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AFTER three-and-a-half years of controversy, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett yesterday left his Cabinet post in much different shape than he found it. You could almost hear university professors all over the country release sighs of relief at the news.
Of course, you can't blame them, for even though he gained virtually no legislative victories, Bennett clearly rattled the education community. Indeed, from the very beginning of his term, Bennett's confrontational manner and conservative attacks constantly left educators reeling.
In February of 1985, one week after his confirmation, Bennett shocked college presidents across the nation, not to mention students, by endorsing President Reagan's plan to cut federal spending for student financial aid and by suggesting that some students who would lose aid may have to consider "divestitures of certain sorts--like a stereo divestiture, an automobile divestiture, or a three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture."
The callousness and insensitivity that Bennett showed to the plight of millions of American students shocked legislators. "If I knew he would make these kinds of statements, he would not be the Secretary of Education," Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) said at the time.
Bennett then went on to alienate the higher education community even further by denouncing tuition hikes and college curricula and calling on the nation's schools to assume a greater share of the student aid burden. He continually attacked students for not paying back their federal loans and for using drugs, and he criticized their schools for allowing the classics of Western civilzation to disappear from their curricula.
Speaking at Harvard's 350th anniversary celebration a few years back, Bennett said that colleges and universities had to make major changes in the way they teach and spend money. He also went on to blast the Core Curriculum for being "superficial."
So it went for the better part of three years. Bennett would make some outlandish or not-so-outlandish charge, the colleges would respond as a chorus, in harmony, against these charges. If nothing else, these made good fodder for journalists covering the normally dry education beat, as headlines like "Bennett Attacks...", and "Colleges Respond to Bennett Charges" became common on the front pages of America's major newspapers.
Not that Bennett's attacks lacked merit. After all, taking on the education establishment is not necessarily unenlightened or even anti-education, as many members of the National Education Association and the American Council on Education would have us believe. Like other special interest groups that work Congress over, the education lobby in Washington is highly entrenched and has its own vested interests--namely garnering more federal funds.
THOUGH highly controversial, Bennett's attacks on Harvard, Stanford, and other prestigious institutions have raised central questions concerning the mission of colleges and their proper role in society. And even a well-respected education leader like David Breneman, president of Kalamazoo College, essentially admitted the validity of Bennett's complaints when he said that many colleges, including his own, increase their tuitions in order to gain the elite recognition usually accorded to high-priced colleges.
Indeed, years from now, historians may view Bennett as movement conservatives now do, namely as a reformist crusader battling on behalf of middle-income families against the education community, working to reform curricula, eliminate drug abuse on campus, and halt rapidly rising college costs.
But such twisted history would ignore the lack of success Bennett had on reversing college costs or addressing the drug crisis. It would also ignore the fact that Bennett led the administration's dangerous policy of attempting to cut student aid and shift the burden from grants to loans, which most experts agree is the real reason for today's record default rates. And despite all of Bennett's bluster, Congress consistently refused to go along with his requests for cuts, leaving him with a record of few substantive accomplishments.
Yet even with Bennett gone, colleges and universities are not off the hook. While the next Republican administration will probably realize the futility of slashing federal funding for student aid and avoid polarizing the education community the way Bennett did, pressure to keep tuitions down will remain.
The greatest irony of all is that the higher education community brought the pressure on itself. For the NEA and the "blob" of interest groups representing higher education which had pushed so hard for a Cabinet-level position in the late 1970s were the ones who made Bennett possible. And instead of getting the acquiescent, cooperative type of leader they expected in the post, education leaders found themselves dealing with a highly independent secretary with an agenda remote from their own.
You could almost hear Bennett chuckling as he hiked off into the New England forests yesterday after a job, well, which was done.
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