Federal education leadership has largely come from the ranks of educators. For instance, Francis Keppel had been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harold Howe, whom I was lucky enough to serve as a special assistant, was superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, New York. But they weren’t pedants — neither had doctorates.
It is unusual to have noneducators like Betsy DeVos designated to such a position, but not outrageous. Whether one agrees with her views or not, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice to become the next secretary of education is clearly more than an officious intermeddler. She is committed, informed, and passionate.
Looking at her past, one sees a woman of formidable political skills, with a vision for her own iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation, and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. I suspect she will apply that vision and her executive skills to taking the political, persuasive, and monetary resources of the Department of Education in the direction in which she has already put both her money and her mouth. She is, therefore, unlikely to agree to the killing of the department or to returning it to its mission of observer and data collector. She is not the kind of person who would agree to undermine her base, and she will not want her place in history to be as the department’s terminator.
Nothing gives me reason to believe that higher education has been on her radar in a significant manner to date. Her focus has been on schools, elementary and secondary, public and private, conventional and charter. Unsatisfied with what Trump people refer to as "government schools," sharply critical of public-school personnel, policies, and unions, she has been a leading advocate for radical-right change, innovation, and reform, mostly in Michigan. If the past is precedent, one may suspect Secretary DeVos will be more sympathetic to for-profit colleges than were her immediate predecessors, Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr.
I see no reason to believe that she will counter recent calls for greater affordability and accessibility. Those two issues were as popular with Republicans as with Democrats during the campaign and they are paramount. In the nostalgic America invoked by Trump’s "Make America Great Again" slogan, it was actually possible for students to work their way through college. It is still possible, but much harder. By whatever legislation and programs, it is imperative that Americans, regardless of their circumstances, again feel that higher learning is available to their children. They know that not having a higher education limits ambition, and they’re frustrated by what they see as a receding horizon. College must be within reach not only of people from all economic backgrounds but regardless of gender, race, religion, region (urban and rural), national origin, sexual orientation, and military service.
Promises of a free college education made by Bernie Sanders or more affordable education made by Hillary Clinton were highly suspect, even if either had been elected, and are unlikely to be furthered by the new administration. Student loans could reasonably be subject to considerable revision, and enforcement of Title IX reviewed with a greater concern for due process and possibly even removal of adjudication of cases of rape and sexual assault from campuses to state and municipal authorities.
One can only speculate from whom Secretary DeVos will seek counsel. I’d suggest Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and an old, reliable, professional hand. The American Enterprise Institute, too, has been waiting breathlessly for this moment.
To maintain higher education’s strength, the secretary needs to be an advocate for both STEM subjects and humanities and social-science programs that nurture citizenship and advance the human condition. She should coordinate with the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and remember the mission of the old National Defense Education Act, for an educated, well-rounded populace is crucial to national security. We cannot remain a great nation without nurturing the spirit and the culture that made us strong in the first place. The recent emphasis on return on investment, the sloganeering of "stay in school, you’ll earn more," limits the imagination. A good salary is nice, but it is open minds, rich imaginations, and technological and humanistic achievement that will take us to the next level as individuals and as a nation.
The great public institutions of higher education nurtured since the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 need to be celebrated and assisted from the federal purse. Likewise, we must embrace the great American innovations — everything from the independent colleges starting with Harvard in 1636, to the contemporary forms of distance learning. Small colleges like Sweet Briar should not, after years of love and service, be buckling for lack of a modest infusion of resources.
When George W. Bush appointed Margaret Spellings secretary of education in 2005, I was a great skeptic. And then I met her and was delighted to discover she was smart, tough minded, and knowledgeable. I didn’t agree with her about everything but I came away with respect, and my respect grew as I watched her work in Washington and more recently as president of the University of North Carolina.
This gives me hope for Betsy DeVos. She doesn’t have a reassuring higher-ed portfolio, but she may just surprise me. She might even surprise President-elect Trump. For this is a tough, skilled woman who takes education seriously. She will not fold easily or be bullied by a billionaire — especially, I wager, one who has yet to appear in public in the company of a book.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washington University and university professor of public service. He and Gerald Kauvar edited Letters to the Next President (Strengthening America’s Foundation in Higher Education) (The Korn/Ferry Institute, 2008).