(Scripps Howard Syndicate, Sept. 23) There’s an old saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but that’s too simple and wise for the Obama administration, which is readying bureaucratic tools for massive work on the nation’s private, non-profit colleges and universities.
And what’s wrong with them? Nothing. Certainly nothing that requires this abomination the Education Department has in mind, a long-winded, frequently unclear new set of regulations that would intensify and increase oversight by states, in some cases conceivably overriding a long-established, thorough, fair, respected and effective accrediting process by non-governmental agencies.
The possible consequences are enormous, including a frightening assault on academic freedom as crucial decisions are transferred from faculty and administrators to bureaucrats and legislative bosses who just might use weapons of mass authority to demolish instruction of a kind they don’t like.
The excuse meanwhile is small potatoes. Some for-profit schools are accused of taking federal aid money from students in exchange for teaching them nothing much. That’s obviously bad to the extent it’s true, but the schools are few in number compared to the thousands of private, non-profit institutions that would be affected by a revised scheme of things, and there are remedies far short of federal intrusiveness. States can crack down on violations of law and cheated students can lodge civil suits.
You suppose any of this Education Department folderol scares anybody? You bet it does. Look at an Internet piece by Inside Higher Ed and you find the president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation worrying that the proposal “fundamentally undermines the role of accreditation” and that the suggested rules “call for states to intrude into academic areas.” Then there’s the American Council for Education, which has expressed concern about compliance costs, ambiguities and the invitation for political shenanigans. Look, too, at Colorado Christian University, with which I have an uncompensated association.
In a policy brief for the school’s Centennial Institute, Krista Kafer has treated the threats in scholarly detail, and the university’s president, former U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, has written about his concerns in pieces I have turned to as well for my own understanding. I asked him if he feared the university could be especially at risk under the new rules, seeing as how it does not bow to some of the leftist orthodoxies preached at so many other schools. His answer was yes.
What strikes me (and Armstrong, too) is that the move is more of the same. The Obama administration does not much trust liberty. If something out there sneezes, regulate it. Surround it with endless pages of rules, blankets and blankets of rules, enough rules to smother the slightest hope of autonomy. Do more if necessary. Take over things. Take over health care. Take over the auto industry. Take over financial institutions. Government knows all. Government should do all. Government, we praise thee!
Something especially precious is at stake here. As Kafer has written, independent colleges and universities have created “a space for learning, exploration and debate that reaches far beyond students and the campus itself,” performing a role that along with the activities of various other organizations provides “the foundation upon which rests the nation’s marketplace of ideas.”
The Education Department’s own public explanation of what it’s up to makes it sound oh-so reasonable, just a way of protecting public money and consumers, and maybe the worst possibilities would never occur, at least if we get precise, corrective language where vagueness and power urges now reign supreme.
But why even take a chance in a process moving toward conclusion in November? Why not scotch the whole pernicious, pointless exercise or at least that part of it calling for state overreach? And if the bureaucrats won’t humbly retreat, admitting they just might otherwise break what’s now unbroken, maybe Congress will step in. Please.