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Foundations' Newfound Advocacy

By Doug Lederman

To many of the policy experts and researchers who work with them, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation have driven more significant (and beneficial) change in five years than American higher education has seen in decades.

To their critics, the two behemoths and a band of collaborating groups and think tanks (call them the "completion mafia") have hijacked the national agenda for higher education and drowned out alternative perspectives.

One doesn't have to fall squarely into one of those camps to acknowledge the extent to which the two foundations have remade the philanthropic landscape in higher education. A paper to be presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association aims to document -- through an admittedly impressionistic mix of data, interviews and other means -- just how thoroughly the two philanthropic giants (and others) have altered both the traditional foundation role in academe and (by extension) the public policy discussion about higher education.

While the generally evenhanded paper acknowledges that the foundations' approach has accomplished a great deal, it cites significant concerns about what may be lost in the process.

At its core, argue the authors Cassie Hall and Scott L. Thomas, Gates and Lumina "have taken up a set of methods -- strategic grant-making, public policy advocacy, the funding of intermediaries, and collaboration with government -- that illustrate their direct and unapologetic desire to influence policy and practice in numerous higher education arenas."

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