Ted Mitchell, who served as undersecretary of education during Barack Obama’s presidency, is taking the helm at the American Council on Education, an organization that was sometimes at odds with policies championed by the Obama administration.
As president of the council, which represents college and university leaders, Mitchell will have a platform to advocate for public policy that improves college access, outcomes and the quality of higher education. Those are key components of the organization’s mission that Mitchell says are “deeply and profoundly aligned” with his own mission.
The council had been skeptical during the Obama administration of what it viewed as a trend toward federal micromanagement of colleges and universities.
It led nine other higher education groups, for instance, in opposing financial responsibility standards imposed on schools in the borrower defense to repayment rule that governs loan discharges for defrauded students. ACE and others worried that the rule, which was finalized under Mitchell’s watch, would force some universities to provide financial assurances based on enforcement actions, among other things, that are unrelated to financial solvency.
“I’ve always appreciated ACE’s honesty, clarity and helpfulness, even when we disagreed,” Mitchell said, in an interview Wednesday. “In my homework for the job, I reread almost every letter ACE sent to the department — it’s quite a binder. There’s not a letter in there that I wouldn’t have written if I were in their position. On many things, we agreed entirely.”
Mitchell said he would like to work with members to change some harmful narratives that have developed around the importance of a college degree, student debt and university research. He said he worries that low-income and first-generation college students are receiving a message that a college education is out of reach and unnecessary, though the vast majority of data suggests otherwise. He is also concerned that the perception of university research as “publicly funded navel gazing” will have long-term effects on economic development, especially as Congress and the Trump administration seek to slash research funding.
“These are all issues that I have cared about for my entire career, and my career has given me insight into a variety of different kinds of institutions,” Mitchell said.
He has spent much of his career in higher education. Mitchell has served as president of Occidental College in Los Angeles, been vice chancellor and dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles, and held positions at Dartmouth College and Stanford University. Before heading to the Education Department in 2014, he was the chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that provides seed capital to education entrepreneurs.
“All of those perspectives enable me to talk to the membership of ACE as a peer that can help me make connections between different kinds of institutions that might not be readily apparent,” Mitchell said. “Those experiences can come together to be a benefit to ACE.”
Mitchell will start Sept. 1, replacing Molly Corbett Broad, former University of North Carolina president and the first woman to lead ACE since its founding in 1918.
Judy C. Miner, chair of ACE’s board of directors, said that Mitchell “brings a constellation of skills to the presidency” and that the organization is “fortunate to have found someone of Ted’s vision, commitment and in-depth knowledge across the spectrum of American colleges and universities to lead.”
After leaving the Education Department, Mitchell served as a consultant for ACE on matters involving education attainment, innovation and leadership development. He said the organization, much like others in higher education, is keeping a vigilant eye on the policy decisions at the Education Department. Yet what worries him the most is not what’s happening at the department, but what’s happening elsewhere within the administration. Mitchell said he is concerned about proposals to tax endowments and immigration reform, as it affects students benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
“There is a lot going on, and the zone of activity is much broader than the Education Department,” Mitchell said.