Blog: Will Anyone Miss James Kvaal?

By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

Probably the biggest downside to a career in politics is job instability. One day you come into office with an excited electorate. The next you can find yourself looking for a job with only a few weeks before the new regime comes in on its own wave of excitement to replace you (and often, these days, they plan to completely overturn all the work you’ve done for a new direction). You leave your post dejected, and unemployed.

The instability doesn’t always occur at the end of the term. When you’ve aligned yourself with a particular regime, there can be interruptions that come long before your final day in office. Take, for example, Deputy Undersecretary James Kvaal. Word came last week that he will be departing his post at the Department of Education to help President Obama in his bid for reelection.

With the team needing a desperate three-pointer at the buzzer, the president is calling in the baby-faced Stanford graduate to hit a shot from way outside — somewhere near the coach’s lap. Kvaal earned his political points as an education advisor to President Clinton and earned some more by being faithful to the current president in carrying out the administration’s vehemence against career colleges and all things for-profit.

The Obama administration appointed Kvaal last year to replace Robert Shireman, a man The Chronicle of Higher Education described as “a darling of student and consumer groups but a bogeyman to lenders and the for-profit sector.” Kvaal had worked with his predecessor, Shireman, in the Clinton administration. And word on the street was that Kvaal was going to brutalize career colleges in the same way Shireman did.

In fact, upon Shireman’s departure, share prices of Corinthian Colleges Inc. rose 12 percent; Career Education Corporation 9 percent; Apollo Group 7.3 percent; and ITT Educational Services 7.2 percent. He left office being lauded by some for achieving a goal to move the bank-based federal student-loan program to direct lending by the government.

News about Kvaal’s departure was received with a virtual non-response from the higher education community, but especially the much derided for-profit school sector. And Kvaal’s accomplishments? Uh … still waiting on that one. Until we receive an official release from the DOE claiming Kvaal’s own personal victories, we’re going to list his accomplishments at zilch.

During his brief tenure with the DOE, Kvaal was carrying out the wishes of the prez and Secretary Arne Duncan. In his absence, the playbook will merely be handed to another executive who can fill in the equation. Kvaal leaves behind Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter, a former community college president, and Eduardo M. Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education. In other words, the DOE is stocked with others ready to indoctrinate the next Obama-tied exec to fill in the seat.

For making little to no impact on the DOE, Kvaal’s reward is time on the campaign trail. But if he can be so deftly moved throughout the administration – apparently without any perceivable impact – how much influence does he stand to bring to Obama’s bid for reelection? We will likely never know.

All I can go from is what I saw firsthand. At the open hearings the DOE held for its “gainful employment” rule last year, Kvaal was a non-factor. But then again, so was the whole DOE committee that sat absorbing abuse for several hours over two days. His speech at an APSCU hosted conference in January was vague. The general point was that the DOE did not have it out for career colleges – that the DOE was not working from a playbook. I thought it strange that it sounded like he was reading from one.

Kvaal’s presence throughout his DOE stay was vanilla. For-profit education stocks were already in the tank when the announcement came that Kvaal was leaving. I think that might be a sign of his success. I wonder what feeling he leaves with – or if he leaves with any feeling at all.

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