Watching a Watchdog’s Words
#1
http://www.insidehighered.com:80/news/20.../contreras

Aug. 15

Watching a Watchdog’s Words
Alan Contreras is an increasing rarity these days: a knowledgeable public official who says what he thinks without worrying too much about whom he offends. That trait has him in a scrape over free speech with his superiors in Oregon’s state government. And while they backed away Thursday from the action that had most troubled him, Contreras isn’t backing down from the fight.

Contreras oversees the state’s Office of Degree Authorization, which decides which academic degrees and programs may be offered within Oregon’s boundaries. Through his position in that office, which is part of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, Contreras has become a widely cited expert for policy makers and journalists, on issues such as diploma mills, accreditation, and state regulation of higher education. He also writes widely on those and other topics for general interest newspapers and higher education publications — including Inside Higher Ed.

Some of those writings rub people the wrong way. In a 2005 essay for Inside Higher Ed, for instance, Contreras characterized a group of states with comparatively lax laws and standards on governing low-quality degree providers as the “seven sorry sisters.” Other columns have questioned the utility of affirmative action and discouraged federal intervention in higher education. In his writings about higher education topics, Contreras scrupulously notes that his comments are his own, not the state’s.

Contreras’s writings and outspoken comments over the years have earned him his share of enemies, particularly among proprietors of unaccredited institutions that he strives to shut down. And while his wide-ranging opinion making has allowed some critics to write him off as a gadfly, he testifies as an expert before Congress and delivers keynote addresses at meetings of higher education accrediting associations.

Those writings have raised some hackles in Oregon. About a year ago, Contreras says, Bridget Burns, the appointed head of the Oregon Student Aid Commission, told Contreras that she wanted him to seek her approval before he did any outside writing that identified him as a state employee. Contreras balked, and after numerous discussions among commission officials in the months that followed, he says, he was told during his annual review last December that “they realized I had the right to do my writing,” Contreras says. “I thought it was all done.”

But this week, Contreras says he was contacted by several acquaintances who had received an annual survey that the commission does, as part of his annual review, to assess the quality of his and his office’s work. In addition to the usual two questions of the “how are we doing?” variety, as Contreras calls them, the survey that began circulating last week contained two new ones:

“Alan occasionally writes opinion pieces in newspapers and professional journals. Do you have any concerns about a state employee expressing personal opinions in this way?”

“Do Alan’s writings affect your perception of OSAC?” Contreras says that several of those who contacted him asked him whether he was under fire from his superiors. The official of one institution that is involved in a case before him, he says, “asked if I was the victim of a witch hunt by my own agency.” One recipient of the survey, Michael B. Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who serves on an accreditation panel with Contreras and has appeared on conference panels with him, says he was surprised both to have been asked to assess Contreras and by the tenor of the questions.

“It’s not uncommon for people who work closely with someone to be asked to comment on his or her performance, but I have never seen it cast like this to people who are pretty far removed,” Goldstein says.

Contreras characterizes the commission’s inquiry as an attempt “to unconstitutionally interfere with my free speech rights under the Oregon Constitution,” which reads in part: “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.” The commission’s inquiry, he says, “damaged my reputation with the people I work with” in and around Oregon. “It’s clear that it’s perceived out there as some show of ‘no confidence’ in me.”

Contreras says that he complained Wednesday to the staff of Gov. Ted Kulongoski about the commission’s actions, and that he had asked for Burns’s resignation. Kulongoski’s higher education aide could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Public Employees’ Free Speech Rights

The legal situation surrounding the free speech rights of public employees is in a state of flux. A 2006 Supreme Court decision altered 35 years of settled jurisprudence by finding that when public employees make statements that relate to their official duties, “the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline,” as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Garcetti v. Ceballos. That ruling modified the court’s 1968 decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, which had mandated that public employees have a right to speak about matters of public concern that must be balanced against the government’s ability to operate effectively and efficiently.

Contreras acknowledges that, both legally (even under Oregon’s expansive constitutional provision) and otherwise, he might be on shaky ground if he “went around trashing” the Oregon Student Assistance Commission’s scholarship and other financial aid programs. “It would be completely inappropriate for me to go around saying that these programs are terrible programs and shouldn’t be supported,” he says.

But “99 percent of what I write doesn’t have to do with anything the agency is doing,” Contreras says. “So what if I said the University of Oregon’s affirmative action plan is awful, or that the level of academic planning in most colleges is insufficient. That is legitimate comment on public policy issues, and it is perfectly normal comment by a citizen.”

Burns, a policy research associate in the office of communications and public affairs at the Oregon University System, said in an interview Thursday that she was severely restricted in what she could say because this was a “personnel matter.”

But she did say that commission officials were preparing a letter telling all recipients of the survey about Contreras to disregard it, and that “another questionnaire will go out later.” “Upon further reflection, we think we can do the survey in a better manner,” Burns said. “We realized it was not what we wanted and we want to remedy it immediately.”

Burns, citing the state’s policy on personnel matters, declined to answer several follow-up questions, such as whether she had told Contreras last fall that she wanted to review his outside writings. Asked whether it was unfair to characterize her as wanting to restrict Contreras’s right to speak (or write) his mind, she said: “Yeah. There’s just confusion.”

Reached late Thursday, Contreras was unassuaged by the commission’s change of heart on the survey. “This does nothing to change my mind,” he said. “I’m not going to attend any further meetings of the commission unless [Burns] resigns.”

— Doug Lederman

Comments

Who’s the boss?
Who is Contreras’ boss? Does he think he has a boss? Or he’s a God, onto himself?

This is just another example of near-delusional self-entitlement in taxpayer-funded education. And why taxpayers have said “enough is enough.”

If it is in his area of expertise — one thing.

Outside that area of expertise — to quote S. Fish — preach on your dime, Diogenes.

Buzz, at 8:15 am EDT on August 15, 2008
What Crap!
Hey Buzz, Free speech rights are not limited to “your area of expertise” fortunately for you otherwise you would not be blogging.

Way to go Mr. Contreras. Speaking truth to power is something that should ALWAYS be protected, which is why those in power are always trying to limit or eradicate it.

Only a powerfully inept politician would conclude that a public official should have less rights than the average citizen. I fail to see how it helps to acquit the performance of their job in the public trust. However, a two year old can figure out how it might help an arrogant politician.

dundermifflin, at 9:00 am EDT on August 15, 2008
Three “sorry sisters” have become belles of the ball.
The “Seven Sorry Sisters” label has had a positive effect. Speaking plainly can drive inattentive states into productive action.

In Contreras’ 2005 article, the “Seven Sorry Sisters” were the states of Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

And look what a good outcome has resulted from this naming-of names! Alabama has begin paying attention, ejecting the thoroughly unsatisfactory “Breyer State University,” whose president ran an accreditation mill that credentialed a pair of fake medical schools, his own Breyer State, and something that calls itself “Canyon College.” Alabama has gone on the record to say it is changing its ways.

Breyer State fled to Idaho, acquiring a virtual office and a shared fax machine in Boise, the state’s capital. But Idaho appears to have noticed this affront: an unlicensed school, operating in violation of the Idaho statutes right under the collective nose of the state legislature. Perhaps it was Idaho-based Canyon College’s long run, also in violation of Title 33, Chapter 24 of the Idaho statutes, that attracted Breyer. In any case, Idaho has become an unwelcoming place for both Breyer State and Canyon: the two entities “moved” to California a couple of weeks ago. So Idaho is cleaning up its act nicely, having kicked the Alabama soccer ball downfield to California.

Wyoming came in as a surprise. A few years ago the owner of the highly unsatisfactory “Preston University” (in 2004 Pakistan declared most of Preston’s campuses either unsatisfactory or illegal) flew a pair of state senators to Dubai and Pakistan on a “fact finding visit.” This occurred right before the legislature’s committee that was considering an improved statute to ban diploma mills was to scheduled to vote. The senators returned home and helped kill the bill in committee. (Mead Gruver, an AP reporter based in Wyoming, covered this extensively.) But the bill passed the next year, in spite of Preston’s influence, and a variety of diploma mills have fled Wyoming for greener pastures. So Wyoming is doing nicely too, thank you very much.

A sharp word in the press from an expert can provide a useful tool for education advocates inside the state bureaucracies of the states being criticized. My impression is that both Idaho and Alabama have been glad to have been so labeled, because it has caught the attention of otherwise distracted policy makers.

In the United States it falls to the individual states to determine which schools have legal authority to award degrees and which do not. As a result, grass-roots efforts and intelligent (and sometimes barbed) commentary are necessary components of the effort to maintain standards in higher education. I cannot think of any other state official who has had a tenth as much success in improving the quality of U.S. higher education as Contreras.

Could IHE publish the full questionnaire?

George Gollin, Professor of Physics at University of Illinois, at 11:10 am EDT on August 15, 2008
Big Brother
The collection of facts that: 1. Alan Contreras is prominent in some circles, 2. Speaks his mind on issues of concern to him and 3. Is a state employee should be of no more concern than other well known folks who speak out on issues. I believe that one aspect of the resentment expressed by some here is the same frustration voiced by many who rail against movie stars making political statements. Critics are jealous of the fact that here is a person speaking his mind openly in public, sure of his information, not fearful of the responses of those who disagree, as I occasionally do myself. Those who lack the courage to do the same will no doubt be frustrated by seeing this image that exposes their own insecurities. I continue to be eduacted and inspired by the example set by my older brother and friend.

Keep it up.

John Contreras, at 11:30 am EDT on August 15, 2008
What’s the big deal?
Hey, Buzz. Get a life. A gazillion of us write about stuff we know little about—as do you. It seems like Contreras does know something about his topic. So, what’s the big deal? Heck, are you going restrict me to writing about the application of cyclic groups to card shuffling, or can I share a few thoughts about sexual harassment—of which I am certainly not very knowledgeable?

Fred Flener, Retired, at 1:00 pm EDT on August 15, 2008
Individual freedom of speech
Alan Contreras has the freedom to say whatever he want on any subject of his choosing. The problem is that he always adds his title under his signature to add gravitas to his opinion. That makes it seem as if he is issuing policy statements.

Alan Contreras the individual has freedom of speech.

Alan Contreras, the titled employee, is subject to the conditions of his employment and his opinions are not the opinions of his employer, no matter how much he tries to infer they should be.

Chuck Feney, at 4:45 pm EDT on August 15, 2008
alan contreras
As Mr. Contreras’ former boss, I cannot imagine what the OSAC Board and their leader, Burns, is up to. Alan is a gifted individual with wide-ranging interests. He has a right to his opinions as each and every one of us does — those lucky enough to live in a country that upholds individual freedoms (questionable as though it may be).

What has happened to the Oregon Government and its governor who appear to be idly standing by while this vendetta is allowed to go on. Burns and any commissioner who supported the outrageous personnel tactics employed against Mr. Contreras should be relieved of their duties immediately.

Has OSAC fallen so far that these people represent the best the state of Oregon can provide as a Board of Commissioners. Frankly, the Board should be done away with and OSAC be allowed to operate as any other state agency — reporting through bureaucrats — not through political appointees who only care to add their ‘volunteer’ position to their feeble resumes.

Patricia Aldworth, at 4:55 pm EDT on August 15, 2008
Expertise are hard
” .. Only a powerfully inept politician would conclude that a public official should have less rights than the average citizen ..”

Average citizens are paid with taxpayer funds? That does not make any sense. And before more yada-yada — look up the history of the Hatch Act and civil service.

” .. Heck, are you going restrict me to writing about the application of cyclic groups to card shuffling ..”

Well .. have we gotten to a point where everyone can be an expert on everything? Hmm ...

http://www.colorado.edu/news/reports/churchill/

Of course! Anyone can be an expert on anything!

Buzz, at 5:35 pm EDT on August 15, 2008
Expertise are hardest
I see a future political appointment in your future. Too bad we won’t shut up for you.

dundermifflin, at 12:30 pm EDT on August 16, 2008
Objective journalism?
I wonder about the objectivity of a news reporter who is gathering facts and forming conclusions with regard to one of his colleagues. Perhaps someone at a greater distance from the people involved in these events should comment about them.

Jeremy Dickman, at 6:00 pm EDT on August 17, 2008
Controversial Contreras
As a follow up to my earlier comment, I did a quick search on Inside Higher Education for Alan Contreras and got over three pages of articles and commented articles.

Alan sometimes comments with only his name, but other times he uses “State of Oregon” or “Administrator at Oregon Degree Authorization".

It seems to me that when he posts controversial articles like:

Time For A Shotgun Divorce http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007.../contreras

Alan should speak for himself and not impose his opinions on the State or it’s Institutions he is employed within, lest his opinions become a legal or political problem for those entities.

Chuck Feney, at 5:00 am EDT on August 18, 2008
Contreras and Free Speech
This is a classic case of a punitive and clueless administrator attempting to shut down free speech — and, since Contreras is a crucial voice in the difficult effort to maintain national educational standards, the administrator’s attempt to intimidate and professionally damage Contreras is not merely inappropriate and offensive, but socially destructive.

The administrator’s behavior demonstrates her unfitness for her job.

Margaret Soltan, at 9:10 am EDT on August 18, 2008
Watching expenses
About “.. too bad we won’t shut up for you.”

What is it about “academics” who believe that the public — many of whom are better-educated than them — owes them a living? Did God send out a memo that most of us missed?

Could someone explain? Thanks.

B.J.S., at 9:25 am EDT on August 18, 2008
Watching Freedom
“What is it about “academics” who believe that the public — many of whom are better-educated than them — owes them a living? Did God send out a memo that most of us missed?”

Could someone explain? Thanks.

B.J.S., I think you did miss something and I will explain...read slowly so that you can understand!

At no point does Contreras argue that he is owed a job. Further, his position is a public official, not an academic, although one must conclude that it was his academic background that made him desirable and expert enough to hire for the job.

He is exactly the kind of public official that I want my tax dollars to go toward employing. He is not some feckless idiot who “goes along to get along". We have galore of incompetent inturptitudes who are in office collecting their pay.

It is just the opposite, someone else is trying to undermine his job because he exercised his right to free speech and tried to acquit his duties in a responsible and moral way.

Further, if Mr. Contreras is the expert, why should anyone listen to those individuals who are embarressed by him? Simply because they are in a superior employment relationship to him? Does might make right? Free speech is about protecting the rights of the less powerful, or powerless, from the predations of the powerful. The fact that the powerful “can” is not sufficient or right.

I would argue that if an underling can embarress you because he/she knows more about the subject than you, or has a better grasp of the difference between right and wrong...perhaps those “superiors” should not be the ones in charge?

Why are you not questioning his bosses objectionable actions? Perhaps you do not have the moral courage to do so? Perhaps you just “yes” everyone who comes into audible range? Your actions will make you and everyone around you poorer for it.

dundermifflin, at 2:40 pm EDT on August 18, 2008
Watching costs
(Inturptitude? Not listed in Webster’s.)

” .. It is just the opposite, someone else is trying to undermine his job because he exercised his right to free speech ..”

Yes, those like Mr. Contreras know so much more than everyone else, including those who went to the Ivys. Well, these “experts” are free to quit and use their superior knowledge to become billionaires. No one is stopping them — they should quit today.

If they decide to stay — they should do their jobs first.

If they want to claim to be experts outside their area of expertise — they should NOT use their employer’s name in their ID. Let them see how far they get on their own.

About his bosses: having actually lived in Orygun, I am far more knowledgeable about Oregon than most of those posting here.

IMO, the entire Oregon educational bureaucracy needs to privatized, to get rid of the waste, sloth, and poor outcomes. OK with you?

B.J.S., at 9:26 am EDT on August 19, 2008
WATCHING BIAS
“(Inturptitude? Not listed in Webster’s.)”

Try in turptitude...there now you should be able to look it up.

“Yes, those like Mr. Contreras know so much more than everyone else, including those who went to the Ivys. Well, these “experts” are free to quit and use their superior knowledge to become billionaires. No one is stopping them — they should quit today.”

Oh, where to start... 1. Never said he knew more than everyone else, just more than you or me when it comes to diploma mills, etc. Do try to stay on topic. 2. Never mentioned Ivy’s so play left field on your own.3. Yes, because everyone knows that you measure intelligence by how much money you have. Why Bill Gates must be the smartest person in your universe.

“If they decide to stay — they should do their jobs first.” If they want to claim to be experts outside their area of expertise — they should NOT use their employer’s name in their ID. Let them see how far they get on their own.”

At this point it is fair to say that you did not read the same article the rest of us did.

“About his bosses: having actually lived in Orygun (try oxford), I am far more knowledgeable about Oregon than most of those posting here".

Wow, well if the article had been about living in Oregone, then I guess your logic would work. Try rereading the article.

“IMO, the entire Oregon educational bureaucracy needs to privatized, to get rid of the waste, sloth, and poor outcomes. OK with you?”

NO!!! Privatize at your own risk. I understand there are plenty of Mortgage banker/brokers available to help you, or perhaps an ex Enron exec. Not to worry things will be better in no time.

dundermifflin, at 11:55 am EDT on August 19, 2008
While a civil servant has every right to comment on things in general Alan Contreras has administrative power akin to judicial power. Citizens and taxpayers have every right to expect an impartial hearing from him. When someone has publicly made known his opinions and listed schools as degreemills or substandard without any significant research, what kind of impartiality can these schools expect. The job was designed for a paper pushing pencil-neck. If Alan wants to be a crusader try the state legislature where people get to vote on your opinions.

Dennis Ruhl, at 10:20 am EDT on August 20, 2008
Watching A Watchdog’s Words
As one of Alan’s colleagues who have seen the devastation of students who are taken for a ride by devious higher education practices or felt the distain for those who took a free ride — go Alan! He gets to the heart of the matter with people who make a profession of scamming and misleading the public. He does not apologize for it and I am grateful. Those who set out to defraud people like the travelling medicine men selling tonic out of their wagons are the ones who should be criticized and punished. They deserve what they get. Describing Alan as a “gadfly” is insulting and inaccurate. He is a non-discriminatory criticizer, a champion for truth, and a breath of fresh air for those of us who must be careful with our words in this arena — or pay for it. He has criticized me before – I did not take it personally – but thought about what he said, learned from it, and moved on. Can he be irritating and dogged at times? No question about it. It is puzzling to me that someone would be ostracized for putting himself on the line for the public good. He deserves better.

Rose Rock, at 12:20 pm EDT on August 20, 2008
inaccurate characterization
Mr. Ruhl wrote: “When someone has publicly made known his opinions and listed schools as degreemills or substandard without any significant research...”

That is an inaccurate characterization of the process that lands a degree provider on the Oregon ODA list of unsatisfactory organizations.

Contreras is required by law to work at suppressing the activities of organizations that issue degrees in violation of Oregon statutes. He does so to great effect, sometimes triggering intense irritation on the part of those whose first college degree arrived from an at-the-time unaccredited school.

George Gollin, Professor of Physics at University of Illinois, at 4:30 pm EDT on August 21, 2008
Alan Contreras is a Loose Cannon
Mr. Contreras is definately a loose cannon. I am surprised that his superiors allow him to get away with the kinds of things mentioned in this article as well as by others posting their opinions here. Of course, most of his extremely slanted information comes from a Professor George Gollin, a supposed distance learning expert with a degree in Physics who teaches t the University of Illinois Urbana. This gentleman has nothing better to do with his time than to post in the degree blogs. Both of these gentlemen see diploma mills behind every unaccredited universitiy �s door. What ever happened to Freedom in Education, including the right to choose. What a shame.

Dr. Robert Ray Hill, PhD, MBA, Vice President & Academic Dean at West Coast University Panama, at 2:20 pm EDT on August 26, 2008
Reply
#2
inaccurate characterization
(QUOTE Gollin)
Mr. Ruhl wrote: “When someone has publicly made known his opinions and listed schools as degreemills or substandard without any significant research...”

That is an inaccurate characterization of the process that lands a degree provider on the Oregon ODA list of unsatisfactory organizations.

Contreras is required by law to work at suppressing the activities of organizations that issue degrees in violation of Oregon statutes. He does so to great effect, sometimes triggering intense irritation on the part of those whose first college degree arrived from an at-the-time unaccredited school.

George Gollin, Professor of Physics at University of Illinois, at 4:30 pm EDT on August 21, 2008(Unquote)

So Contreras had 2000 schools on his list. How much research did he do on each one? 100 hours would be the minimum to do any kind of job. So that's 200,000 hours of research or 1000 man years. I'm sure he spent 1 man month putting the list together off the top of his head. That may be how they do research at Princeton's nuclear physics department but it's not how it's done in the rest of the world.
Reply
#3
Quote:So Contreras had 2000 schools on his list. How much research did he do on each one? 100 hours would be the minimum to do any kind of job. So that's 200,000 hours of research or 1000 man years. I'm sure he spent 1 man month putting the list together off the top of his head. That may be how they do research at Princeton's nuclear physics department but it's not how it's done in the rest of the world.

If I'm not mistaken, mr. Contreras posted that he relied/relies on degreeinfo or some other sites to provide the raw input for his 'list'...which in turn ends partially in/on some other websites, accompanied by other materials gathered around the internet.
Spotting an unwonderful school is easy, and even easier a unaccredited one, but let's not talk about 'research' please.
That method works at best like that 'buzz-word' censorship software that simply replaces buzz words with asterisks with little to no attention to the context.
After all, Contreras shared premises with gay teen pornographers, former millsts of various creeds, impostors and frauds...and it seemed to suit him well... he did no 'research' about where he was getting his leads from, or who paid the bills.
A.A Mole University
B.A London Institute of Applied Research
B.Sc Millard Fillmore
M.A International Institute for Advanced Studies
Ph.D London Institute of Applied Research
Ph.D Millard Fillmore
Reply
#4
Fort Bragg Wrote:inaccurate characterization
(QUOTE Gollin)
Mr. Ruhl wrote: “When someone has publicly made known his opinions and listed schools as degreemills or substandard without any significant research...”

That is an inaccurate characterization of the process that lands a degree provider on the Oregon ODA list of unsatisfactory organizations.

Contreras is required by law to work at suppressing the activities of organizations that issue degrees in violation of Oregon statutes. He does so to great effect, sometimes triggering intense irritation on the part of those whose first college degree arrived from an at-the-time unaccredited school.

George Gollin, Professor of Physics at University of Illinois, at 4:30 pm EDT on August 21, 2008(Unquote)

So Contreras had 2000 schools on his list.  How much research did he do on each one?  100 hours would be the minimum to do any kind of job.  So that's 200,000 hours of research or 1000 man years.  I'm sure he spent 1 man month putting the list together off the top of his head.  That may be how they do research at Princeton's nuclear physics department but it's not how it's done in the rest of the world.

Contreras has said on www.degreeinfo.com the pedophile support group, that he does not have the funding or time to conduct research and depends on people like John Bear to provide him with information.

Contreras also agreed to host George Gollin (George D. Gollin, George Dana Gollin) web page that his employer made him take down from the university web site back in late 2003. Where that half-assed so-called research, remains today.

George Gollin (George D. Gollin, George Dana Gollin) thinks a couple of web clicks and using www.samspade.com as an investigative tool is all he needs.
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