ERIC Identifier: ED284528
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Johnson, Janet R. - Marcus, Laurence R.
Association for the Study of Higher Education.| ERIC
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.
Blue Ribbon Commissions and Higher Education. ERIC Digest.
Leaders in the field of education at the national, state and campus
levels have wrestled over the past several decades with the question of how to
develop the optimum kind of structure to address policy issues and concerns of
higher education. A frequent technique or mechanism has been the use of blue
ribbon commissions. Some blue ribbon commissions have been considered effective
because they seem to have produced changes in higher education. However, many
reports intended for use in planning have ended up on a shelf unused. This
monograph includes a systematic review of blue ribbon commissions in the nation
from 1965-1983 and looks at, among other things, the number, purpose,
authorizing bodies, composition, and recommendations of these commissions. It
also includes an in-depth study of two blue ribbon commissions-- the Rosenberg
Commission in Maryland and the Wessell Commission in New York; explores the
extent to which selected persons judge the use of blue ribbon commissions to be
an effective vehicle for change in higher education; and considers what specific
characteristics of blue ribbon commissions seem to be related to their
effectiveness in terms of changes which can be attributed to the final
WHAT MAKES A BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION EFFECTIVE?
The following factors appear to contribute to the effectiveness of a blue
ribbon commission: attainability of commission objectives; adequacy of the
amount of time allotted for the study; number of times commissioners meet;
accessibility of commissioners to persons wishing to comment; sufficiency of the
number of staff; selection of staff on the basis of merit alone; depth and
breadth of background research conducted by staff; consideration of testimony
from public hearings; favorable media reaction; repeated use of experts other
than commission members and staff; ample substantiation of commission
recommendations in the final report; consideration of the political potency of
major affected interests in the implementation process; and the activity of the
majority of commissioners in the implementation process.
HISTORY OF BLUE RIBBON COMMISSIONS
Historically, the use of blue ribbon commissions in education is not an
isolated or recent phenomenon. They occur at the national, state, and campus
levels. Indeed, since 1929 there have been nearly 50 such commissions at the
national level and, since 1965, there have been more than 50 blue ribbon
commissions established at the state level.
Such commissions were established in the 1920s to investigate, plan, and
assess higher education. At that time they tended to be concerned with broad
policies. This outlook was modified during the 1940s and 1950s when special
commissions were asked to help states focus on specific policy issues. During
the 1960s blue ribbon commissions fell from favor. Critics suggested that such
groups had only limited effectiveness since experts, convened for a time to
conduct a specific study, inevitably were restricted in perspective, while the
issues under investigation often were ongoing and bound to persist beyond the
assigned time frame. Nonetheless, blue ribbon panels had great impact during
this period as is apparent when one recognizes that the creation of numerous
state coordinating boards was a product of special commissions. Although little
has been written regarding the total number of these commissions and their
effectiveness, their use has continued. Indeed, 25 states reported that, between
1965 and 1983, either the governor or legislature had established at least one
blue ribbon commission. Of these, 20 states had issued a broad charge to one or
more of their respective commissions to explore issues such as access,
enrollments, financing, student transfer policy, adult education, governance,
program duplication, and long-range planning. This does not imply that special
commissions are exclusively concerned with higher education. Special
elementary/secondary commissions in recent years have addressed topics including
accountability in schools, vocational education, school finances, the
implementation of desegration regulations, and general planning for the future.
WHAT IS A BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION?
A blue ribbon commission has the following characteristics: (a) a
predetermined life span; (b) eminent individuals from a variety of backgrounds;
(c) staff and funds to assist in fulfilling its charge; (d) a charge to
investigate and/or to recommend changes in structures, functions, origins, or
processes. Such commissions have been charged to study and make recommendations
on issues ranging from the very narrow, such as the feasibility of establishing
a branch campus, to very broad areas of concern, such as the improvement of the
full range of educational opportunities in a state. They have been established
also for the purpose of ameliorating an existing crisis situation.
ARE BLUE RIBBON COMMISSIONS USEFUL ON CAMPUS?
Campuses traditionally rely upon members of their own community to come
together in ad hoc groups to attempt resolution on important issues. However,
there are occasions when outside assistance is helpful and a blue ribbon panel
might contribute. For example, campuses can become deeply divided over a
specific issue, and a fresh view may be required to resolve the problem in a
manner that will settle the immediate question and reduce (or eliminate) the
level of rancor so that the campus might be united again. Another situation that
calls for an outside panel of experts occurs when a college or university seeks
to develop ties with, or expand its services to, a particular sector outside the
institution. A third situation in which a blue ribbon commission might be
appropriate occurs when a college or university seeks to establish a planning
agenda to move it to a position of leadership in a region or among institutions
of similar size and mission.
BLUE RIBBONS COMMISSIONS CRITICIZED
Certain criticisms have been leveled at the blue ribbon commission approach
to planning and problem solving. Some criticisms allege that commissions tend to
exaggerate the problems they address; that they draw broad and general
conclusions rather than specific and adventurous conclusions; that their
recommendations are beyond the financial means of those who would implement
them; that they fail to spell out the details of their proposals; that they fail
to document their proposed solutions.
While there may be some validity to these criticisms with regard to some blue
ribbon commissions, the flaws are not universally true, nor are the criticisms
(This digest was derived from BLUE RIBBON COMMISSIONS AND HIGHER EDUCATION:
CHANGING ACADEME FROM THE OUTSIDE by Janet Rogers-Clarke Johnson and Laurence R.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Panel on Government and
Higher Education. THE CONTROL OF THE CAMPUS: A REPORT ON THE GOVERNANCE OF
HIGHER EDUCATION. Washington, D.C. Carnegie Foundation, 1982.
Johnson, Janet Rogers-Clarke. "Perceptions of Factors Affecting the Relative
Effectiveness of Temporary Blue Ribbon State Commissions." Ph.D. dissertation,
l982. University of Denver. ED 222 160.
Johnson, Janet Rogers-Clarke, and Laurence R. Marcus. BLUE RIBBON COMMISSIONS
AND HIGHER EDUCATION: CHANGING ACADEME FROM THE OUTSIDE. ASHE-ERIC HIGHER
EDUCATION REPORT NO. 2, l986. ED 272 115.
Moos, Malcolm. THE POST-LAND GRANT UNIVERSITY: THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
REPORT. Adelphi, MD: University of Maryland, 1981.
Peterson, Paul E. "Did the Education Commissions Say Anything?" BROOKINGS
REVIEW (Winter, 1983): 3-11
Rosenberg, Leonard H. FINAL REPORT OF THE GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION ON EDUCATION.
Baltimore: Governor's Study Commission on Structure and Governance of Education
for Maryland, 1975.
Wessell, Nils Y. REPORT OF THE TEMPORARY STATE COMMISSION ON THE FUTURE OF
POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION IN NEW YORK STATE. Albany: emporary State Commission on
the Future of Postsecondary Education, 1977.