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A Program for Renewed Partnership: The Report of the Sloan Commission on Government and Higher Education

reviewed by Robert Birnbaum - 1981

coverTitle: A Program for Renewed Partnership: The Report of the Sloan Commission on Government and Higher Education
Author(s): Carl Kaysen
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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In 1977, the Sloan Foundation established a commission of twenty-two members to consider the increasingly difficult and complex relationship between government and institutions of higher education, and to prepare a "detailed, comprehensive analysis of the regulatory process by a distinguished but disinterested body whose recommendations would define and protect—and would be seen to define and protect—the public interest'' (p. xi).

The commission, whose membership was indeed distinguished, worked for over two years. They received over fifty background papers and studies, including some from leading scholars and administrators in higher education. Their report, which may have cost over $2 million to prepare, is now available in A Program for Renewed Partnership. It wasn't worth it.

It is difficult to tell what went wrong. The opening paragraph appears to set die proper stage for considering the problem.

A new drama opened on the college campus in the seventies. Though not much in the headlines, it distracts the faculty offstage and keeps a large audience absorbed. A growing number of lawyers and administrators are in die cast needed by colleges and universities to deal with a growing number of federal agents and investigators. Their dialogue of die deaf about affirmative action and financial accountability leads to little more than bad feeling on both sides. The struggle centers on how much right the government has to tell higher education what to do. (p. 1)

But die recommendations of die report itself are a strange amalgam of conventional wisdom, proposals with significant political implications but no political viability, and policy recommendations without any supporting policy analysis, all presented with an inconsistent voice and approach. The report is unlikely to have any effect in improving the relationships between colleges and universities, and state and federal governmental bodies.

The major publicity given to die commission's report in its draft stages focused on two dramatic recommendations: that die present complex and inconsistent multiagency federal apparatus for enforcing equal opportunity laws in higher education be replaced by a single consolidated agency in the Department of Education; and that periodic peer reviews be conducted and published for the educational programs of all public (but not private) institutions in a state. These may both be seen as somewhat peculiar directions to be taken by a group concerned with limiting die intrusion of government into higher education, but before considering them in greater detail a brief summary and occasional comment on some of die commission's other topics and proposals should be made.

A major chapter in the report is concerned with student financial aid. Other than the fact that large sums of public funds are allocated for this purpose, it is not quite clear what this section is doing in a study of the regulatory process. In any case, after stating its concerns for the lowering of financial barriers to access, the commission presents a series of recommendations to make the present patchwork system more coherent and rational. They recommend, among other things, that no student (regardless of family income) should have educational costs totally supported by grants, college work-study funds should be increased, Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) awards should be fully funded and regularly increased to reflect inflation, social security benefits for college students should be eliminated, and a program of federally funded merit scholarships should be established. A major recommendation is for the creation of a National Educational Loan Bank, which would make unsubsidized loans available to students and their parents. The commission estimates that their revised system would save $860 million a year compared with the present system. What they do not say is what various groups stand to gain or lose under the proposed program.

The purpose of changing financial aid formulas and policies is presumably to yield certain desired policy outcomes. The major objective of the commission, however, appears to have been coherence—a value perhaps of greater significance to academics than to pragmatic politicians who must finally decide who gets what in the highly charged political arena of financial aid. Every interest group, professional association, and institutional sector has its own suggestions for changing financial aid policies. Regardless of one's reaction to any specific recommendation of the commission, without an analysis of their composite effects on groups of individuals or groups of institutions there is no basis other than the advocacy of the commission itself on which to accept their financial aid program over those proposed by others.

A second major chapter discusses federal support for academic research. Here the recommendations are sound, if not generally new or innovative. The commission advocates increased governmental flexibility in overseeing fiscal accountability of research monies, support of funding for research equipment and libraries, and creation of postdoctoral fellowships. These and other recommendations, particularly those that support the continued use of peer review of research proposals and the concentration of research funding in a relatively small number of campuses, would probably be supported without argument by the faculties of every research university (but not the hundreds of community colleges, state colleges, liberal arts colleges, and regional universities) in the nation.

In a third chapter, the commission describes the unparalleled involvement of the federal government in determining the admissions policies and curriculums of American medical schools, but rather than making a specific recommendation proposes instead yet another national commission to study the matter.

The two recommendations of the commission that have been the most controversial speak to the issues of the administration of equal opportunity laws and regulations, and the role of the states in ensuring program quality during a period of decreased demand and increased competition. Significant questions can be raised concerning both the programmatic desirability and the political feasibility of the key proposals they make in each area. The report itself recognizes and refers to the political difficulties each would encounter, but then appears to ignore them without serious analysis. The desirability of the recommendations in terms of public policy must be thought by the commission to be self-evident, since they are not so much argued as assumed by the report itself.

The commission supports the goals of equal opportunity laws and regulations, believes that regulation is necessary if institutions are to rid themselves of discriminatory practices, and quite properly sees that "much of the friction that has developed between higher education and the government is a result of the sheer numbers of laws, agencies, and people involved in the daily task of investigating, evaluating, and deciding that an institution is not in compliance" (p. 164). Their solution is simple enough: create an independent Council for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education within the Department of Education, and give it exclusive authority over the implementation and enforcement of all equal opportunity matters related either to students or faculty, thereby superseding the present system in which at least eight different agencies assert jurisdiction over some aspects of equal opportunity compliance. Simple solutions to complicated problems are almost always incorrect, and the concept of a single federal agency with the power to impose a uniform standard of operation over this most sensitive area is staggering in its implications. A quite different approach to the problem might have begun with the recognition that die reason that none of the existing agencies has clearly defined its standards for measuring compliance may literally be that at the moment no one knows (or perhaps can know) what these standards should be. In the absence of criteria for a clear and compelling "best" standard or process, the overlapping jurisdictions of various agencies provide a naturalistic setting in which a number of alternative approaches can be tested against the reality of organizational, institutional, and political life. Through conflict and interaction, directions for the most effective means for implementing equal opportunity laws may be discovered. While die present confusing system admittedly causes administrative and policy problems for colleges and universities, these might pale into insignificance compared with the premature identification of the "right way" by a monolithic federal agency before anyone has a clear notion of what that right way should be. A more prudent commission recommendation in the face of such ambiguity might have been to study the comparative effectiveness of the different approaches adopted by these agencies, and to recommend incremental changes to remove the least effective and strengthen or consolidate portions of die most effective so that overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions might be resolved through experience rather than through centralized, bureaucratic control.

In some ways, the commission's chapter concerning the role of the state is the most problematic in the report. They properly see that the actions of the now-ubiquitous state higher education boards will have a greater impact upon the future of colleges and universities than will decisions made in any other setting, but their recommendations concerning the composition and responsibilities of these boards appear in certain respects to be self-contradictory. For example, after stating that state boards must view their charge as representing the public interest, rather than any special interest or educational sector, the commission recommends that no more than one-third of their membership should consist of institutional representatives. That such boards must have substantial representation by public and private institutional representatives in order that they may be knowledgeable about both sectors is a stated assumption of the commission, for which no evidence is presented. In fact, die overwhelming success of lay trustee boards in this country, the problems seen in other situations in which constituencies have representation on boards that presumably are to regulate them, and the successful operation of lay coordinating and governing boards at the state level all argue that institutional representation is not necessary.

Equally surprising, in view of the commission's insistence on the desirability of protecting institutional autonomy, is their reference without demurrer (indeed almost with approbation) to legislative involvement in determining and modifying institutional missions, and approving the offering of specific programs at specific institutions. Such political interference provokes the most severe erosion of educational autonomy imaginable, and vitiates the ability of statewide or system boards to provide for a rational system of educational planning and to protect institutions against political interference. But by far the most critical recommendation is one requiring periodic review of the quality of educational programs in all public colleges by peer committees that, after a year's delay, would make them public. Participation of private institutions in these evaluations would be invited, but not required. The commission does not deal with several obvious questions related to this proposal, such as whether if private institutions decide not to participate their representatives should sit as members of boards that are conducting reviews of competitive programs in the public sector, or whether their participation should be required as a condition of continuing to receive public funds.

Where did this idea of peer committee review of programs with public reporting come from? It is difficult to tell, since neither here, nor in the other sections of the report, are there any citations or references to supporting documents. Perhaps it is based on the experience of New York State in the use of peer review teams to evaluate (without publicizing) doctoral programs in public and private universities. If so, the commission seems unaware of the great cost and effort involved in reviewing even this limited number of programs. Given the present responsibilities of state boards, and the difficulties of institutions in accommodating the increasing demands of existing state, regional, and professional accrediting groups, the idea of teams of "recognized scholars" visiting and evaluating the myriads of programs in over 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country boggles the mind. But of perhaps even greater importance, the concept is presented without any analysis indicating why it should be effective in yielding the desired results, or any examination of the impact of similar programs of lateral audits that have been recently developed in several states.

Finally, considering the report as a work of scholarship, it should be noted that it contains an appendix with numerous tables that appear to be interesting but are not referred to in the text, and there is no bibliography or index. The report is sprinkled with lengthy sections that are indented and set in smaller typeface; these are presumably abstracted from some other documents, but they are not cited.

Because of its various problems, A Program for Renewed Partnership is likely to have little impact on the conduct of the business of higher education in this country, or to be influential in discussions of educational policy. The Sloan Commission report will probably sink into well-deserved obscurity, leaving behind only a disappointing and confusing book.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 82 Number 4, 1981, p. 695-699
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1012, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:50:06 AM

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  • Robert Birnbaum
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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