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Bennett Says He Is 'Consumer Advocate' : Education Secretary Known to Be Blunt

March 03, 1985|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Education Writer

WASHINGTON — William J. Bennett, the new education secretary, sounds at times like a philosophy professor from Harvard, which he was, and at other times like a football player from Brooklyn, which he also was.

In one breath he will quote Socrates, Matthew Arnold or the Federalist Papers to explain his views on education. But in the next, he can react with the bluntness of a linebacker.

Last summer a Latino teacher at a Berkeley seminar asked Bennett, then the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a long question that turned into a dissertation on the need for teaching a "multiethnic, multicultural perspective" in California's public schools.

When he finished, Bennett looked up and said, "I don't think it's the job of the public schools to introduce you to your grandparents."

It is this Bennett, the contentious Brooklyn football player, who has been on display in his first weeks as education secretary. At his first press conference, he said that the course of study at many universities is in "disarray" and that the students are being "ripped off."

In his most controversial line, he defended the Reagan Administration's plan to limit federally subsidized loans by saying it may force some college students to "divest" themselves of their stereos, cars and vacations at the beach.

The critics have assailed Bennett as mean and insensitive. Bennett, clearly stunned by the reaction to his comments, said he "regrets" that his public comments "made me seem mean-spirited." But as education secretary, he said he views himself not as a lobbyist for federal aid to education but as a "consumer advocate" and critic of the quality of schools and colleges.

'Not an Apologist'

"This job gives you a tremendous megaphone," said Bennett, an intense, heavy-set man who is rarely without a cigarette. "I want to be a forceful advocate for education, but . . . not an apologist for anything that calls itself education."

When National Education Assn. officials urged Bennett to avoid "mudslinging," Bennett said he replied, "I don't want to get involved in mudslinging, but we are public figures who will disagree on some issues, and we should disagree in public." He said he expects to "disagree in public and in candor" with many education organizations.

Bennett's bluntness, whatever its appeal to conservative critics of the growing federal role in education, could prove to be a problem as the Administration tries to sell Congress on its proposals to trim that role.

Compared to Watt

A staff member of the Senate Labor Committee, which generally supports federal higher education programs, said Bennett's comments at his press conference were "so outrageous that they forced a lot of people to come over to our side." Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the education subcommittee, said if he had it to do again, he would not vote to confirm Bennett as secretary.

Last week, political columnist David Broder, echoing the sentiments of some on Capitol Hill, compared Bennett's style to that of former Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, and urged the Administration to "bring back Terrel H. Bell," Bennett's kindly and soft-spoken predecessor.

After Bennett's press conference, the University of the Pacific withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Bennett and its request that he address its spring commencement ceremony. "We simply cannot honor anyone holding your views," Stanley McCaffrey, president of the University of the Pacific, told Bennett.

'Questions Need Asking'

Bennett conceded that "I may have a lot of time on my hands in May," when the education secretary is typically booked up as a spring commencement speaker. But "I don't work for the higher education community," he said. "I work for the American people. I want to raise some questions that need asking."

For example, he questions whether the government should be increasingly subsidizing the education of middle-class students. In 1978, the federal government spent $479 million on government-backed student loans. This year the figure is expected to exceed $3.7 billion.

He contends that costs got out of control during the Carter Administration, when the $25,000-a-year income ceiling on families qualifying for subsidized student loans was eliminated. Since then, the number of students getting loans has more than tripled.

The Reagan budget proposal calls for ending such loans to those whose family income exceeds $32,500, and limiting total federal assistance to $4,000 per student per year.

Help for Neediest

"We want the money aimed at the neediest students," Bennett said.

However, the proposed cutbacks have been met with nothing short of scorn from the nation's education leaders. New York University President John Brademas, a former Democratic congressman who was a steady supporter of more federal education aid, said the Reagan Administration's budget would have a "devastating effect" on a "whole generation of scholars."

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