Revisiting Higher Ed Accountability in the Obama Era

WASHINGTON — While declining public support and tight budgets may be forcing U.S. higher education institutions to grade themselves on how well they perform, a significant part of the accountability challenge remains rooted in how schools define their institutional missions, a higher education accountability activist said Tuesday at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference.

“We can look at metrics and try to figure out what’s happening in higher education but we need to ask what is our purpose and go about developing a curriculum that will produce the graduate you decide you want to have,” Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said during the AEI “Increasing Accountability in American Higher Education” conference. “So much of this debate is missing that piece.”

Revisiting the higher education policy focus, as well as the unfinished work, of the George W. Bush administration, conference panelists questioned standards in financial management, accreditation and the professoriate, proposing, in some cases, radical ways for the academy to re-engineer its procedures and processes. No prevailing consensus emerged among discussants about how re-engineering or reforms, such as those arising from comprehensive ranking practices, standardized testing or eliminating tenure, could improve institutional accountability.

Instead, the discussions, echoing Neal’s concern, turned frequently to fundamental questions about the role and responsibility of U.S. higher education.    

On assessment measures, Stan Jones, president of the National Consortium for College Completion and former Indiana legislator, said institutions often refer to their fundraising efforts as a measure of success instead of focusing on their graduation rates or successful student outcomes. Likewise, he said, students have the right to know the likely outcomes and value of the learning they receive.

Data collection and assessment relevance is a crucial concern for higher education, which is reconciling increased college access with maintaining the value of a degree. Many of the systems in place are insufficient or outmoded to tell the story, Jones said.

Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, proposed standards for statistical performance using student-record data as indicators of institutional effectiveness. When accounting for student learning, Dr. Jeffrey Steedle, measurement scientist at the Council for Aid to Education, argued that standardized tests for college outcomes can provide the standard indicators needed to understand whether students are learning.

Another possible assessment measure is quantifying scholar productivity, panelists noted. Academic Analytics, a private company that maintains a database on academic production, uses the Faculty Scholarly Productivity (FSP) Index as the metric for high-performing scholars. The FSP counts the number of journal articles, citations, books, grants awarded and awards for individual faculty at an institution to calculate the index of performance. The survey found that the top 20 percent of performing scholars produce nearly two-thirds of all scholarly activities, said Dr. Lawrence Martin, dean of the Stony Brook University Graduate School and Academic Analytics’ founder and president.

Martin argued for the validity of the FSP saying, “The question I want answered is whether or not people who don’t demonstrate scholarly behavior are instructing the next generation of scholars.”

However, Dr. Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said the focus on measuring individual scholars discounted the collaborative arrangements both within and among academic departments that lead to significant scholarly work and research. It also misses out on the work of graduate and undergraduate students, according to Rhoades.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, an editorial page writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal, questioned the premise of tenure during her talk, saying its protection is far too widespread.

“If professors don’t have a guaranteed job for life (or what usually amounts to it), the argument goes, ‘They will not be able to speak or write freely. Those with unpopular views — or views that upset the administration or the trustees or other members of the faculty — will be run off campus,’” Riley wrote in her conference paper. “But many Americans might wonder just why academic freedom is a principle worthy of defending anyway. Don’t some radical faculty members deserve to be run off campus?”

Riley identified three areas where she said there is no need for either tenure or academic freedom, including vocational majors such as business administration and hotel management, ethnic studies and for research scientists.

The vocational majors and ethnic studies, she said, have predetermined goals for their students. Hotel management is an example because students expect industry jobs at the end of their study and professors who teach such subjects do not contribute thinking that is “essential to civilization,” Riley said..

Taking the position that ethnic studies have political goals, Riley said “faculty members (in ethnic studies) are no longer simply engaged in teaching and learning and research.”

Taking exception to Riley’s position, Dr. Teresita Martinez-Vergne, a senior policy associate for the Public Education Network and former college professor, contended that all learning has social and political consequences.

“We are all involved in political work one way or another whether it’s in nutrition or physical science” Verne said. “Tenure is not a reward but a recognition and appreciation of someone who studied deliberately to become an expert in a particular field.”