Exodus of Key Officials at Education Dept. Is Capped by Top Higher-Ed Adviser

David A. Bergeron, a 30-year veteran of the department, is regarded as its institutional memory

March 21, 2013

David A. Bergeron, the U.S. education secretary's chief adviser on higher-education issues, is leaving the department after more than 30 years, joining an exodus of policy experts from the agency to think tanks, foundations, and colleges.

Mr. Bergeron, a civil servant who oversaw countless negotiated rule-making sessions, numerous budget-reconciliation bills, and several reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act, is joining the Center for American Progress, a progressive organization, where he will be in charge of postsecondary-policy development.

His departure, coupled with that of an assistant secretary, Carmel Martin, also to the center, will create a leadership vacuum at the department, leaving it with holes at the top of several higher-education offices. When Mr. Bergeron leaves, the department will be short a deputy under secretary (Georgia Yuan left in December), two assistant secretaries (Mr. Bergeron and Ms. Martin), and a deputy assistant secretary for postsecondary education (also Mr. Bergeron). The agency has lacked a leader on community-college issues for more than a year, since Frank Chong left to become president of Santa Rosa Junior College.

Second-tier staff members who might have moved up are also moving on. Ajita Talwalker, a senior policy adviser who formerly worked at the Institute for College Access and Success, is reportedly replacing Zakiya Smith as the White House's top higher-education adviser, after Ms. Smith left for the Lumina Foundation. And Ben Miller, another policy adviser who worked with Ms. Martin, is returning to his roots at the New America Foundation.

The department's statistics arm has also lost several key employees, including Elise Miller, a postsecondary-program director who went to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Thomas Weko, an associate commissioner for postsecondary studies who moved to another office at the department.

Meanwhile, Robert Gordon, who oversaw education issues at the Office of Management and Budget before becoming its executive associate director in 2011, has left for the Brookings Institution.

The good news, at least according to fans of President Obama's postsecondary agenda: James Kvaal, who helped lead a crackdown on for-profit colleges, is set to return to the White House, reportedly as a deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council. Mr. Kvaal, who replaced Robert Shireman as deputy under secretary in 2010, left a little over a year later to work on the Obama re-election campaign.

Mr. Bergeron, the deputy assistant secretary for postsecondary policy, planning, and innovation, has also served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education since last July, when Eduardo M. Ochoa left to lead California State University-Monterey Bay. In those dual roles, Mr. Bergeron oversees more than 60 postsecondary programs that provide more than $3-billion to colleges each year, and is responsible for legislative and regulatory policies affecting more than $160-billion in federal financial aid.

Mr. Bergeron joined the department three decades ago and has been, along with Daniel T. Madzelan, a senior department official who retired last year, the institutional memory of the department, seeing it through many changes of administrations and outlasting most members of Congress.

In a news release issued by the Center for American Progress, he said he was most proud of the role he played in helping colleges and students in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Correction (2/5/2014, 5:16 p.m.): This article originally rendered incorrectly Daniel Madzelan's middle initial. It is T., not J. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.