In higher ed, as the Gates Foundations’ power grows, grumbles do too

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most active nonprofit players in higher education — to the tune of $472 million. But according to an exhaustive special report in The Chronicle for Higher Education this week, its money and advocacy is rubbing many in the academy the wrong way.
Given the scope of its activity and funding, it’s hard for the foundation to not be a target for critics. And it’s been the subject of educational debate in the past: Education historian Diane Ravitch has been among its most vocal detractors of its pro-privatization efforts in K-12 education and, earlier this spring, the Gates Foundation rankled some parents with its new initiative to aggregate mounds of student data with the goal of personalizing learning.
In higher education, the Chronicle reports that the foundation’s approach to the field as “an engineering problem to be solved” is making academics and analysts concerned about the long-term consequences for institutions and students.
For example, some critics worry that a focus on measurability and experiences delivered via technology will help prepare students for short-term employability but not necessarily long-term social mobility. They also fear that bringing more students into institutions through massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other methods could lead schools to lower their standards and lead to more divisions among colleges and universities. An underlying issue, says the Chronicle, is a feeling among some academics and administrators that the foundation brings mistaken assumptions to the table and that those assumptions are generated by outside think tanks and researchers, not those based inside universities.
“They start with the assumption that something is broken. Then they take the next step of deciding what the fix is before they really understand the problem,” Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, told the Chronicle.
Despite the criticism, it’s hard to argue that the Gates Foundation hasn’t enabled positive innovation and research: for example, at a time when most of the conversation around MOOCs focused on motivated students, the foundation announced grants supporting MOOCs for remedial students. It’s funded and created coalitions for exploring new technology, like adaptive learning, and it’s underwritten research that’s led to new tools and findings.
But considering the foundation’s huge influence, it’s important that people inside and outside the academy examine and question its actions. What’s particularly troubling about the Chronicle’s report is it seems that many of the people best-equipped to debate its positions on higher education policy – from private-college presidents to researchers and lobbyists – don’t want to pipe up because they don’t want to hurt their chances of someday winning a Gates Foundation grant. And that’s a shame because colleges and universities, not to mention the general public, would benefit from a more complete conversation about the future of higher education.