dotEDU Live: Chaos in Congress and the Higher Ed Agenda


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired October 19, 2023

Hosts Jon Fansmith and Sarah Spreitzer discuss the House speaker race and its implications for the packed agenda—such as the ongoing spending battle—in Congress, as well as its impact on the Biden administration. Then Heidi Tseu, ACE’s newly appointed assistant vice president of national engagement, drops by to talk about the increased scrutiny higher education is facing at the state level.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Jordan Defeated Again for Speaker as Republican Stalemate Deepens
The New York Times (sub. req.) | Oct. 18, 2023

As House Goes Into Second Weekend Without New Speaker, Moderate House Democrats Propose Expanding Temporary Speaker’s Powers
CBS News | Oct. 15, 2023

Negotiated Rulemaking for Higher Education 2023-2024
U.S. Department of Education

Ed Department: Mass Loan Cancellation Is off the Table
Inside Higher Ed | Oct. 11, 2023

Education Department Offers More Insights Into New Debt Relief Plan
Inside Higher Ed | Oct. 12, 2023

House Bill Would Overhaul Foreign Gift Reporting Requirements
Inside Higher Ed | Oct. 12, 2023

ACE Launches Office on National Engagement
ACE | Sept. 11, 2023


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: And welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s a very interesting time here in Washington, DC. It’s also kind of an interesting time here in the ACE offices, right? People may notice a slightly different perspective from us.

Sarah Spreitzer: I mean, yeah, we found out we can’t plug in space heaters all at once here on the eighth floor of 1 Dupont. And I was just chatting with you, Jon, that I think somebody next door to me is playing video games, which sounds pretty fun. But Jon, I just got a note from our producers that you missed a part of your intro.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, no, that’s true. And I think this is in keeping with the theme of today’s episode-

Sarah Spreitzer: Chaos.

Jon Fansmith: Which is around chaos in Congress.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yup.

Jon Fansmith: It’s chaos here in Washington, DC across the board. So yes, thank you, producers who remember all the things that we forget. I am your host, Jon Fansmith, ACE senior vice president for government relations and National Engagement. And I’m joined by, as I’ve already mentioned and as you’ve already heard from, Sarah Spreitzer, my illustrious co-host.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, great to see you, Jon. Great to see a different background for a Zoom meeting. I mean, that’s looking on the good side, right? I’m sure there are many positives to look at in the-

Jon Fansmith: That’s right. I am coming from the president’s conference room, which I should note is very well heated, unlike our suite of offices, and hence no need for space heaters over here. But speaking of chaos, Sarah.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah.

Jon Fansmith: The real chaos, the reason people tuned in, as much as I’m sure they care about our office accommodations, what is going on with the House right now? I mean right now as we speak too, as a matter of fact.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I guess is the vote actually going to start? So we went into this weekend thinking that Steve Scalise, a moderate Republican, or pretty moderate for the times, from Louisiana, had the votes to become speaker, or at least seemed to have the nomination through the secret ballot that they did in the Republican caucus. But then it didn’t seem that he had actually the votes for the floor, so he withdrew. And the other person who has been actively campaigning for the job, Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, who many people may know because he’s chairing the Select Committee on Government Actions-

Jon Fansmith: The Weaponization of the Federal Government.

Sarah Spreitzer: Correct. The Weaponization of the Federal Government has also been very active in calling for President Biden’s impeachment, has also denied the results of the presidential election. He is going to try to become elected speaker today. And so that is happening right now. Now, Jon, you probably remember that Speaker McCarthy, it took 15 times?

Jon Fansmith: 15 votes, yep.

Sarah Spreitzer: For him to get the number of votes that he needed. I think Jim Jordan’s a very different person than Kevin McCarthy. And we were actually talking about it this morning that Kevin McCarthy, right, kind of campaigned and sold himself as a moderate that perhaps would be able to make everyone happy, while making no one happy. And he did reach across the aisle and get the debt limit figured out in the spring and seemed to have some agreement with the Biden White House. Jim Jordan is very much a different person and politically extremely different. So do you think he’s going to be speaker?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple of different things to unpack there, right? That crossing the aisle debt ceiling limit deal, that was really the beginning of the end for Kevin McCarthy, right? That was what enraged the most conservative members of his caucus to begin with. And the final straw was obviously passing the continuing resolution to extend federal funding with Democratic votes.

We still have a continuing resolution that expires November 17th. Whoever is campaigning, whoever is ultimately selected speaker, if it is Jim Jordan, if it’s somebody else, will still have to deal with that, and the same tensions will exist within the Republican members of the House, that there are some members adamantly opposed to it, other members who very strongly want to see federal funding continued.

Can Jim Jordan get over the threshold? Well, he is, as pointed out, they are just now beginning to move to vote. There are speakers on the floor speaking to his candidacy. If you read the inside Washington prognosticators, as of this morning, at least what I saw was there were at least eight to 12 public no’s among Republican members. Reminder, Congress is so tightly divided that Jim Jordan can really only afford to lose four Republicans and still win. If five Republicans oppose him, he will not advance. Democrats will likely, majority leader Hakeem Jeffries said yesterday they’ll continue to vote as a bloc as they have in every other speaker election, which would be to nominate Hakeem Jeffries to be the speaker. So this is really a battle amongst Republicans.

Can they get to that 217 vote threshold? It’s going to be tough, right? I don’t think a lot of people think Jim Jordan has votes. Over the weekend there were 50 or so no’s. He’s worked very aggressively to bring people over. It’s just kind of hard to envision on the first vote. Now, apparently, and this is worth noting, Benjamin Delp in the comments mentioned that there is one member, and I’m blanking on his name, but he is a Jim Jordan supporter. He will not be in the chamber today. He is coming back to DC tonight, probably not in time for a vote, which makes the threshold even lower. It’s down to three. So put all that together, it’s a big obstacle for Jim Jordan to pass.

You pointed out Kevin McCarthy went to 15 votes. Jim Jordan has said he will do whatever it takes to secure the speakership. Kevin McCarthy had months and months to prepare for this, to lobby members to support him, and it took him 15 votes, making concession after concession. Jim Jordan’s had about five days to prepare for this, and there’s not many more concessions he could theoretically make to bring members over. So it’s going to be a very tough process.

And you face, as chaotic as it seemed when Kevin McCarthy was up, that was the beginning of a Congress, things hadn’t started yet. There wasn’t that a much immediate impact. This right now, we’re in the middle of incredible global crisis in which Congress does play a role. We don’t often think about this, but if we are going to provide financial support for Israel, which is strongly bipartisanly supported, President Biden has called for. If we’re going to provide financial support to the Ukraine, which has bipartisan support at least in the Senate and the administration’s support, we need the House to be a functioning body to pass that legislation. And so I think people are feeling the pressure to stabilize the leadership. It’s just not clear that they’re in a place now where they can do that. Certainly Jim Jordan has talked about that, rallying behind one speaker to manage the government’s business. Just not clear that he has the votes to be that person.

Sarah Spreitzer: So, Jon, you mentioned the continuing resolution, which expires November 17th, so plenty of time. I don’t understand why you would be panicked about this. That of course keeps the federal government open and running, which is really important for our institutions. Whether or not they get to any agreement on the appropriations, because one of the biggest things in this speaker fight, right, is the deep, deep cuts that are being requested by the more MAGA Republicans or the kind of more conservative, fiscally conservative Republicans that were looking at like 20% cuts to the discretionary domestic spending, including higher ed.

And you talked about the concessions that Jim Jordan can make, and we talked about this a bit this morning. I mean to me, I think that he may be making some concessions already. There were news reports, right, that he’s talking about tying aid to Israel along to aid to Ukraine, which was one of the things that derailed Kevin McCarthy. I think on a continuing resolution, I think he will likely try to find a path forward. I think that he’s going to try to get this speakership, and so I don’t think that this is, he’s not going to try and negotiate on anything. I think he will be out there whipping the votes and trying to cut deals.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. Well, and I will say, and thank you to Alyson Kraus in the comments who’s noted that there are already four votes, and I’m assuming this is from Republicans for other Republicans, which would mean that he has failed already if those votes hold up through the end of the vote, if they’re not changed during the vote.

But that highlights it, right? He’s got... What concessions can he make in terms of rules? Kevin McCarthy surrendered a lot of the speaker’s authority in order to get that position. There’s not much Jim Jordan can give here. The funding issue is going to be, again, the biggest barrier. They have to do something on federal funding. It’s one of the few things Congress has to do on an annual basis. And the disparity, I mean, there’s over $100 billion in difference between what the Senate has proposed in a bipartisan manner and what the most conservative members of the House would like to see.

And to put that in higher ed terms, something we focus a lot on, in the Senate there are small cuts to Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. $10 million, I think for each of those two programs, I’m sure someone will correct me. In the House bill, they eliminate those programs entirely, over $2.1 billion of federal support for low-income students.
Those kind of disparities aren’t easily reconcilable, and if you have one part of your party that you need, again, with such thin margins, it’s really hard to see, even if elected, where he could make the kind of compromises that will keep everyone happy. And the failure to do that is why we’re having another speaker election right now. It’s just very, very difficult. I mean, it’s probably fair to say, and I’m certainly not the first to say it, that this is an ungovernable majority in the House, and what the path forward is, I don’t know.

I’m intrigued by this idea that’s been floating around that they may simply make a motion to extend the authority of the current temporary speaker of the House, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, give him greater authority to negotiate the spending bills and thus clear the field for a new speaker candidate who won’t have to come in a crisis, who won’t have to deal with the urgency of funding for Israel, who won’t have to deal with trying to negotiate among both wings of the party. Funding will have been taken care of, and that can be laid at the feet of Patrick McHenry. Will that happen? I don’t know. But if you keep having failed vote after failed vote, the urgency to do something different is going to start creeping up.

Sarah Spreitzer: Jon, I think we should make a bet on this because yes, that would make sense, but that goes against our theme of chaos in Congress, which I don’t think it’s going to get any less chaotic. And we had a question from one of our longtime listeners, who asked, is this chaos or is what is happening with the speaker a normal exercise of government? And I think this is not normal.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and this is Bob Moran, old friend Bob Moran, asking in a worldly context, isn’t this a normal thing? And I think I would agree with you, Sarah, in a worldly context, other governments changing leadership within the majority party, not that unusual. But the one thing that’s somewhat different, and there’s been a number of articles about this, a lot of those governments are coalition governments where you have varying parties combining to establish a majority. We don’t have that here. For a variety of reasons, it seems almost crazy that we don’t have some people moving amongst and forming sort of a centrist bloc that would have a majority, but that’s just not done the way we do it. Republicans stay with Republicans, Democrats stay with Democrats, aside from voting on certain issues, you don’t have that kind of coalition government you see in other areas. So, Bob, I don’t think that is a normal exercise of government, but we can talk about it later.

Sarah Spreitzer: Maybe over drinks.

Jon Fansmith: Our producers are urging us to move on to more higher ed-specific issues. This is a continuing tension. I could talk about this all day, as you know, Sarah, but we will move on.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, I think our next question is, I mean we could turn it back to higher education, right? What does this mean for higher education, the fact that there is no speaker of the House? And we talked a bit about the fact that we have this continuing resolution until November 17th. I don’t think anyone is really panicking yet that we’re not going to have a continuing resolution after November 17th. I don’t think the outlook is really great for regular appropriations process at this point, but what can the House do with no speaker?

Jon Fansmith: So right now, the interpretation of what the House can do with no speaker is almost nothing. The understanding of what the temporary speaker’s authority is is simply to elect a new speaker. That’s why they’d have to really vote to give the temporary speaker more authority.

This chaos, it means a lot for higher ed, right? There are a enormous number of things, funding-specific, that need to be addressed. I talked about student aid, but there’s research funding, there’s Title III and Title V support for institutions. It’s not just, can we get this hurdle of another extension CR done, can we maintain simply government operations? It’s what does the next year of funding look like? And of course, we are already into the federal fiscal year. The longer we push in, the harder it is for agencies to operate, the changes it makes to the way they allocate funding, the uncertainty about what that funding will look like.

Again, if you are a campus, you’ve already started your fall semester, most likely. If you are looking ahead to next year and the outlook is a slight reduction in work-study funds or the complete elimination of work-study is something you provide to your students, these are very meaningful and consequential actions, and the balance of power in the House, it’s going to determine a lot what those final outcomes will look like. So it is a huge deal.

The other thing is there’s not a lot of time left. I mean November 17th, maybe people aren’t panicking, it’s about a month out. There’s only so much floor time to do things, and the more time they spend simply getting back to zero, the less time there is to do the actual substantive work to get funding over the finish line. There’s a spillover effect across all areas of federal operations. The chaos is real, right?

Sarah Spreitzer: So when Congress is usually stalled or not able to move things, we usually see the executive branch becoming more active. And I know that there’s some stuff going on at the Department of Education regarding rulemaking. Is there anything you want to flag for the listeners?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, this is an interesting one, and thanks for raising it, Sarah, too, because there was some thought when everyone believed, including you and me, that we would have a government shutdown earlier this year, that one of these efforts at the Department of Education, which is on negotiated rulemaking around loan repayment, debt relief for borrowers, wouldn’t go forward. But we averted a shutdown and that negotiated rulemaking will go forward.

For people not familiar with the process, this is a process, the way the Department of Education does it is somewhat unique, in which they convene stakeholders from designated stakeholder groups. So representatives of four-year institutions, or in this case representative of former students or current students, states’ attorneys general, other people. They bring them to the table for sessions three successive months. First one was October, started last week, and they essentially talk about what the Department of Education wants to accomplish or what they can do within regulation to do that and ultimately, hopefully lead to consensus language among the stakeholders that then becomes new regulations.

This process, the one that started last week, is really looking at providing relief to five categories of borrowers. They’re getting into the details of it, but really the big takeaway, and I think the thing that in some ways surprised people, was right before the Friday before the session started, the department put out this announcement that they were targeting these five groups of borrowers for relief. It had been widely considered that this rulemaking, it was announced immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s loan forgiveness proposal, broad-based loan forgiveness proposal, and it was seen by a lot of people, including me, as essentially a response to that Supreme Court decision, that they would attempt to take another crack at broad-based loan forgiveness. And that’s not what they’re doing. They are doing a much more targeted, much more nuanced approach to forgiveness.

Regardless of your opinions on loan forgiveness, this is something at least that seems much more within their authority. People may debate that too, but they made it very clear in the first session this week that this is not about broad-based loan forgiveness. This is not about a universal forgiveness program for borrowers. They are really looking at targeted relief along the lines of what they’ve already done in areas like borrower defense or discharge due to disability or particularly Public Service Loan Forgiveness, addressing borrowers in certain categories with certain circumstances and providing relief to them. So an interesting effort, one that obviously we will keep tracking, we’ll see where it goes.

Sarah Spreitzer: And what is the timeline?

Jon Fansmith: Well, so they will meet for a couple days each of the next two months. I’m sure we can probably drop in a link into the chat for people interested in that schedule. The timeline will depend an awful lot on what happens with those negotiations. If there is consensus regulatory language that is developed among the stakeholders, essentially everyone has to agree; you can’t have any dissension; no one can be a no vote. Then the department is required to implement that language. If everyone agrees to it, the department has to put in place. That tends to expedite the process.

What happens more often, though, is there’s usually a couple of dissenting votes, sometimes more than that, and that leaves the department free to craft their own regulations, draft them the way they see fit and then implement them. That would probably draw out the process more as they develop that. And thanks for providing the link; it’s in the chat. So again, the timeframe probably harder to determine at this stage where we haven’t really seen concrete proposals, but if it’s consensus, it’ll be a little bit quicker than if it’s lack of consensus.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Jon, speaking of concrete proposals, and this is moving back to Congress, even though the speaker race is tying everything up on stuff moving to the floor, this week we actually saw a bill introduced by House Education and Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx from North Carolina, along with Congresswoman Michelle Steel, a Republican from California also on Ed and Workforce, around foreign gift and contract reporting, which you know is one of my favorite issues.

Jon Fansmith: You do spend a lot of time on it. You’re being sarcastic, I think, but considering the amount of time you spend on it, I think it might be one of your favorite issues.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, yeah. And for folks that follow this issue, this is Section 117, my favorite part of the Higher Education Act. And the package of bills is called the DETERRENT Act or the Defending Education Transparency and Ending Rogue Regimes Engaging in Nefarious Transactions, which is a very snazzy title.

Jon Fansmith: Did you recall that from memory, or was that written down somewhere?

Sarah Spreitzer: No, I have it next to me.

Jon Fansmith: Oh, okay. I was going to be very impressed, but now, yeah.

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh, I should have said I’d memorized it already. I mean, it’s not going to move to the floor right away, so I don’t have to memorize it yet, but I think it will be something that we’ll be talking about for a while. And basically it amends Section 117 and creates a whole host of new reporting obligations under Section 117 in the Higher Education Act, including a requirement that certain institutions would have to get any contract with a concern, which would be China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran, approved by the secretary of education. And so it’s a whole host of new reporting requirements, new sign-offs that would be required by the federal government. And this is all, I mean, I’ve talked about this before, the ongoing concern about foreign money coming into our institutions, or partnerships that our institutions or our researchers may have with other countries, specifically around China. So the bill hasn’t been scheduled for a markup yet, but we are watching it closely. And I will drop a link into the bill text for folks in the chat.

Jon Fansmith: Sarah.

Sarah Spreitzer: It’s interesting. Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Jon Fansmith: Just going to say for people who may not be familiar, what’s a markup?

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh, sorry. That’s when the committee actually considers the legislation and decides whether or not to make any changes and to pass it forward, setting it up for a vote on the floor.

Jon Fansmith: And I interrupted you; you were about to say something else too. Sorry about that.

Sarah Spreitzer: You know, and I don’t remember. It was something about Section 117 and how important it is. No, actually, I was going to say that for Congress being tied up with the speaker race, it’s interesting that there’s a lot of things still going on in Congress. And we are continuing to follow the conferencing of the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which is one of those annual must-pass bills, along with the appropriations bills, that authorizes the Department of Defense to do all of their programming. For the past several years, we’ve been watching it closely because there’s been new research security provisions, and that conference activity is still ongoing. And we’ve heard from staff that they hope to have a bill to move to the floor by Thanksgiving. So staffers continue to hold out hope.

Jon Fansmith: I was going to say very optimistic-

Sarah Spreitzer: Some business will be happening.

Jon Fansmith: It’s funny too, because I was talking to a congressional staffer this week, and they were joking about the fact that people keep asking, you know, “What’s it like there?” And they’re like, “Basically the same right now.” You know, if you’re on the committee, you’re doing committee work. The business of Congress, for the most part, below the top level, is proceeding apace. So thanks for that update, Sarah.

There’s one other thing, and we are going to actually turn in a minute to our colleague, Heidi Tseu, to talk a little bit about something new and pretty exciting here at ACE.

But before we did, there was something we’ve been hearing a lot about from member institutions that I wanted to raise, and this is that a number of institutions have been receiving copies of borrower defense claims that have been filed against their institution. And I’ll try to summarize this as quickly and efficiently as possible, but there is a longstanding provision in law that allows borrowers who have been defrauded or misled into attending an institution to have their federal student loans forgiven if they can document that they essentially entered into an education, took on loans, under false pretenses.

And that’s been around for a long time; the Obama administration made some changes to that to essentially make it easier for borrowers to access that effort. The Trump administration reregulated on that, essentially limited some of the relief that might be available and made it harder for those claims to be both filed and found meritorious. And then the Biden administration had finalized new regulations, essentially swinging the pendulum back to a lot where the Obama administration was, making it easier. That’s a little bit of the background.

The other thing is there have been some big class-action lawsuits around this issue about both how the department’s handling it and whether institutions have a responsibility to, or whether the department has the authority to take money from institutions to pay off these claims. That authority exists in law, it’s used under certain circumstances, recoupment of funds. All of this is built up to what’s happening on campuses, which is our campuses are now beginning to get a lot of these claims filed. We’ve heard from campuses that received 30 in one day; we heard from a campus that received 80 within a week.

Prior to the last few years, it would’ve been incredibly rare for a nonprofit institution to see one of these. And even in a proprietary space, these tended to be only raised in places like ITT and Corinthian, where you had large multicampus chains that collapsed. So you would tend to see most of those claims there.

The other thing that’s a problem is schools are getting 30 of these or 80 in a week. They’re not getting any context or information from the Department of Education about exactly what this means. They simply get the form that the borrower filled out, asserting what they think are the grounds for having their loans forgiven. That is incredibly confusing if you are a person on a campus who suddenly receives this. There’s no context around it. There’s no guidance as to whether you should respond or if you respond, what that should look like.

The department has told people, in particular, NASFAA, the Student Financial Aid Administrators Association, in writing that institutions do not need to respond. In no way questioning the good faith of the Department of Education here, but the people we have talked to said that’s a very risky approach, and you should always, in anything like this, talk to your general counsel, first of all. And then we’ve heard from some attorneys who work in this area, and they said not only should you talk to your general counsels, but you should be prepared to respond in every case to, where possible, contest it on the merits.

I will say it’s a little bit ambiguous. Again, the Department of Education is not helping institutions here. They’re causing more chaos, theme of the day, right? Chaos. They’re causing more chaos on campuses than I think is probably necessary, and a little bit of additional information could help alleviate. We’re certainly going to be working with the department further to try and help institutions in this regard. We’re also going to keep looking at what are the appropriate ways to respond and provide some additional context and information for schools.

So if this is happening on your campus, if this is something you’re worried about, one, feel free to reach out to us to talk to us about it. We’ll be happy to update you on what we know. Two, keep an eye out. We’ll hopefully have some more information that may help how your institution responds. It’s a big issue, maybe a little bit below the radar, but something we’re hearing about more and more. So I wanted to raise that now.

Sarah Spreitzer: And, Jon, are these efforts being organized anywhere, or is this because student loan repayments have just started up again after the three years of COVID pause?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, so I haven’t seen anything that says to me this is a coordinated effort to file these claims. I think your point about, we just restarted student loan repayment the beginning of this month. After a three-and-a-half year pause, there’s certainly been a lot of attention on loan forgiveness and loan repayment, given the Biden administration’s efforts and other issues.

It’s not entirely clear why suddenly you’re seeing these, I will say why they were filed. Why you are seeing them is a result of a specific court order that’s ordered the Department of Education to clear a large existing backlog of claims. So they are now just pushing these claims out to the institutions to clear their backlog in compliance with the court’s order.

It is a very complicated environment. Should have mentioned this at the top. Those lawsuits I mentioned, they are putting requirements in place on the Department of Education. They are blocking the Biden administration’s rules, the ones that were passed in 2023, from going into effect. So it is just a very murky and complicated environment for understanding what these claims are, what they might mean for an institution. So again, talk to your attorneys first of all, and hopefully we’ll have more resources to help you to deal with that coming soon.

Sarah Spreitzer: I think that’s very helpful for institutions.

Jon Fansmith: And speaking of things coming soon, I just teased this, I don’t know if this is the most awkward segue ever, but we are joined by one of our colleagues with power in their office, Heidi Tseu, who I am very pleased to introduce to the broader dotEDU Live community. Heidi is ACE’s new assistant vice president for national engagement. And Heidi, I might just turn it over to you to talk a little bit about what the Office of National Engagement is and why you’re joining us today.

Heidi Tseu: Sure. Thank you for having me. Hello, Sarah. Hey, Jon. So this is a new initiative formed by ACE. I’ve now been with the organization for exactly a month now. My power is very strong over here. I just turned off my space heater to avoid the background noise.

But the initiative was formed as a result of these national trends of attacks on principles basic to higher education, I think that’s the best shorthand for it. We are seeing a proliferation of these anti-DEI bills coming from a state level. But not just that they existed, but that they were being replicated across borders. And I think there was a sense from that trend that there needed to be some sort of concerted response to dealing with it on that broader basis.

And so I like to say on one hand, yes, the formation of this office was a result of that threat and these challenges, but in the last month that I’ve spent talking to our colleagues, talking to our sister associations, other stakeholders in the higher education space, there’s a lot of interest for just overall state engagement, and how do we sort of provide these lessons across state borders, share best practices, and organize our efforts so that we’re not just looking at a defensive approach, but we’re looking at a proactive approach. So it’s exciting stuff. We’re still in the development phase, but it’s been a very positive reaction across the field.

Jon Fansmith: And so as part of those conversations, Heidi, as you’re surveying the landscape, what stands out to you as you talk to people?

Heidi Tseu: I think the strongest part is that the resources are there. I think there are resources within ACE clearly. I think we’re sort of well situated in this space because we have the breadth of membership. We’re sort of representative of all diversity of types of institutions, and so we can look across those themes.

But what we’re hearing is that this base assumption that higher education has had, that people just understand the value proposition of higher ed, and that calculation is assumed to take place in the public mind, in the mind of our state legislators, in the mind of the stakeholders that are having these conversations in city hall, that’s not quite there anymore. And so it is on us to think about how do we reach out to all these different resources that exist but haven’t necessarily communicated across borders and think about how do we leverage all of our respective knowledge and experience and connections to figure out these conversations on a national level. We can’t play whack-a-mole here. We have to think about, how do we take something happening in South Carolina and talk to people in Oregon about what they’re dealing with.

So it just, one is that there’s a need. Two is that the resources exist, so it’s really about convening those resources and putting some focus on how to thoughtfully leverage those resources. And then three is just that once we have an infrastructure in place, there’s a huge amount of potential for what this national engagement work can do. I think there’s a lot of value that higher education adds to our local communities, and once we start thinking about those across borders, there’s a lot that we can do to support existing efforts.

Sarah Spreitzer: I’m always struck, Heidi, by the fact that some of these issues happen in a state but then get picked up in another state. And there are resources that one state can offer to another state group that’s looking at how to talk about these issues. I’m thinking about the issue of accreditation, which was looked at in state legislation in Florida, and now it’s been picked up in North Carolina. And I think our members are looking for ways to talk about how these issues impact them in a national way even though these efforts are actually happening within the states. They really are, I like that your office is called national engagement. Because it is, even though we’re talking about some issues that may be raised within state legislature, these are national issues of importance.

Heidi Tseu: I think that’s exactly right, Sarah. And I think that’s reflective of a national trend. And I mean, I hate to go back to your beginning about the chaos, but we’ve seen a lot of these debates, that haven’t been able to get footing on a federal level, move to the state level. And it’s all the stakeholders. The whole party is moving there. It’s the advocacy groups, it’s the interest groups, it’s the stakeholders, it’s the public. And you’ll find that state policy is... I mean, I’m a little biased because this is my area, but it’s just such a robust place for people to engage in public policy debates. And so when you get in this space and you realize, oh wow, I can get a bill through, I can have a representation of what my impact should be on a national level, and all I need to do is start going state by state. I think more and more organizations and people are moving there, and we’re just going to continue to see this trend grow.

Jon Fansmith: And so, Heidi, I think we, certainly in higher ed, have watched these developments with great concern. One of the things also that frankly overlays a lot of this is we’re simultaneously having this conversation nationally about is college worth it, right? And you and I have talked about, I mean, here at ACE we’ve talked about this quite a bit. But the value proposition of higher education, do you think that has an impact on some of these, something like an accreditation discussion within Florida, North Carolina? Do you see any relationship there?

Heidi Tseu: Yeah, I think that goes back to our foundation. What is higher ed in people’s minds as they think about, okay, I mean the North Carolina law for example. What is the policy underpinnings for why they want accreditation to switch every cycle? What is it that they think they’re trying to achieve there, and what are they going to get out of it? And I think those are the conversations that we need to be in the room before the law passes.

I’ve said this before, by the time a bill is introduced, it’s already too late. The stakeholders have come together, the public has engaged, and the legislators have come up with an idea for what they want to do. So what we’re looking at here for this national engagement office is to really couple that education piece about why higher education matters, what are we doing, sort of pull back the veil of why we do the things we do in the way we do them. And then couple that with our shared goals that we have with our state legislators and with our public. And I think there’s a lot of place for agreement there, and that’s something that we’re really just going to try and build some trust and some networks around.

Sarah Spreitzer: That seems much more hopeful than the federal government.

Heidi Tseu: You can come over here if you want, Sarah.

Jon Fansmith: I think Heidi’s more hopeful than you and I are, Sarah, just by nature.

Heidi Tseu: Sorry, guys. I feel bad for you.

Jon Fansmith: Well, Sarah, I know we also had some questions come in while we were talking. Are there any we should touch on?

Sarah Spreitzer: We did have one that I think both you and Heidi could speak to is, when we’re talking about campus free speech and DEI, what is the Department of Education doing to be involved in some of these thorny issues?

Jon Fansmith: And Heidi, you can probably talk about it from the state side. At least from the federal government side, there’s pretty strong limits on what the federal government can do vis-a-vis the states. The 10th Amendment exists for a reason, and beyond that, there’s limitations on the Department of Education specifically about what they can do in terms of directing or influencing curriculum within schools, make decisions about admissions or about staffing. The federal government has a lot of limitations. There are certainly places where the federal government’s interests around things like civil rights might trump state legislation. But by and large, a lot of these things are really in the hands of the states. So the leadership at the Department of Education, the Biden administration clearly disagrees with some of the policies that are being advanced at the state level, but their ability to directly challenge them or contradict them through federal authority, pretty limited.

So they have done what they can do, which administrations often do, the bully pulpit. They have called attention to what they see as harmful practices, particularly in areas like you mentioned, like around diversity on campuses and the way institutions are allowed or supported in pursuing diversity among their students, among their staff. They are doing what they can, but what they can do is pretty limited. So a lot of steady drumbeat of attention in this area, but, again, not much in direct authority being exerted. But, Heidi, you come at it from the other side of it, so fill in the gaps for me there.

Heidi Tseu: Yeah, I mean, I would say from the state perspective, the state-level perspective, there’s a lot happening that should be happening at that level. When we talk about free speech, we’re talking about climates on our campuses, and these are things that, we’ve talked about this before, our presidents are struggling with every day, but they’re the right people to struggle with how do you create these ecosystems that invite discourse and think about diversity of thought and train our young people in how to enter the workforce and maintain these discussions once they leave these campuses.

So I think in my mind, this is happening, and it’s not always going to be perfect, but that’s because this is complicated. And so what we need to do is really figure out how do we support our state legislators? How do we support our campus presidents? How do we support our campus communities and also the general public’s understanding that this is happening? And I think there are some overblown examples of it in media, which are sort of highlighted as really interesting topics, but we don’t hear so much about the victories that are happening every day, about the great conversations that are taking place. I think, again, this goes back to our job, which is really to get that message out there about the good work that is happening.

Jon Fansmith: And Sarah, were there any other questions?

Sarah Spreitzer: No, I think that that was it. Although I’m sure our listeners are probably wondering how best to engage with the Office of National Engagement, and if they want to reach out to Heidi or have ideas of resources or things that we can be working on in this area, how would they do that?

Heidi Tseu: Sarah, you keep helping me out here. That is exactly the plug I was hoping for. We are developing this office. And I want to emphasize that word because we are actively seeking feedback from our partners, both traditional and nontraditional higher ed partners, to really think about the best way that we can support it. And there’s a comment in the chat talking about rediscovering state and local governments and how much harder it is at the local level. We’re not looking to replicate work that’s happening at the local level. We’re hoping to recognize people and institutions that are doing that work and support them. And so we really need to hear from all the stakeholders and understand what it is that we can do to support you. And so I would encourage people to reach out to me, ACE, and we’d love to connect and have that conversation.

Jon Fansmith: And Heidi, your contact information is available on the ACE website for those who want to reach out to you directly. I think we all here at ACE feel really good that you are here and taking on this responsibility. And based on the comments we were seeing in the chat, there are a lot of ACE members and maybe even some nonmembers who are excited that this is something the organization is taking up, and I think we’re in good hands with you at the helm of it. So thank you for joining us today and sharing a little bit more about that. And thanks to all of you for participating. As always, we are really driven by the great questions you ask and the interest you express in different topics. Glad to have you join us, look forward to doing this again next month, and we’ll see you all later.

Sarah Spreitzer: As always, you can check out earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU on Apple, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. For show notes and links to the resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at While there, please take a short survey to let us know how we’re doing. You can also email us at to give us suggestions on upcoming shows and guests.

And finally, a very big thank you to the producers who helped pull this podcast together: Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, Malcolm Moore, Anthony Trueheart, Rebecca Morris, Jack Nicholson, and Fatma NGom. They do an incredible job making this happen and making Jon, Mushtaq, and I sound as good as possible. Finally, thank you so much to all of you for listening.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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