Government

Silence From the Secretary, Despite Major Rules Changes

July 05, 2017

Win McNamee, Getty Images
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos defended the Trump administration's budget proposal at a Senate hearing on June 6. Since then, she has not commented publicly on any matters pertaining to higher education.

It has been a month since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has spoken publicly about higher education.

During a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on June 6, Ms. DeVos spoke in support of the Trump administration’s budget. Senators from both sides of the aisle criticized the proposal, which calls for steep cuts to a range of education programs, as "difficult" to defend. Still, Ms. DeVos fielded questions from the lawmakers for more than two hours.

“To have no real access to the people who are making those decisions is a big problem.”

Since the hearing, the Education Department has announced major changes. On June 14, Ms. DeVos announced the delay and renegotiation of two key Obama-era consumer regulations aimed at reining in abuses by for-profit colleges. And later in the month, speaking at a closed meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the secretary suggested that higher education’s foundational law should be scrapped.

Throughout that time, however, there has been a public silence from Ms. DeVos. It has been several weeks since her last open news event. There were two events listed as open on Ms. DeVos’s schedule in the middle of June, but when a reporter inquired about them, he was told they had been incorrectly posted by the department’s web team. The schedule was updated to reflect that the events were closed. There are no public events listed on the secretary’s schedule this week.

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, told The Chronicle that Ms. DeVos would speak publicly in July, and that details should be provided by the end of the week.

Previous administrations — including, at times, President Obama’s — have often had strained relationships with the news media. But experts say the Education Department’s recent silence in the aftermath of major regulatory changes, including from senior officials with knowledge of the decision, is a departure from past practice. And that departure doesn’t just affect the media, they argue: It robs the public of knowledge of the thought processes behind some significant policy shifts.

In the past, the department often held briefings for reporters about forthcoming significant rule changes. David Bergeron, a former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President Obama, said the department did so to avoid confusion and respond to questions. Accuracy about the purpose of regulations and what they meant were a major factor in outreach to the news media, he said.

"People disagree or agree about things, but it’s hard to have a conversation about it if people don’t agree as to what words mean."

‘A Big Problem’

The decision to renegotiate the consumer regulations — the gainful-employment and borrower defense-to-repayment rules — was met with different views of what it might signify about the department’s policy direction. Student and borrower advocates said the moves confirmed their worst fears about the department. Ms. DeVos’s statement in the news release announcing the move sought to pre-emptively rebut the criticism.

"My first priority is to protect students," she said. "Fraud, especially fraud committed by a school, is simply unacceptable." However, unlike the announcement of changes to how the department would choose an entity to handle the trillion-dollar student-loan portfolio, there was no further press availability. (James Manning, the acting under secretary, held a news call with reporters when the loan-servicing changes were announced.)

When the borrower-defense regulations, which sought to protect students from predatory practices by colleges, were proposed in June 2016, the department held a news call with John B. King Jr., the former education secretary, and Ted Mitchell, the under secretary. The final rule, announced in October of that year, was not accompanied by a news call, but was followed by a breakfast with reporters a month later.

"The regulatory rollbacks will have significant impacts on students and on the higher-education industry," said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education with the education policy program at New America. "And to have no real access to the people who are making those decisions is a big problem."

Ms. Laitinen, who worked in the department as a policy adviser from 2009 to 2011, said she did not speak with reporters during her tenure. Others in the department, however, including career staff members who were elevated to acting roles, such as Mr. Bergeron, were made available to answer questions.

The department currently has several vacant roles, so the political appointees who would typically be assigned to speak with knowledge about policy changes are not available to do so, she said. And though the career staff have knowledge of the changes, she added, there may be a lack of trust from the top down, which could spell more problems for the department.

"If you fundamentally don’t trust the career staff, then you don’t share those things with them so you don’t get the benefit" of their knowledge, Ms. Laitinen said.

Mr. Bergeron struck a similar chord. "There was a lot more confidence in the career folks in the early days of the Obama administration than this administration," he said.

"And maybe they will grow respect for the careers over time — or maybe they won’t."

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.