In March the Department of Education rejected funding applications for some 77 Upward Bound programs because of formatting, spacing and font issues. Program directors everywhere rose mightily to the challenge. Following is an account by Wittenberg University Upward Bound Director Eddie Chambers, who is set to retire this summer, after 40 years of service.
June 14, 2017
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, said the Roman philosopher Seneca. And Eddie Chambers, Upward Bound program director for 40 years at Wittenberg University, was plenty prepared on March 22nd when he landed in Chicago and glanced at his cell phone before making his connecting flight back home to Ohio.
Sometime after takeoff from Washington, D.C., where he had just attended COE's Annual Policy Seminar, the Department of Education notified him by email that it had rejected Wittenberg's Upward Bound application for the 2017 fiscal year. The program, now in its 51st year, was preparing once again to guide 109 Ohio students from low-income backgrounds to the middle class by becoming first in their families to earn a college degree.
Chambers read the email over and over again, thinking it had to be some kind of bad joke. It made no sense; he had submitted the application in November. He stared in disbelief at the message, until the cold realization came over him that it wasn't a joke. The notification further indicated that the Department was not accepting any calls on the matter.
"I was floored but I didn't let any grass grow," Chambers said. He broke out his laptop and, at 11:00 p.m., left email and voicemail messages for the Department's Senior Education Program Specialist asking for clarification. The call was returned the call the next morning and Department personnel pointed out a spacing issue in the Wittenberg program's budget. Specifically, on two of the 65 pages that Chambers had manually formatted, spacing was set at 1.5 instead of 2.0. Chambers, along with the Wittenberg provost, and the university's institutional research program members who had inspected the application were mystified. "You almost had to have a magnifying glass or a ruler to figure that out," Chambers said.
In a matter of days Chambers heard that the Department had rejected at least three dozen other Upward Bound applications for formatting and font reasons. "This was a first. I have never, ever seen anything like this," he said.
So began what Chambers now refers to as "64 days of advocacy" on some days and "64 days of hell" on others. Chambers' goal was simply for the Department of Education to read and score the application like all the others that had been submitted.
Then, as only luck combined with four decades of experience would have it, things fell into place.
Chambers informed his campus stakeholders — the university president, provost and the financial office — of the rejection. Wittenberg has one of Ohio's largest funded Upward Bound programs and the program's 50th anniversary in 2016 had rallied supporters on campus.
Chambers' staff had already organized a spring break trip for a busload of 34 students to visit Washington D.C., so on March 26th they headed to the Capitol to tell Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown what was happening with the program's application. The meetings went very well, with both senators and their legislative aides promising support.
Eddie Chambers met with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown in Washington, accompanied by Wittenberg University Upward Bound assistant director Phyllis Swanigan, and academic and career coordinator Cara Henry.
Next, the Wittenberg Upward Bound staff turned to the mailing list of 350 program alumni they had compiled for the 50th anniversary. They told the alums what was happening to their program and instructed them to write to both the Department of Education and their legislators. They offered a sample letter drafted from COE's policy toolkit. "I wanted to put as much pressure on the Department as I could," Chambers says.
Soon Chambers began receiving copies of alumni letters. Aides for Senators Portman and Brown started receiving phone calls and letters from alumni who reported how Upward Bound redirected their lives. One student, in particular, who had grown up in a home afflicted by drug addiction, said that Upward Bound's services intervened in ways that nothing else could have. Because of that intervention, the student was currently teaching college courses and completing his Ph.D. The aides began calling Chambers, telling him about the outpouring of support for the program.
The real turning point came, Chambers said, when alumna Ebony Speaks, a doctor of social work candidate, mentioned the Upward Bound application rejection at a social workers meeting in Columbus. People there directed her to Congressman Warren Davidson from Ohio's 8th District. Impressed with her story, Davidson called the Wittenberg interim president, and put his legislative aide, Ron Hammond, on the case. "Once Warren Davidson and Ron Hammond got involved, it was a no holds barred type of fight. It was on," Chambers says. And not a minute too soon: according to Department of Education regulations and policies, TRIO programs were to know of their funding status by the first week of May.
Then the timeline went like this:
4/4-4/26: Hammond organized several congressional offices to write to Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, asking her to reconsider the rejected schools.
4/26: A Chronicle of Higher Education story on Upward Bound application rejections prompted a national uproar.
4/27: Secretary DeVos issued a memo saying that rejection over formatting issues wouldn't happen again. Although this was good news for programs that weren't seeking new funding, it didn't help programs that ED had rejected for FY 2017.
4/28: At the urging of TRIO Caucus Co-Chairs Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jon Tester (D-MT), 25 senators wrote to Secretary DeVos asking her to read and score rejected Upward Bound applications.
5/3: More than 30 Members of the House wrote another letter to Secretary DeVos, also asking her to read and score rejected Upward Bound applications.
5/5: The FY 2017 omnibus appropriations bill was signed into law, with $50 million additional dollars for TRIO programs. The bill included report language that encouraged ED to provide flexibility to rejected FY 2017 Upward Bound programs by permitting submission of corrected applications.
5/17: Ron Hammond "throws a Hail Mary" memo to Secretary DeVos, outlining steps the Department could take to avoid legal exposure to reverse decision and help rejected programs. Congressman Davidson hands it to Secretary DeVos' staff.
The Wittenberg Upward Bound summer program began June 1 and the Department still hasn't notified Chambers about its funding. But Eddie's advocacy campaign had reached its simple goal. On June 6 the Department notified Representative Davidson that it is reviewing all the Upward Bound applications that it had rejected for formatting errors.
The situation is ironic, Chambers points out, given the Department's sensitivity to detail like fonts and spacing errors. "If the shoe had been on the other foot and they wanted us to do something and get them information by 4 p.m. that day and we failed to do that, we would be cited," he says.
Wittenberg University, despite its own funding crisis, has stepped up to ensure that its 51-year-old program remains viable to the Springfield community.
Chambers, in the meantime, is set to retire at the end of the summer. Those 64 days of advocacy have left him exhausted but he's glad he was able to apply his experience to saving the program. "This program means too much to me," he says. "If we go down, we're going down kicking and screaming. We're not going down lightly, without putting up a fight."