"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 31, 2006

To: All Water Carriers for the Spellings Commission on Higher Ed

Dr. Thomas Hochstettler, President of Lewis and Clark University, can lay claim to many interests and areas of expertise: Military historian, efficiency expert, Germanophile, college president, and most recently, as evidenced by his commentary in WaPo, water carrier for the Bush plan to meddle in managing higher education. Unlike many of his colleagues who are concerned with the Spellings Commission's dream to develop a database that will track students from pre-K through college and into the work place, Dr. Hochstettler is impressed with the
potential for a robust (and privacy-protected) set of metrics that would yield essential data with tremendous potential for advancing our individual institutions and for identifying with greater precision those areas where our national education policy needs to be strengthened. Where some see the specter of government intrusion, I see the possibility of transforming our current separate data-reporting schemes into a streamlined system that is beneficial to students and useful to faculty and administrators.
Yes, yes, our national education policy. Hmm, I wonder if Dr. Hochstettler has any concerns about the control of that "national education policy" in higher education, something that thus far has a successful history of decentralized autonomy and diversity that has made American higher education the envy of the world. Does he know that these "reformers" are the same ones who have done the recent crafting of "national education policy" in K-12? Does he ever wake up a three in the morning wondering what his university would be like if Chuck Miller or Margaret Spellings or Dick Cheney or, my God, G. W. Bush had the power to intervene in university matters that are none of their incompetent business? Or is Dr. Hochstettler comfortable with the dream of Washington's corporate welfare artists, who are the real policymakers today, to turn the university into R & D reform schools that will regularly receive their piecework research assignments from corporate efficiency experts whose offers can hardly be refused? Does Professor Hochstettler know what the need for autonomy means as it exists outside the demands of the corporate state?

If these unanswered, or un-asked, questions are not enough to make you wonder about Dr. Hochstettler's connection to the real world, try this steeple-climbing conclusion:
At a time when hard experience has taught the public to question institutions that once enjoyed their implicit trust, a new ethos is beginning to take hold in higher education. "Openness" and "transparency" are the new buzzwords. . . . Will we open ourselves to scrutiny and assessment, or will we continue to keep the public at arm's length? Will openness, transparency and accountability be revealed as mere cliches, or can we embrace them as values that can influence for the better who we are and how we pursue our missions? Do we have it in us to live up to our historical commitment to open inquiry?
Dr. Hochstettler, if I may address you directly: There has never been another Executive Power in the history of this country that has approached the levels of hoarded secrecy as this one in Washington today, the same one now clamoring to control the records, academic and otherwise, of every American. This Administration's disdain for its own oversight and its repudiation of calls within its own government for accountability are breathtaking by any American standard. And transparency? Margaret Spellings only knows the ones she puts on her overhead projector when she takes her Rovian script on the road.

I am convinced that "living up to our historical commitment to open inquiry" requires nothing less than the repudiation of the current federal-corporarte reform efforts that, indeed, are the biggest threat to that open inquiry commitment to which you refer.

UPDATE (09/01/06):
The New York Times today reports this story, a relevant addendum it would seem:

The Federal Education Department shared personal information on hundreds of student loan applicants with the Federal Bureau of Investigation across a five-year period that began after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the agencies said yesterday.

Under the program, called Project Strikeback, the Education Department received names from the F.B.I. and checked them against its student aid database, forwarding information. Each year, the Education Department collects information from 14 million applications for federal student aid.

Neither agency would say whether any investigations resulted. The agencies said the program had been closed. The effort was reported yesterday by a graduate student, Laura McGann, at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, as part of a reporting project that focused on national security and civil liberties.

. . . . “This operation Strikeback confirms our worst fears about the uses to which these databases can be put,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 900 institutions. “The concentration of all this data absolutely invites use by other agencies of data that had been gathered for very specific and narrow purposes, namely the granting of student aid to needy kids.” . . . .

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