Decision 2014: The Higher-Ed Outlook

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November 05, 2014

The broad story of this year's elections was the Republican wave that tipped control of the Senate. What does it all mean for academe? Here's what you need to know about the results.

Lamar Alexander gets his shot.

With Republicans taking over the Senate, leadership of the all-important education committee will transfer to the lawmaker who already has terms as U.S. secretary of education and as the University of Tennessee's president on his CV. His main higher-education goal: "to deregulate it."

As the man charged with driving the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, he's certainly got cards to play. What should we expect out of Senator Alexander? Staunch opposition to President Obama's accountability agenda, an attempt to shift accreditors' focus away from regulatory compliance, and a push to streamline student aid—including, possibly, a simplified federal student-aid form. Here's Kelly Field's profile of the Tennessee Republican, the new committee chair.—B.R.

Mr. Brat goes to Washington.

When it emerged that two professors at Randolph-Macon College would square off in the race for Virginia's Seventh District, the jokes wrote themselves. ("I hope the loser at least gets tenure" seemed like the pick of the bunch.)

The race itself was never terribly close. The Seventh is a conservative stronghold, so David A. Brat, an economics professor with Tea Party backing, coasted to a comfortable win over Jack Trammell, a Democrat who is both an associate professor of sociology and director of disabilities support services. But at Randolph-Macon—a college with an enrollment of about 1,300 and an average class size of 16—the campaign was singular and enthralling. Becky Koenig spent Election Day on the campus. Here's her report.

Meanwhile, a couple of other academic upstarts took expected losses: Tom Poetter, a professor of education at Miami University, in Ohio, couldn't unseat the Republican John Boehner, House speaker, in Ohio's Eighth District. And Paul Clements, a professor of political science at Western Michigan University, was defeated by Fred Upton, the Republican incumbent in Michigan's Sixth District. Mr. Clements, at least, has a couple of very solid Rate My Professors scores to fall back on.

In Nebraska another Tea Party favorite, Benjamin E. Sasse, waltzed to victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Mike Johanns. When he launched his campaign last year, Mr. Sasse was serving as president of Midland University. After he won the Republican primary, though, he stepped aside. Mr. Sasse is credited with pulling Midland back from the brink; one presumes the Senate will pose a stiffer challenge.—B.R.

Two budget-cutters escape the ax.

On Tuesday The Chronicle's Eric Kelderman looked at the 36 gubernatorial races and homed in on three first-term Republicans who had taken heat for scything higher-ed spending. Two of them made it out of Tuesday's elections alive. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott scored a minor upset, squeaking out a victory over Charlie Crist, his Republican predecessor turned Democratic challenger. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker—castigated not just for budget cuts but also for stripping collective-bargaining rights from faculty members and other state workers—defeated Mary Burke, a Democrat.

Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania wasn't so lucky: As expected, he lost to his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, by a convincing margin. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that this year, at least, taking a hard line on college and university budgets didn't bring electoral repercussions. Here's Eric's look at the backstories in all three races.—B.R.

Researchers keep their heads up.

Given the GOP’s heavy emphasis on cutting budgets, you'd think the ascent of Republicans into key committee posts would cause panic among advocates of research spending. Not so. The three Republicans slotted to lead the Senate's appropriations and science committees all have records of supporting the main federal science agencies:

  • Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the appropriations committee, has repeatedly endorsed budget increases for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, on the appropriations subcommittee responsible for the National Institutes of Health, is such a strong backer of the agency that he has at times pushed to give it even more money than did the panel's Democratic chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is retiring.
  • Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, on the science committee, has called for bipartisan compromise in the face of House Republicans' efforts to limit the NSF’s freedom to set scientific priorities.

That said, the new chairmen may have limited room to maneuver. In recent years, even Senators Shelby and Moran—after publicly demanding more money for the NSF and the NIH—have ended up following their party’s lead.

"While their words have been very supportive," says Jennifer L. Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, "their actions have been somewhat to the contrary."—P.B.

Goodbye and hello.

Through a combination of looming retirements and electoral defeats, Congress's education committees are losing a lot of expertise on higher-education policy—and students and colleges are losing some of their strongest advocates. Here are a couple of the biggest names who are leaving:

  • Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee and its former chair, is retiring. Mr. Miller has been a longtime champion of working-class and poor students. Among his recent successes: securing mandatory funds for Pell Grants and introducing the legislation that created income-based repayment for student-loan borrowers.
  • Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chair of the Senate's education committee and an appropriations subcommittee on education, also declined to run again. During his four decades in Congress, Mr. Harkin fought for increased funding for student aid and led a bruising investigation into for-profit colleges.

And here are the lawmakers who will be trying to fill those shoes:

  • Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, an 11-term congressman best known for his support of minority-serving institutions and college-prep programs, is poised to take Mr. Miller’s seat as the top Democrat on the House education committee.
  • Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is the presumptive top Democrat on the Senate education committee, and she’s a candidate to replace Senator Harkin as chair of the appropriations subcommittee on education.

Want to know who else came and went? Here's a longer list of moves.K.F.

No change in North Dakota.

The state's university system might have its share of internal struggles, but voters didn't think reconfiguring the State Board of Higher Education was the solution: They resoundingly rejected a ballot measure that would have dissolved the volunteer board and replaced it with a commission of three full-timers. Max Lewontin has more on the measure here.—B.R.

Correction (11/5/2014, 10:40 a.m.): Tom Poetter is a professor at Miami University, in Ohio, not at the University of Miami, as originally reported. The article has been updated to reflect this change.