Blog: Harris Miller Provided Leadership at a Critical Time

By Kevin Kuzma

Harris Miller likes wearing pinstripe suits. He must have dozens of them — pressed together in his closet in rows of broad shoulders and alternating colors. To my knowledge, though, he has never quite ventured into bow ties, which has always been a tempting look for business executives in Washington whose background involves either politics or even a tinge of economics. This means that while he does occasionally wear a light gray suit with pink pinstripes, his flamboyant taste apparently has its restrictions.

Mr. Miller’s attire, of course, has nothing to do with his leadership of the for-profit school sector’s largest membership organization for the last four years. These are just associations that have randomly latched in the mind and that I recalled upon hearing about his resignation as President of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) the last week.

I’ve interviewed him a few times over the years and watched him speak in various places around the country. And in a very loose way, it’s possible that his wardrobe choices could say something about him — maybe that he set parameters for himself, his style, and even to his approach to the business of lobbying on behalf of career colleges.

During Miller’s tenure as the career college sector’s most visible leader, he built relationships with elected officials and served as an excellent representative in the media. Always full with catchy anecdotes, he spoke plainly and in interviews positioned career colleges as a viable and important sector of higher education. He became the go-to person for the entire industry in the press, and the association’s stance on issues facing schools became the predominant one, seemingly with no detractors. The perception was of a strong and unified sector with no backing down from its principles.

When he took over after former Career College Association (CCA) President Nick Glakas in 2007, the organization took on the more political role that sector leadership had hoped for. Miller was out of his office in downtown Washington and in meetings on Capitol Hill. He was soon traversing the country to meet with state associations, speaking to them to let leaders around the country know CCA’s vision, and also listening to their concerns so he could bring them back to Washington’s attention. CCA became the leadership organization representative of schools on Capitol Hill – the representative it should be.

And then once he was properly indoctrinated into the sector and was aware of its challenges – the largest perhaps being an image issue – the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule landed with a tremendous thud that shook the foundation of the for-profit school industry, initially with the rule’s original form causing realistic worries that the entire sector might come crashing down around itself. Though the sector has seen dark times before, this was strange new territory, and Miller had just enough time under his belt to be prepared to help attack it.

Miller upped the frequency of his short drives to Capitol Hill. He also led an effort to change the name of CCA to APSCU in part to show the sector’s evolution from career education to include schools that had expanded to become colleges and universities offering more complex degrees.

Maybe his best public moment was at the National Press Club Luncheon on June 23, 2010, in Washington where he cut down short-seller Steve Eisman, who was going to testify the next day at Senator Tom Harkin’s Senate hearings investigating for-profit schools. Miller was strong and more importantly, intelligent, as he built his case for the sector, point by point exposing Eisman as a bigger fraud than the one he was perpetuating.  In his most powerful statement that day, he suggested traditional colleges and universities don’t have the ability to teach everyone – and don’t necessarily care what happens to students who don’t make it.

“In large part, our schools treat students like individuals, not like numbers,” he said. “We determine what assistance might be provided to see students through to success. We don’t just say, ‘Look to the left and the right, only three of you are going to succeed. Good luck and goodbye.’”

We began to see, then, that it was plausible to stand up against the larger and more “academic” sectors of higher education.

As with any leader at a time of crisis, Miller’s approach sometimes drew its criticism. There were loud rumblings in the sector that APSCU wasn’t being aggressive enough in its fight against gainful employment. There were sentiments that Miller didn’t want to upset relationships with Democratic leaders if he was going to make his own political run in a few years.

Then last week came the announcement that Harris was leaving APSCU at its most critical juncture in decades in order to pursue “other career interests.”  By 2014 or so, the sector could lose 5 percent of its programs under the new gainful employment rule slated to go into effect next month. The thought is that Miller will make a political run come this fall, though little has been said definitively about what office or what seat he’s seeking.

Obviously his next career move is his prerogative. The gainful employment fight has gone on and on and he’s been at the center of it all from the start. No doubt it has taken a toll on him.

Harris Miller was the right leader at the right time for our sector. Political aspirations are likely calling him to take action in a new fight. His time at APSCU has come to an end in what coincidentally amounted to a four-year term in office.

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