July 21, 2008

The higher-ed split among conservatives

One could probably have predicted today's Inside Higher Ed article describing how several conservative academics criticized the current push for quantitative assessment of higher ed. I didn't, but if you did, give yourself a pat on the back.

The article describes a panel on Friday sponsored by the American Academy of Distance Learning (more about that later) where the former head of Margaret Spellings's Office of Postsecondary Education and the executive director of the National Association of Scholars ripped Spellings and her allies for pushing standardized tests in higher ed to the detriment of liberal arts. According to the article, Diane Auer Jones was more diplomatic than Peter Wood, but both complained that the push for accountability was turning reductionist. In this regard, I think Wood's reported comments are on the money: today, the policy rhetoric on higher education is vocational, and that threatens to make the defense of a liberal-arts education more difficult. He ties it to the push for accountability in higher education, and I've had similar concerns about calls for standardized testing as the primary accountability mechanism for colleges.

The predictability comes in the split among conservatives, one that Wood ties back to a "practical"/"classical" distinction in the late 18th century. The Spellings Commission report ignored fundamental tensions in American higher education, and one interesting feature of the report is the invisibility of the curriculum. The report's rhetoric was tied closely to economics, and I suspect that Jones's resignation in May on a matter of principle was the result of a long-simmering frustration among some conservative academics, not an isolated event. No party or political coalition is monolithic, and I've heard several current and former Capitol Hill staffers from Democratic offices who were far closer to Spellings on higher-ed accountability than either Jones or Wood. And I'm closer to Jones and Wood at least on this issue, though I'm a Democrat.

And now the coda: The building frustration among some conservatives that I'm inferring here may explain why Jones and Wood were willing to use the sponsorship of a proprietary university's president's shadow accreditation office: I've tried to look for the "American Academy of Distance Learning," which seemed to be an odd outfit to sponsor a talk about standardized testing and the liberal arts. I found an American Academy of Distance Learning (or at least a reference to its tax-exempt status) headquartered in Denver, but Dick Bishirjian runs the proprietary Yorktown University, which is in Denver... at the same address as AADL, down to the same suite number. But the media advisory for the panel lists AADL with a Norfolk post office box. Bishirjian also appears to be the president of the American Academy of Privatization, a proponent of "privatization training for public officials." I'm not sure what that means, precisely, but the P.O. box for it is the same as that given in the media advisory for AADL. In other words, it looks like Bishirjian has a mail drop in Norfolk and office space in Denver. That's an amazingly slim infrastructure to run a university and two other organizations... or at least to claim so. A July 10 Denver Post article gives a little more information about Yorktown, at least in relationship to Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, who served on Yorktown's board of trustees for several years. Yorktown apparently has a single graduate program and only a few dozen students. Given the plaudits for Bishirjian by Paul Weyrich earlier this month on David Horowitz's website, it looks like Bishirjian had enormous difficulties gaining accreditation. So... is his sponsorship of the forum for Jones and Wood something that's tied to his proprietary institution's interests? I don't know if either Jones or Wood is aware of Bishirjian's background or the disconnect between his proprietary institution's curriculum and their arguments, but this is definitely one of the odder set of bedfellows I've seen in higher education.

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Posted in Academic freedom on July 21, 2008 10:11 AM |