On the morning of June 3, Senator Lamar Alexander walks into an ornate meeting room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and gavels open a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to a standing-room-only crowd. At seventy-five, the gray-haired Tennessee Republican has started to hunch over and shuffle as he walks. But he retains the man-in-charge air of a twelve-year Senate veteran and a former two-term governor, president of his state’s flagship university, U.S. secretary of education, and, briefly, presidential candidate. Alexander only recently won control of this powerful committee, once headed by Ted Kennedy. He has made no secret of his desire to use the perch to put his mark on history as a capstone to his long career—by, among other things, rewriting the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal statute that controls everything from student loans to support for minority-serving institutions.
Alexander hopes to make HEA reauthorization in part a vehicle to deregulate higher education; he believes that there is a significant amount of costly and burdensome federal red tape imposed on states and colleges and that they should have more flexibility. But as today’s hearing on college affordability proceeds, it becomes clear that things aren’t going as he might have liked. The problem is that the Democrats’ star witness, the Louisiana State University president F. King Alexander, is stealing the show. Dressed in a suit with an LSU pin and a tie of LSU purple, King Alexander not only shares a last name with the senator (though they are not related), he’s also a southerner from the Tennessee Valley who has thought deeply about the effects of federal policy on higher education. Yet King’s ideas for ensuring college affordability are the polar opposite of Lamar’s: the LSU president wants more federal regulation—including on his own state and university.