"The Secretary Shall Report to the Public": Meet the New Nationwide Spokesperson – The Federal Educator-In-Chief (More on the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008)

November 14, 2008

(second of two articles)

Judith S. Eaton

The prior Inside Accreditation summarized key changes in accreditation and accountability provisions of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) that became law in August. The central point in this summary is that the new law significantly expands the authority of government with regard to accrediting organizations and institutions.

This essay examines one major and disturbing impact of these changes – the undermining of the traditional model of institutional leadership of higher education that has guided the enterprise for many years. The reauthorized law achieves this through establishing, for the federal government, a new and powerful role of nationwide higher education spokesperson, with the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) functioning as a kind of “Federal Educator-in-Chief.” Current chief executive officers, the inheritors of a long tradition of institutional – not federal – higher education leadership, are put on notice: Government is emerging as a competitor to your role and responsibility for speaking as an authority on the quality and performance of your colleges and universities.

The legislation undermines the role of chief executive officers by requiring institutional reporting on all kinds of matters of daily internal operation – the 110 new reporting, record-keeping or regulatory obligations placed on institutions as a condition of participating in federal programs or sustaining accredited status from federally recognized accrediting organizations. Institutions will now provide information on such new areas as tuition, tuition increases, textbooks, quality of teacher preparation, transfer of credit activity, institutional budgeting, criminal offenses, fire safety procedures, emergency procedures and articulation agreements – and more. This is in addition to the new reporting required by the accreditation standards.

The new law intrudes on the role of faculty through the new language addressing transfer of credit, an arena of academic decision-making. It directs, in part, how institutions must communicate with the public by dictating content for institutional Websites. In a telling shift, it moves from government oversight to detailed government management of accrediting organizations. It offers a fundamental challenge to higher education’s concept of institutional autonomy.

But what moves the government toward a Federal Educator-in-Chief is the new USDE authority as nationwide higher education spokesperson that provides regular reports to the public, built on the foundation of significantly expanded data described above. Through the new law, USDE becomes a de facto national authority on the condition of higher education. This goes well beyond the reporting on input variables that have heretofore made up the major focus of government attention through, e.g., the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. It is a major step toward higher education authority and responsibility being redefined through HEOA – redefined away from colleges and universities toward government, away from decentralization toward the monolithic, away from self-regulation toward government regulation. USDE is asserting a new role as a source of information about higher education.


The short history that preceded this problematic development in HEOA begins with the 2005–2006 Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. This body triggered extraordinary criticism about higher education’s capacity to manage its own affairs. Students, prospective students and families were hearing that the enterprise cannot make sound judgments about finance, investment, curriculum and quality. Attention to mission came to be viewed as an excuse for failing to address accountability. Invoking the value of diversity and decentralization of higher education was sometimes equated with failing to serve the public.

Both higher education and accreditation were portrayed as insular and failing to be responsive to students and society. Colleges and universities were criticized for doing little or taking inappropriate action in such vital areas as accountability, finances (tuition increases, endowments, use of public funds) and athletics. Accreditation came in for a good deal of criticism as well, viewed by some as lacking accountability, reinforcing ideology, failing to sustain academic rigor and unresponsive to innovation.

These criticisms are penetrating, going to the core of the organizational style that has characterized higher education throughout its history: its institutional leadership model. They were not the ordinary complaining that may occur from time to time about an important social institution. This was an attack on the effectiveness of the type of leadership that has guided colleges and universities for generations. It was an attack on the primary means by which higher education has organized its work and conducted its business since its inception.

The traditional institutional leadership model – in contrast to an external authority model such as government – emerged because responsibility for all major academic and operational decisions of higher education have, throughout U.S. history, been vested with an individual college or university and not an outside source. This contrasts sharply with many other countries where colleges and universities do not enjoy this authority; it usually remains with government. The current reauthorization, through its unprecedented expansion of government authority over institutional operation and academic judgment, is calling the traditional leadership model into question.

Although initially sanctioned or created by government, U.S. colleges and universities have been invested with extraordinary authority and responsibility. It is the institution, not the government that may have created it, that is licensed to operate as a higher education provider. It is the institution, not government, that offers degrees and credentials. It is the institution, not government, that is funded by the public or receives tuition or is supported by private sector philanthropy. It is the institution, not government, that admits students, decides curriculum, establishes academic standards. It is the institution, not government, that is accredited. The cases in which the federal government has chosen to directly exercise this authority or responsibility are rare.

This institutional leadership relies on “institutional autonomy,” a concept that has, in the past several years, received extraordinary attention as well as abuse. If exercised properly, however, this autonomy is about sufficient institutional responsibility and independence to carry out the enormous array of tasks that a college or university shoulders to serve students and society. Indeed, the accountability expected of institutional leadership requires this autonomy. Autonomy has its limitations and is, at times, an opportunity that is squandered. Nonetheless, institutional autonomy is about serving the public and leadership that fails to understand this – fails.

The arguments above notwithstanding, the nationwide Federal Educator-in-Chief challenge to institutional leadership and autonomy is indeed attractive to some. At conferences and meetings, it is not uncommon to hear questions such as “Can there be national solutions for higher education that are not federal?” “Can these solutions be realized in other than a monolithic environment or some type of ministry of education?” What is startling about these questions is that they are framed such that institutional leadership is not part of an answer or even contemplated as a solution. The message is that higher education, to be accountable, must accept greater government control and move to some type of external monolithic reporting structure.


The future success of the institutional model of leadership as against the Federal Educator-in-Chief rests on higher education’s willingness to take on the major policy issue that has driven the HEOA: higher education accountability to the public. Colleges and universities need to throw their considerable weight behind a major additional commitment.

This means that, to be positioned for success with regard to accountability, colleges and universities need to continue and accelerate their efforts to provide evidence of student achievement and transparency about institutional academic performance. The past several years of work by hundreds of institutions and major national higher education associations has resulted in significant progress on this accountability. However, it is not enough.

We need even more investment in, e.g., the Voluntary System of Accountability or College Portrait, the University and College Accountability Network, the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the Essential Outcomes of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the Educational Testing Services’ Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress. We need many more individual institutions to develop their distinctive accountability models, as encouraged by the Teagle Foundation’s recent “New Leadership” initiative, or participate in voluntary arrangements such as the Council of Independent Colleges’ Collegiate Learning Assessment Consortium.

It is also vital that we further strengthen self-regulation and accreditation. The credibility of higher education’s capacity to monitor its own work has been dealt a devastating but not fatal blow in the past several years. What we need is a major effort to rebuild public confidence in the capacity of self-regulation through accreditation to assure accountability to students and society. We must enhance the rigor of accreditation. This effort will, without question, require additional transparency. It calls for CHEA’s emphasis on accreditation’s commitment to greater accountability and serving the public interest, as captured in the new CHEA Initiative. We live in a climate of considerable doubt about the value and veracity of self-regulation in any field. There are serious questions about how an internal review process such as accreditation meets the need for external validation of institutional quality and worth. We must respond.

Finally, the academic and accreditation communities need to do more to engage the demands for some shared or common sense of student achievement and quality. Absent colleges and universities addressing this issue, the public is reverting to rankings or listings and other forms of comparison used to judge any product or service. Whatever our current reservations, colleges, universities and higher education associations need to find acceptable means to present information about the results of the higher education enterprise in more easily accessible ways, with major commitment to electronic delivery and management of this information. We need to expand opportunities for prospective students to make their own sound judgments about their collegiate experience.


The new law is discouraging in many ways. To respond to its challenge, we need institutional chief executive officers of stature and authority, not a bureaucratic Federal Educator-in-Chief. We need to preserve institutional autonomy and, with it, the enormous success of higher education. We need to sustain and enhance self-regulation through accreditation, the linchpin of the success of colleges and universities for many years. We need substantial and believable commitment to additional progress in a range of accountability areas.