Friday, August 31, 2007

Little Spellings Commission

By Richard Vedder

After World War II, President Truman appointed a commission headed by former president Herbert Hoover to recommend reforms in the way the federal government was run. It came in with some constructive ideas, many of which were adopted. This led state governments to create "little Hoover Commissions" to review the way state governments were run, and to reform them to make them more efficient, more transparent, and more accountable. Not all were a success, but many did positive things.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, similarly created a commission to recommend reforms in the way universities are run. Its recommendations have received a good deal of attention and, believe it or not, there has been some positive movement in meeting some of its goals --the FAFSA form is being simplified, colleges are talking seriously about providing some measures of performance, accreditation is being scrutinized more carefully, schools have become a bit less aggressive in raising tuition fees, etc. Some constructive progress has been made.

Yet in many ways it is state and local governments who run our public sector universities, and provide the largest amount of subsidies for their operation. We need little Spellings Commissions to push to implement the Spellings Commission reforms in the states, and to consider issues specific to each individual state, such as the system of governance (the role of the central state coordinating body for higher education, for example).

I was delighted to read Oregon is creating such a commission. Often commissions are a waste of time and effort, particularly when populated by persons with strong vested interests in higher education outcomes and who lack gravitas. Commissions made up of the best minds in the state, with a small number of retired respected university leaders, top business persons, a couple of leading professionals, perhaps a couple of retired politicians, etc., would be ideal. Have them report both to the Governor and the Legislature. As a member of the Spellings Commission myself, I am sure that members of that body would be glad to be of assistance, particularly in states where they live or have a special interest.

I plan to suggest to Charles Miller (Spellings Commission chair) and to leaders in the U.S. Department of Education that a push be initiated to appoint bipartisan (or better, nonpartisan) groups with prestige and no axes to grind to review each state's system of universities, particularly those under public control.

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