Universities Vie For $30-Million Voc.-Ed. Center

By Reagan Walker — October 07, 1987 6 min read

Washington--For the first time since the creation of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education in 1976, Ohio State University’s designation as site of the center is being seriously challenged.

Encouraged by the $25,000 planning grants offered by the Education Department this year to foster competition, a consortium of leading research institutions, led by the University of California at Berkeley and including the rand Corporation, is vying for the $30-million federal grant that funds the center.

Also in the competition, which will pit Ohio State’s decade of leadership against decentralized systems for managing the flow of research information in the field, is Northern Arizona University, where officials would not comment last week on published reports that their proposal includes the establishment of nine regional centers.

A panel of experts assembled by the Education Department made site visits last
week to evaluate the projects. But spokesmen for the department were guarded in discussing the competition and refused to disclose details of the three proposals.

Since the center’s inception, Ohio State has had only one competitor for the federal grant. In 1982, when the first five-year funding period ended, the University of Tennessee submitted a bid for the center’s operation that was $1 million less than Ohio State’s. And when Ohio State eventually won the award, there were charges of political favoritism.

This year, observers say the competition is much keener--and may involve questions of policy direction and emphasis within the field.

“Ohio State has done an excellent job,” said Harry Silberman, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. “But the consortium is also imposing, with its impressive group of researchers.”

In addition to the University of California at Berkeley, the consortium includes four other academic institutions known for their research leadership--the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, Teachers College of Columbia University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University--as well as the rand Corporation. Berkeley would serve as headquarters for the group.

Advocates and Detractors

Created by the Congress in 1976, the ncrve is responsible for conducting research on programmatic and policy issues, and for collecting statistics and providing technical assistance and inservice training. Its activities are monitored by the Education Department’s office of vocational and adult education.

Since 1978, Ohio State has received more than $40 million in federal funding to carry out the center’s mission, and its long dominance in the field has produced both advocates and detractors.

When the 1982 challenge to its leadership failed, frictions rose to the surface. Congressional delegations and university officials from Tennessee charged that the awarding process for the federal grant had become highly politicized and that there was an unhealthy “interplay” between top officials of the national center, federal vocational-education authorities, and the American Vocational Association. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1983.)

A few months later, a panel assembled by a consulting firm working for the Education Department issued a scathing review of Ohio State’s work, saying it was “superficial” and “uncritical.”

The panel also concluded that “the overall relationship between ncrve and ovae is too fraternal and not conducive to an aggressive, change-oriented program of research and development.” (See Education Week, March 30, 1983.)

But Ohio State has also gained many advocates. Mr. Silberman, who was a member of the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education, said that under the university’s direction, the center had done “an excellent job” in providing support services to vocational educators and had forged important links between the research community and those working in the field.

Ray Ryan, executive director of the ncrve at Ohio State, said that he could not comment on this year’s proposal, but that “we are taking the competition very seriously.”

Decentralized Approach

Members of the consortium challenging Ohio State’s control of the center say that although there has been “a fair amount of lobbying” by state vocational-education groups in the past, they do not want this year’s decision to be politically influenced.

According to Gordon Swanson, professor of vocational education at the University of Minnesota and the consortium’s co-director, the institutions involved have asked that groups in the states they represent not apply pressure.

“We are not angry at Ohio State,” said Mr. Swanson. “We just think we have some creative things to offer. And just by bidding, we will, hopefully, improve the center--no matter where it is housed.”

“We think the very way of organizing a center ought to be a journey and not a destination,” he added.

In fact, one of the “creative” aspects of the consortium’s proposal is its organization. No other federally funded research center in education is made up of a consortium of institutions, and no other center includes the services of a corporate research entity such as rand Both features add “exciting elements,” according to Mr. Swanson.

“We want to paint on a very broad canvas,” he said. “We didn’t struggle for geographic representation, we just happened to get it. But we believe that the very nature of inquiry lends itself to a decentralized approach.”

In a letter to Congressional delegations in the states represented in the consortium, Mr. Swanson and Charles Benson, dean of graduate education at Berkeley and co-director of the consortium, said their proposed center “would have the functional advantages of plurality while retaining the operational merits of singularity.”

Robert Kerwood, director of the Arizona Center for Vocational Education at Northern Arizona University, said last week that strictures imposed by the Education Department during the review process prevented his discussing the particulars of his institution’s proposal for the center, which is also said to involve a decentralized operation.

Approach Debated

The decentralized approach could be beneficial, said Stuart Rosenfeld, director of research and programs for the Southern Growth Policies Board, if it provides easier access to the center and gives more people a chance to be part of it.

Mr. Rosenfeld was cautious in assessing the ease with which the consortium’s administration could be coordinated.

“This thing could be very tricky to put together,” he said. “But the benefits would outweigh the risks involved.”

Mr. Silberman agreed on the difficulty of coordination. “Divvying up the pie could be a strategy for winning the center broader political support,” he said. “But will the cost paid be in the ability of the center to truly exercise national leadership?”

The decentralized approach is not a new one in the field, Mr. Silberman noted. There were many regional education research labs in the 1960’s, when he served as an associate commissioner for education research in the former U.S. Office of Education.

“I am concerned about the political factors involved,” he said. “I just hope that somehow the political process will result in great improvements.”

So far, according to those most closely involved, the competition has been a polite one. In addition to the consortium’s pleas for no intervention, contained in letters to Congressional delegations and state vocational-education directors, other groups have vowed to remain neutral.

The American Vocational Association has taken no position on the decentralization issue and, according to a spokesman, will support no one proposal. An aide to the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education said the Congress would only monitor the award process informally.

A decision by the Education Department is expected by December.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 1987 edition of Education Week as Universities Vie For $30-Million Voc.-Ed. Center