Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a feature article today on the Gates Foundation. It establishes the fact that Gates has become a major player in higher education policy by funding projects, by infiltrating the U.S. Department of Education with former employees, and by influencing political, media, and other officials at various levels.
“Since 2006, Gates has spent $472-million to remake U.S. higher education, according to a Chronicle analysis—$343-million of that since January 2008, the year Gates announced a new focus on helping low-income young people earn credentials. The Lumina Foundation, another key player in the college-reform movement and the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education, spent a little more than half that amount over the same period on a similar agenda.
Five years into an ambitious postsecondary program that is expected to last two decades, the avalanche of Gates cash has elevated the Seattle-based foundation to a central role in the national debate about reforming college, raising questions about the extent of its influence.
Gates’s rise occurs as an unusual consensus has formed among the Obama White House, other private foundations, state lawmakers, and a range of policy advocates, all of whom have coalesced around the goal of graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives. Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious. To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education. (Disclosure: The Chronicle has received money from the Gates foundation.)…
The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas, arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.
Higher-education analysts who aren’t on board, forced to compete with the din of Gates-financed advocacy and journalism, find themselves shut out of the conversation. Academic researchers who have spent years studying higher education see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.
Some experts have complained that the Gates foundation approaches higher education as an engineering problem to be solved.
Most important, some leaders and analysts are uneasy about the future that Gates is buying: a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and—these critics say—narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.
Private foundations have shaped academe for decades. But Gates and its philanthropic partners, the Lumina and Kresge Foundations, are pioneering an activist approach to higher-education reform, one that emphasizes systemic change and demands quick, measurable results. This new approach has earned praise from some observers, who maintain that strategic, focused grant making is exactly what foundations should be doing.”
The mega-question is: But what if the focus of these grants and strategies are misguided?
There is little in our checks and balances to prevent Gates and others like it to operate as venture (some would say “vulture”) philanthropy looking to control and manipulate enterprises to their own view of the world. As a private philanthropy, Gates (like Lumina, Broad, Walton) are answerable to no one. They do not want to answer to anyone and instead look to control as much of the playing field as possible – similar to the way monopolists control markets, the production of raw materials and the means of production. Th article covers good ground but could also have explored more the corporate, for-profit connections of Gates and others like it.
In sum, the American education-industrial complex continues to grow and function well through Gates and his philanthropic, political, and corporate collaborators.