In the flood of remembrances of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy that overwhelmed the airwaves and the Internet Tuesday, Rep. Barney Frank’s statement stood out: "clearly the most powerful man never to have been president in the United States’ history," the Massachusetts Congressman called Kennedy.
Even for those who might not fully buy that lofty assessment of the longtime senator from Massachusetts, who died late Tuesday evening, Kennedy was the most influential U.S. senator of his generation(s), and, more narrowly, had as much impact on American higher education policy, defined broadly, as any politician in recent history.
Some of Kennedy’s influence surely stemmed from his longevity; he touched (and often shaped) virtually every important piece of higher education legislation for the last 40 years. But higher education policy experts interviewed Wednesday identified many other traits and circumstances that contributed to Kennedy’s impact on higher education and other social issues: passion, vision, a willingness to embrace hard work, a bipartisan approach, and expertise developed over time, to name some.
Much has been said and written in recent months about how Kennedy’s absence from the Senate — temporary, many vainly hoped — had impaired the ability of Congress and the Obama administration to reach a consensus around legislation to revamp the health care system, which had, with education and civil rights, been atop the senator’s top priority list throughout his career. His death leaves a similar chasm in federal higher education policy making, and as college lobbyists and others Wednesday assessed both Kennedy’s career and the future, they differed on how likely it is to be filled.
"I’m not sure it is possible for a political official to mean as much in any area as Senator Kennedy has meant in health care, civil rights and education," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education and a former senior aide to the Massachusetts senator. "He was a unique individual and there are unique circumstances that are not likely to be repeated."
"Is there another Ted Kennedy in the Senate? No, not yet," said Edward M. Elmendorf, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "But that doesn’t mean there won’t be."
Short term, Democrats must choose Kennedy’s successor as chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which oversees higher education and many of Kennedy’s other priorities. Candidates (in order of seniority, which is king in the Senate) include Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, if he chooses to give up his chairmanship of the Senate’s banking committee, as he combats his own cancer and faces a difficult election bid; Sen. Tom Harkin, who is highly unlikely to relinquish leadership of the agriculture panel that is fundamental to his home state of Iowa; Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has been running the panel in his absence; Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Patty Murray of Washington.
But while some of those names are mentioned when higher ed policy experts are asked (and in some cases, pushed, since many are reluctant to go there) about who could lay claim to Kennedy’s mantle as the force/go-to person on higher ed policy in Congress, other names pop up, too.
Rep. George Miller’s is fully expected, as he heads the parallel House of Representatives education committee and worked closely with Kennedy from the House side; more surprising, perhaps, are Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Rep. Timothy Bishop of New York.
Most publications’ obituaries and appreciations of Kennedy and the list of accomplishments on the senator’s own biography focus most heavily on health care and civil rights but include education among Kennedy’s priorities — "the great issues of our time," as Hartle called them. Kennedy joined the Senate in 1962 with a much higher profile than most, given that one brother was the president and another U.S. attorney general, but he played a relatively minor role in higher education policy until the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, arguably his most significant piece of higher education legislation.
The long list of measures he spearheaded or contributed to — which is topped by the Americans With Disabilities Act and No Child Left Behind — also includes the creation of the AmeriCorps national service program, and of the direct student loan program.
Those who argue most strongly for the significance of Kennedy’s impact on federal higher ed policy tend to focus less on the innovativeness of his legislative approach than on his staying power, his vision and his bipartisanship. Many members of Congress have significantly altered higher education — Carl D. Perkins, Claiborne Pell, Robert Stafford, William D. Ford, John Brademas are the names that tend to roll off the tongue — but "most of them reach a level of influence, then are only there for a short time," said Hartle of ACE. "The length of his tenure is unlikely to be matched."
Several commentators emphasized the strength of his convictions (focused on the needs of the country’s downtrodden) and his ability to bridge party and other differences to get things done.
"He had a clear vision of what he believed in, was passionate about it, and he worked really, really hard," said Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who worked alongside Kennedy as a staff member for a former colleague, the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, and a current senator, Christopher Dodd. "But he genuinely liked everybody and was able to see the world from their viewpoint. He believed in his views, but knew the point at which he could compromise with others without compromising his own principles."
"When he decided something needed to get done, that’s when things got done," said Scott Fleming, a former Senate Republican aide who is now a consultant at Madison Education Group, a Washington lobbying firm. "He was one of those senators that understood that there’s a time for politics, and a time for policy making, and he knew when we were in the right kind of environment for each."
Elmendorf of AASCU, who worked with Kennedy when Elmendorf was a senior Education Department official in the Reagan administration, cited the late senator’s bipartisanship and his standing as "somebody who doesn’t personalize the people behind issues" and "made a commitment and didn’t go back on his word" as fundamental traits for Kennedy — and all-too-rare ones on Capitol Hill today.
Richard T. Jerue, another former Pell aide and higher education lobbyist and now president of the Art Institute of Charleston, heralded another characteristic that contributed to Kennedy’s success: his "courage and willingness to take on entrenched forces," which he did, for instance, when he supported President Clinton’s direct loan plan over the objections of the banking industry, Jerue said. That courage grew in part from one thing that Kennedy, as the product of one of the country’s best-known and wealthiest families, very much had in common with Pell, Jerue said. "Although they loved their jobs, they didn’t need their jobs."
"The whole financing system [in Congress] makes members reliant on too many forces for their own survival," said Jerue, suggesting that lawmakers, especially in the House, are constantly fund raising and campaigning and, as a result, increasingly vulnerable. "That creates a situation whereby you don’t take the risks, you don’t take the long leap forward, you don’t take on the entrenched interests. You lose your vision."
How Easily Replicated?
If you’re sensing a pattern, many of the higher ed lobbyists and leaders interviewed about Kennedy seemed to argue that his largeness on the political stage derived in some cases from elements — political longevity, inherited wealth and public visibility — that are unlikely to be found again, at least not all combined, as was the case with Kennedy.
"He embodied a unique combination of personal characteristics, visibility and inquisitiveness that suggest we are not likely to see someone able to fill his shoes in our lifetimes," said Hartle, of the American Council on Education. "Kennedy will rank with the greatest senators in history, and you don’t replace those people easily."
Many of Kennedy’s other traits, though, "are compelling leadership characteristics that, in any setting, could always set up a leader to succeed," said Flanagan of the independent colleges’ group. That’s not to say that it will be easy to find "another Kennedy," she said. But "could somebody step forward? Yes. Will they? I think that’s unanswered."
Asked for the names of people they thought could end up playing a dominant, if not Kennedy-like, role in federal higher education policy making in the years to come, many of those interviewed declined to speculate. Some cited people who did not appear to be in the mix right now, like Hillary Clinton, who some thought would have been on the path to an elder stateswoman role in the Senate, and might have focused on higher education and other social issues, if she had not become secretary of state.
Among those now in the Congress, the senators in line on the Senate HELP Committee were seen as limited in various ways: Harkin, Dodd and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island as probably distracted by other assignments or priorities, Mikulski as sharing Kennedy’s passion and scrappiness but lacking his geniality.
(The vast majority of both past and current lawmakers discussed as "influential" were Democrats, a recognition, several of those interviewed said, of two things: (1) the fact that Democrats have historically controlled Congress and (2) that "influence" in Washington — especially when viewed through the eyes of people like college officials and lobbyists — tends to be measured by who has delivered either money or other benefits. Could future lawmakers who are "influential" on higher education be those who figure out how to hold colleges truly accountable on what they charge students, or force them to spend more out of their endowments?)
Miller, who heads the House committee, was characterized by several people as "Kennedy-esque," in terms of his self-assuredness, intelligence, passion, and command within his own party. But he tends to favor K-12 issues over higher education, and given the nature of the House, he is called on much less to show the kind of bipartisanship for which Kennedy was so commended. (Miller has also been a formal leader in his party, whereas Kennedy, though influential among Democrats, led more by force of will than position.)
The others who drew mentions tended to be people comparatively early in their Congressional careers who have a clear passion for and knowledge base in higher education that could position them for influence, but about whom it is too early to tell whether they have the rest of what it takes. Tim Bishop is a former college administrator who is well-versed on the ins and outs of financial aid policies and speaks eloquently about many aspects of higher education; Sherrod Brown has quickly established himself as a prodigious sponsor of higher education legislation in the Senate, and plays host to a unique gathering each year in which he brings dozens of Ohio’s college presidents to Washington to pick their brains.
Is it conceivable that one of those people, or someone else, steps forward and becomes "another Kennedy?" Perhaps, but no matter what, it’s going to take time.
And in the meantime, says Hartle of ACE, "at this very critical moment, federal higher education policy has turned a page."
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