An accountability issue, indirectly related to international affairs, has aroused concern in the post-secondary community as Congress moves toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), the priority piece of higher ed legislation on Capitol Hill.
The House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Select Education sent H.R. 509, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, to the full Education Committee. Authored by the subcommittee chair, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), the bill authorizes a broad range of programs that fall under Title VI of the HEA, including grants for studying foreign languages in American universities.
Among other provisions, the legislation creates a new International Education Advisory Board for all Title VI programs. The board, according to the Education Committee, will "increase accountability" by providing advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Education and the Congress on higher ed issues.
The problem, says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education (www.acenet.edu), is that the advisory board itself would be unaccountable. Independent of the Department of Education, it would comprise "folks who are politically appointed who don't really answer to anyone," Hartle says. "There is a great deal of concern that total autonomy from the department is a potential invitation to trouble."
The Education Committee, headed by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), maintains that the legislation "expressly prohibits the board from influencing curriculum, disseminating regulations, or awarding grants."
While it has no authority beyond advising and making recommendations, the board can "assess a sample" of Title VI activities to "ensure programs meet the purpose" of the act, according to a committee fact sheet.
That "leaves open the potential for intrusion into campuses' academic affairs through the power of sampling," contends an Association of American Universities (www.aau.edu) statement.
At a hearing on the measure before the subcommittee approved it, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also cited "intrusion into academic freedom" as a possible effect of the board's independence.
Hartle says the proposal developed from "a contentious ideological argument" that began shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. "A small number of conservative activists began to charge that federal grantees under the International Education Act were anti-American, unpatriotic, and aiding terrorists," Hartle explains. "So the proposal for an advisory committee was initially seen as a way for the federal government to monitor what faculty members were doing and what they were saying and whether they were being sufficiently patriotic to the U.S."
Now, nearly four years after 9/11, "the wounds are not quite as open as they were and the inaccurate charges that were made are not quite as pregnant with meaning," Hartle declares. Nobody, he says, wants Title VI grantees to be "anti-American or working to undermine the Defense Department or aid terrorists."
Still, "the makeup and activities and authority" of the proposed advisory board are of "great concern," Hartle asserts. He says ACE hopes to work with the House and Senate "to try and structure an advisory committee that will provide useful and important advice without the attendant risks of something that is largely unaccountable."
Also approved by the House subcommittee was a bill to reauthorize federal graduate fellowship programs under Title VII of the HEA. H.R. 510 emphasizes support for graduate study in math, science, and special education, where there are shortages of qualified teachers at the K-12 level.
AAU and other organizations have been concerned that this provision would have the effect of focusing the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program exclusively on training teachers of teachers, to the detriment of other career tracks.
In another development, as the HEA reauthorization began to heat up, Democrats on the House Education Committee said they would introduce their own reauthorization legislation, entitled the College Opportunity for All Act of 2005.
Among other things, according to the bill's sponsors, their proposal would reduce student loan costs as well as bank profits on student loans.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.