Impatient, urgent and too powerful?

President Obama, the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation all want more Americans to complete a college degree or credential by 2020. While just about everybody agrees on the importance of postsecondary education, some worry that wealthy and powerful foundations are shaping higher education policy, writes Doug Lederman on Inside Higher Ed.

The role of foundations in higher education research and policy was discussed at last week’s Association for the Study of Higher Education meeting.

Sheri Ranis, formerly at Gates and now at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, contrasted the Ford Foundation and other “mission-driven” foundations with Lumina and Gates, which are “outcomes oriented.” Lumina and Gates “want a seat at the table” as policy discussions unfold, she said.

It’s understandable that some critics would see the fact that both Gates and Lumina have embraced the same such audacious goal — college completion — as “an example of groupthink, or conspiracy,” Ranis said, especially given what she acknowledged to be the “interlocking directorates in exchanges of personnel between the foundations and federal agencies.” (Several officials with ties to Gates are in the upper reaches of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s administration.)

But “it is not so — it is simply not so” that the consensus suggests “collusion or conspiracy,” Ranis said. “The foundations share an approach to the analytic process and have come to the same conclusions from the process [about what needs to be done], and are equally impatient about getting there.”

Foundations are “not supposed to be involved in politics,” countered Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation. Foundations are designed to “go off and do their own thing,” he said.

“This represents a shift from working at the edges to a concerted effort to change the core, working through political avenues,” McPherson said. “These are people nobody has voted for…. They hold everybody else accountable but haven’t been elected themselves.”

“If I made a list of all the ways private money inappropriately influences the political process, these folks would be way down the list,” McPherson said. But the two foundation’s embrace of “impatience” and “urgency” can “lead to a ‘ready, fire, aim’ strategy,” he said. “We have certainly seen that sometimes they act as if it is ‘too urgent for us to stop and think about.’ ”

McPherson conceded that the alternative often is: “The ‘ready, aim, aim, aim a little more, recheck your aim, fire’ strategy.”