Dear Commons Community,
Coming on the heels of Bill and Melinda Gates’ recent visit to our own Hunter College a few days ago, the Gates Foundation has announced that two senior-level administrators who focused on higher education would be leaving. The Gates Foundation is the largest private philanthropic player in postsecondary education, and the departures of Daniel Greenstein and Heather Hiles have prompted speculation about the future direction of an operation that now awards about $125-million a year in grants. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Greenstein, who announced this month that he would be stepping down in March as director the foundation’s Postsecondary Success program after six years, said in an interview with The Chronicle that he doesn’t expect major changes. The job posting for his successor, he predicted, will say “very clearly that they’re looking for a director to execute on the existing strategy.”
In its simplest form, the strategy calls for raising the educational-attainment levels for low-income and minority students by improving the retention and graduation rates at the institutions that enroll the greatest number of such students. It also aligns with the foundation’s burgeoning plans for more spending on projects to promote economic mobility in the United States that Bill and Melinda Gates recently highlighted in their annual letter.
Greenstein said the foundation spent a decade homing in on the approaches it backs to accomplish the strategy: online education in concert with face-to-face instruction, predictive analytics in student advising, “pathway” curricular strategies and proven developmental-education techniques to keep students on track toward their degrees, and collecting more meaningful data about students’ progress. While he and others at the foundation say that the new director will certainly have leeway to shape the program, Greenstein said shifting course, “would be, in my view, ill-advised.”
Nonetheless, people familiar with the foundation’s work in higher education, including some current and former grantees and former program officers, say the selection of the next director could and should be an opportunity for the foundation to broaden its scope to include more support for organizations that promote options beyond traditional colleges and fresher approaches within academe.
Many saw Hiles, a deputy director, as an advocate for doing more with nontraditional organizations in education. She recently left after only about a year in the job. Hiles declined to comment on the reasons for her exit. Greenstein would say only, “That happens.”
Whether Hiles’s short tenure was the result of a policy difference or a bad personnel fit, several people familiar with the foundation say her departure is emblematic of something bigger: a tension within the Gates education programs between those who favor working through existing channels and those pushing for support of educational entrepreneurs and for options that might prepare people for careers but that don’t necessarily involve college certificates and degrees.
The Gates program supports groups like Jobs For The Future, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Aspen Institute, and Educause. More recently, it’s doubled down on its institution-oriented focus with grants to a consortium of 11 public colleges called University Innovation Alliance and to a collection of 29 colleges and two state systems it calls the Frontier Set. Just this week, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities announced it was receiving a $1.2-million, two-year Gates grant to develop a Center for Public University Transformation to help its members produce more college graduates..
… Even with $125 million a year to spend, Greenstein says the foundation will inevitably disappoint some people. “One of the most difficult things I encountered here is the tradeoff” involved in ending a program like the one for breakthrough models, he said. “We were disappointing to the competency-based education folks too.”
Greenstein looks back on his tenure with satisfaction. “The pace of change is slow” in higher education, but that’s not necessarily bad, he said. “I actually value the reasons that we’re slow.” At the same time, other signs — like the growing rates of adoption of online education, the wider use of data-driven advising, and the way the higher-education conversation has shifted to college completion and value, not just access — are all indicators of action. “And we contributed to that,” said Greenstein.
He will step down from his role on March 15 but will continue with the foundation until at least June, assessing the nature of the outside expertise that is available to college leaders who are managing change at their institutions. Greenstein said he hasn’t decided on his next career move — perhaps a college presidency, for an institution “that’s at an inflection point.” And given the current political environment, he also plans to continue speaking out about higher education.
It remains to be seen whether Gates steers its present course. My sense is that there will be changes.