The Commission on Higher Education, organized by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, met for the first time Monday. The commission, which is designed to give the federal government a clearer picture of the inner workings of American universities, will release a report on Aug. 1 with recommendations for improving the system.

Spellings, who recently sent her oldest daughter to a private college, said she hopes the commission will be able to address some of the problems she witnessed firsthand in her daughter’s application and admissions process.

According to a framing document, the commission will focus on making higher education more accessible and affordable to people from varied backgrounds and equipping graduates with the skills they need to be competitive in a global marketplace.

“We are at a crossroads. The world is catching up,” Spellings said in her opening address to the commission in Washington.

“Our students need better critical thinking skills and better training to compete in a world where what you know means much more than where you live,” she said.

The commission will meet four or five times at different sites around the country. Each meeting will be set up as a hearing to solicit the opinions of various constituencies, such as students and parents, business and industry, educators and officials in state and local government.

Former University President James Duderstadt, a member of the commission, said it will probably break up into groups to address the four major issues Spellings has identified: access, affordability, accountability and quality.

Each group will consult a variety of sources before making recommendations but will not conduct independent research, Duderstadt said. He added that the commission has already received stacks of written material – both requested and unsolicited.

The commission is made up of a diverse group of individuals, ranging from high-level executives like Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration at Boeing, to higher education supporters like Sara Martinez Tucker, president of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, to representatives from universities and the federal government.

Duderstadt said he was confident the body would be able to form recommendations by the Aug. 1 deadline.

“While there will be many different perspectives, we believe this is very important to get the key issues out on the table,” Duderstadt wrote in an e-mail. He added that he welcomes inevitable differences of opinion that will arise within the commission as “creative dialogue.”

Some educators have expressed doubts that more federal action will benefit universities. Christie Dawson, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said she would watch the commission with interest, but said she is uncertain it will be able to make significant improvements.

“Just by virtue of having (the commission), they’re implying that we’re not doing these things well,” Dawson said. “AASCU institutions are already quite accountable and quite affordable and very accessible. – We’re the best in the world.”

Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, said federal government intervention in the inner workings of colleges would be a “disaster.” He explained that the autonomy of American higher education is what sets it apart.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Toiv said. “But that said, the world changes, and we always need to ensure that we’re doing the best job that we can.”

Toiv said the commission has expressed no desire to rein in or homogenize universities but added that the AAU would be keeping a close eye on it.

Duderstadt emphasized that although the federal government may act on the body’s recommendations, universities will ultimately be responsible for implementing meaningful changes. He added that Spellings has stated specifically that she has no intention of robbing universities of their independence.

“The tradition has been that the federal government has stimulated and enabled change,” Duderstadt said. “I don’t think that the government will be Big Brother or Big Sister in this case, but will be the facilitator.”

University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the University is looking forward to the commission’s recommendations.

“Everyone sees this as a challenge and something we need to tackle, but we don’t really know what the path will be yet,” Peterson said. “Obviously we’re going to be following this commission closely and with a special interest because former president Duderstadt is on (it).”

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