Why Inside Higher Ed faces a dubious future


On January 19, David Halperin published a piece with the Huffington Post on the purchase of a controlling interest in Inside Higher Ed by the private-equity firm Quad Partners, which has invested heavily in for-profit colleges and educational consulting firms.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Halperin’s article:

“Quad Partners, a New York private equity firm that is invested heavily in the for-profit college industry, and whose founder has aggressively opposed regulation of that troubled industry, has acquired a controlling stake in the respected trade publication Inside Higher Ed (IHE), which often reports on for-profit colleges and the policy disputes surrounding them. There has been no public announcement, but the Quad Partners website now lists (http://www.quadpartners.com/portfolio/) Inside Higher Ed as one of its investments, among a range of education-related companies. . . .

“Doug Lederman, one of IHE‘s two top editors, confirmed to me that Quad purchased (http://www.kramerlevin.com/jmoriarty/) a majority interest in IHE in November.”

The full text of Halperin’s article is available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/davidhalperin/for-profit-college-invest_b_6471986.html

Fredrik deBoer is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University. He has given me permission to re-publish a post to his personal blog [http://fredrikdeboer.com/] that he made on the Quad Partners’ purchase of a controlling interest in Inside Higher Ed. I think that he cogently and succinctly delineates the main concerns that everyone should have:

Via Gawker, a private equity firm that is massively invested in for-profit colleges has purchased a controlling stake in Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers colleges and universities. That’s about as direct a conflict of interest as you can get.

“1. Inside Higher Ed should not be trusted as a source of legitimate news about for-profit colleges and universities any longer, and perhaps not trusted as a legitimate source of news, period. Treat anything published by it about for-profit colleges like PR or advertising, because that’s essentially what it’ll be.

“2. I’m willing to bet that this is going to happen a lot more often. The continuing financial troubles of journalism as an industry has to have industry licking its chops. We’re already seeing more and more fusion between for-profit entities and magazines, paper or digital—“advertorials,” “native content,” and various other weaselly terms I refuse to write without scare quotes. I have always found it profoundly insulting when people claim that the purpose of these ventures is not to fool readers into thinking that the copy they’re reading is like any other story; if so, why wouldn’t they then make them entirely visually different? If there’s no intent to confuse, then make them as visually and obviously distinct as possible. Well, now we’re going a step further. Rather than trying to get these publications to run your advertising in a way designed to confuse advertising for editorial, or to use your PR flacks to pressure them to give you favorable coverage, why not cut out the middle man and buy them outright? And as this happens more and more, people will be more and more inclined to simply call this standard operating procedure. Hey, everyone else is doing it! Why not us?”

Of course, the former and new primary owners of Inside Higher Ed are bending over backwards to reassure everyone that the change in ownership will have no effect of the publication’s editorial emphasis and content. But the conflicts of interest that Fredrik deBoer describes as possibilities seem very likely to become certainties given the background of Quad Partners founder Lincoln Frank.

In May 2012, David Haplerin wrote another article that focused on Frank. The article, “Aggressive Subprime College Industry Lobby Group Ratchets Down—For Now,” was published on the website Republic Report. The full text of the article is available at: http://www.republicreport.org/2012/subprime-lobbyists-giveup/#sthash.xl0Kjn0t.dpuf.

It turns out that Lincoln Frank has not just been an outspoken critic of regulation of for-profit colleges. With Avy Stein, the CEO of the Education Corporation of America, Frank co-founded the for-profit advocacy group, the Coalition for Educational Success (CES). Halperin’s article follows up on a piece that was published in The Hill, describing the massive decline in the CES’s lobbying expenditures from 2011 to 2012:

The Hill has just reported (http://thehill.com/business-alobbying/229669-for-profit-schoolcoalition-retreats-from-k-st-lobbyingcampaign) that the for-profit college advocacy group Coalition for Educational Success (CES) has now dramatically reduced spending on lobbying. Last year, the group spent more than $1.8 million on lobbyists, but in the first three months of 2012 its spending was down to $190,000. That’s still a considerable amount, but CES terminated its contracts with several outside lobby firms.”

In retrospect, it seem clear that the CES anticipated the negative attention to the for-profit industry that was almost certain to accompany and follow the release of the Harkin Report on for-profit colleges and universities. In that context, expending large sums on lobbying would have been foolhardy.

Moreover, given the very substantial investment that Quad Partners has just made in Inside Higher Ed, one cannot help but think that the leadership of the CES came to the conclusion that it might be much cheaper and more effective to counter the criticism of the for-profit industry by purchasing a controlling share of one of the leading higher-education publications than by directing those monies toward lobbying.

But even if Frank did not have the connection to the CES, this change in ownership would be very problematic for Inside Higher Ed. Over its history, Inside Higher Ed has made considerable efforts to provide independent and credible coverage of issues in higher education. Indeed, it has acquired sufficient stature to cover all sectors of higher education, from community and technical colleges to top-tier doctoral institutions, with equal credibility.

But a quick survey of the other current holdings of Quad Partners suggests that the publication’s stature has already taken a major hit just by its new associations: