Big $$$ Foundations are driving the policy train



We like to think experts who weigh in on the direction of American higher education are steeped in researchabout what works and have real-world experience with actual students. We like to assume that elected officials, who are accountable to the public, listen to those experts—particularly those who labor in the educational “trenches”—when they make their decisions.

Increasingly, however, as details in a recent series of articles in Inside Higher Education suggest, it’s foundations, like the Gates Foundation with its $34 billion in assets, that are driving the policy train.

What’s the problem with this kind of philanthropy—especially in times when public monies for higher education have been slashed?

One critique was advanced recently by Peter Buffett who suggests that foundations and philanthropists actually advance solutions that cement in place the fundamental problem they are trying to solve, inequality-induced scarcity.

There is also the problem of lack of accountability. The American public didn’t vote philanthropists (or their policies) in, and they can’t be voted out.

The type of change pushed by Gates—what Debra Humphreys, Vice President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, calls a “hyped up, get-it-done-fast mentality” has a track record of failure. Top-down, overly simplistic approaches often have negative unintended consequences that can do more harm than good. They can actually stifle innovation and take states off the hook for their responsibility to support higher education.

We also need to take a harder look at how the Gates Foundation pushes its agenda.

Are we comfortable with billionaires shaping public policy just because they have the money to buy journalism to disseminate their views?

Are we comfortable with the influence the foundation has to align state and federal policy and spending with its own goals?

Is the constant flow of staff between the Gates Foundation and the halls of government a good thing for fresh ideas and for our democracy?

It’s important to take a closer look and ask whether Bill Gates and his approach to higher education—however well-intentioned—is really what we need to create a solid future for America’s colleges and universities.