solved in this administration or the next," Mr. Hartle said.
"Most of us in higher education felt that the Spellings Commission was willing to slight the liberal-arts side of the equation in favor of sort of employment-specific education," he said. "But this is one of those arguments that people have been having for centuries."
© 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education