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The U.S. Education Department hired a private research company to collect data on the possible abuse of power by university presidents, and then tried to prevent college officials from finding out about the effort, according to government documents.

The department last fall paid $257 to Applied Systems Institute, a Washington-based firm, to gather information on the possible abuses in response to an inquiry from a reporter, the documents revealed.

The firm's research turned up little, if any, evidence of corruption in the highest ranks of academe, an analyst for the company wrote in a memorandum to department officials. "[O]nly the Chronicle of Higher Education yielded usable information,'' she noted.

Officials from the American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing colleges and universities, sought documents on the firm's activities under the federal Freedom of Information Act, but the department initially denied their request on the grounds that they were prepared specifically "to assist the department in preparing policy options.''

Last month, however, William Kristol, chief of staff to Secretary William J. Bennett, agreed to turn over three documents.

Americans should study, nurture, and defend Western civilization "because it is ours, ... because it is good, ... [and] because the West is under attack,'' Secretary Bennett told students at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., last week.

"To understand our society, our institutions, our ways, and our contemporary controversies, we need to understand our political, social, and intellectual history,'' Mr. Bennett said. "We need to know the story of Western civilization, for that is where our institutions and society were made.''

Mr. Bennett said his speech was a response to a challenge from a student at Harvard University, who questioned why the educational core should be based solely on an understanding of Western civilization. Last fall, at a ceremony marking Harvard's 350th anniversary, Mr. Bennett said colleges have failed in their basic responsibility of providing intellectual and moral education for young people.

At Smith, an all-female institution, Secretary Bennett said that Western civilization has produced "the world's most just and effective system of government.''

Yet, he added, critics wrongly contend that America is "corrupt with a host of unholy 'isms,' such as racism, elitism, and imperialism,'' and is "characterized by a nearly pathological mistreatment of women.''

On the contrary, Mr. Bennett argued, while there have been injustices, "in America today, women enjoy more liberty, more opportunity, than they ever have before. And ... women of the West are far better off than women anywhere else in the world.''

In numerous speeches over the past two years, Secretary Bennett has decried the rapidly rising cost of college. Now, he is offering help to colleges that will develop and test ways of reducing such costs.

The Education Department earlier this month advertised for proposals for cost-reduction contracts that will last up to one year. Department officials would not say how much money is available for the contracts.

The program's goal, according to Mr. Bennett, is to foster innovative approaches to containing college costs, as well as to improve the efficiency of college administration and programs.

"The department is seeking a wide array of approaches applicable to a large number of institutions, not just solutions to one institution's unique problems,'' he said.

The cost of attending college has risen nearly 60 percent in the past six years, or twice the rate of inflation, he added.

In a separate competition, the department has also asked colleges to develop, implement, operate, and improve drug-education programs for their students.

Under the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986, the department is authorized to offer from 75 to 150 awards of from $5,000 to $125,000 to institutions that develop such programs. The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education will administer the grants.

The programs should stress practical action, and should be innovative, according to the department's application procedures. In addition, drug-prevention programs should encourage increased collaboration with the institution's local community, the procedures state.

"The major effort should be focused on education and prevention activities for all students,'' the application procedures state. "The goal of these efforts should be to encourage non-users to continue to be non-users, to encourage occasional users to stop, and to encourage regular users to reduce or eliminate their use.''

While the number of women enrolled in colleges and universities has increased at a much faster rate than that of men, proportionately fewer women are apparently benefitting from student financial-aid programs, a new analysis has found.

The study, "Student Financial Aid and Women: Equity Dilemma?'' also found that a greater percentage of women are adult, part-time, and independent students, and that such students are less likely to receive aid.

Further, it found, women are underrepresented in programs awarding scholarships for academic merit, such as the National Merit Scholarships, and are less likely to participate in corporate programs that offer tuition as an employee benefit.

Because women's income lags behind that of men, women who receive guaranteed student loans must pay a larger proportion of their post-graduate income to repay the loans, the study found. The default rate for women is also higher than that of men, it found.

More information is needed on the effects of student-aid policies on women, according to Mary Moran, the study's author.

The study is available for $10 each from the Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1 Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Department E, Washington, D.C. 20036.--R.R.

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