Getting Past 'Accountability'

We are living in an era in which accountability is a public mandate. The pressures of a global market and domestic economic failures have refocused our attention more clearly on ensuring that institutions -- whether banks, government agencies, or universities -- are producing the results that they promise.


June 2, 2009

We are living in an era in which accountability is a public mandate. The pressures of a global market and domestic economic failures have refocused our attention more clearly on ensuring that institutions -- whether banks, government agencies, or universities -- are producing the results that they promise.

In institutions of higher education, we have been on the front end of that wave of outside scrutiny. From the U.S. Department of Education’s calls for accessibility, accountability and affordability, to state legislatures’ performance-based funding formulas, and increased global and domestic competition in the higher education market place, colleges and universities are being pressed to demonstrate their achievements. The severe financial crisis only intensifies the need for colleges and universities to clearly demonstrate their educational effectiveness.

Within higher education, the issue of accountability has often been cast as a polemic between insider knowledge (“We already know we’re doing a good job”) and external constituents (“Show us that you’re doing a good job”). We complain that external constituents don’t understand education, giving us an excuse to avoid self-examination and transparency. And yet, of all industries, we should be most effective both at critical self-analysis and at conveying that information, because we are educators. Posing research questions, and gathering, analyzing and using data to reframe an inquiry, are what we do

In our work as regional accreditors, we observed that one all too common characteristic of colleges and universities is a lack of clear communication about institutional and student learning. We have observed widespread patterns of organizational behavior that make communication difficult and hinder informed decision-making. We have also observed isolated units on campus in which people are doing effective and innovative work that is generally unknown across the institution. Similarly, areas in which people are struggling and need help often are not identified, partly out of the fear that transparency about weaknesses or challenges leads to penalty and partly due to Balkanized organizational structures. Even where there is a desire to share successes and identify areas for improvement, organizational infrastructures generally do not support it.

Increased communication with various audiences about institutional effectiveness is not only required by external stakeholders, but also can be of tremendous value to an institution because it elevates institutional learning. What’s needed, within and across institutions, is to construct explicit linkages between accountability, transparency and communication as a strategy to nurture institutional learning and support organizational improvement and change. The call for greater accountability isn’t going away. We should take better advantage of this extrinsic impetus to develop genuinely useful and intrinsically motivated processes for developing and communicating institutional learning for our own purposes.

The first step toward genuine institutional learning is admitting we have a problem(s) and a need. And we do -- we should be making very difficult decisions about budget reductions or restructuring with clear and well-known evidence about institutional effectiveness.

In our own experiences inside institutions and in our observations of others, we have identified six common maladies that absorb significant institutional resources while thwarting learning. These familiar syndromes can keep us from ever getting to the point of identifying needs, challenges or best practices. Following each, we note a strategy that we’ve observed that has helped to facilitate better institutional learning.

Rube Goldberg Syndrome: As educators, we construct complex, laborious evaluation processes with too many moving parts, leading to unsustainability. “Process” becomes an end in itself -- to the detriment of outcomes.

  • A good research project starts by identifying the issue we’d like to understand, and builds appropriate methodology to address the problem. An eye to the end result of evaluation will help staff and faculty to create intentional, sustainable processes that lead to usable information.

Sisyphus Syndrome: Institutional inquiry is paralyzed by questions framed at such a general level that answering them is overwhelming and impossible. As a result, the institution pushes and pushes but never gets to meaningful analysis and reflection.

  • Ask manageable questions that can be answered empirically.

William Faulkner Syndrome: Organizational learning takes place as a response to extrinsic pressures, becoming a lamentable tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This flurry of activity generally usurps precious resources and, framed solely as such, holds no interest for internal institutional constituents.

  • Capitalize on the requirement for accountability as a reason to explore ways to improve the institution. It’s an “opportunity” to design an inquiry to address institutional needs.

Every Program is an Island -- and the IR Director is Marooned -- Syndrome. Here, efforts at data-gathering and analysis are siloed and quarantined. Information is shelved or locked away instead of being shared and discussed across units.

  • The IR Director should be a cross pollinator. But s/he needs to work within a context that expects and values that communication. Using data across offices/programs and reading trends and patterns will involve constituencies that might not otherwise feel connected to the results of institutional inquiry.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Syndrome: Because every institution believes it is special, the focus is on its unique institutional mission or students’ unique needs and not on educational impact.

  • Believing we’re incomparable limits meaningful self-reflection. Benchmarking and learning from other institutions’ practices helps to avoid insularity.

Sand Castle Syndrome: After the visiting evaluation team goes home, amassed evidence is washed away by the next tide (or buried on a shelf somewhere; see the Every Program is an Island Syndrome). Efforts at self-evaluation are not based on research questions important to the institution. Data are gathered but not effectively used.

  • Having clearly articulated what we want to study and why, performing a data audit helps an institution to learn what is already being captured and used and what results it is having.

These are common behaviors, we believe, because American educators are operating within cultural and structural parameters that were defined for a variety of reasons that don’t necessarily serve self-reflection and analysis. For example, most colleges and universities are not prepared to be learning organizations, with internal structures that silo information. These parameters shape the contexts within which we work. And they have limited both the shape and the substance of the dialogue about institutional learning. There’s little reward for serious introspection and critique.

In our haste to avoid examining our practices, we focus on the simplest way to appease external audiences. Organizational learning in higher education is currently shaped by two prominent points of view: accountability instruments and student satisfaction. But there are many audiences for information about institutional performance: ourselves, funders (donors, legislators), recruitment (consumers), accreditors, and other educational institutions. And these audiences require different kinds of information and analyses to be well-informed and effective.

We already have a model of higher education’s slow evolution toward accountability: assessment. It’s been 25 years with millions of dollars spent, and most institutions still do not have a coordinated system of assessing student learning much less an ability to demonstrate educational effectiveness. We don’t have the luxury of that glacial pace in developing functional systems of organizational learning to address the most pressing issues in higher education. To paraphrase our current administration in Washington, no crisis should be a wasted opportunity. More than ever, educators need to be making informed decisions based on evidence.

Once the immediate financial crisis has abated, it is likely that few colleges or universities will be able to continue with business as usual. It is not easy to forecast the future, but signs may be appearing that portend change. For example, other states may follow the trend in educational funding most recently adopted by Ohio, building state budgets based on performance (graduation and retention). Calls for change are also appearing in the popular media. A recent op-ed piece by Mark C.Taylor in The New York Times (April 27, 2009) argues that American institutions of higher education will have to radically restructure to address sustainability and to stay relevant in a changing world. Andrew Delbanco, in an article titled, “Universities in Trouble,” (New York Review of Books, May 14, 2009) suggests that the power of the current financial crisis may be in forcing institutions to seriously examine what really matters.

Given the severity of budget and staffing cuts this past year and into the foreseeable future, institutions may be likely to respond to painful contraction with even less impetus to address other needs. We contend that this is the perfect and critical time to surmount the kinds of syndromes and obstacles we have observed in too many institutions. For institutions not only to survive, but also to thrive, the ability to clearly identify what's working well and what isn't will be crucial.


Michelle Behr has been a professor at a public comprehensive university, has worked at a regional accrediting agency, and will move to a position on a new campus in July. Ingrid Walker has been a professor at a private liberal arts college, has worked in two regional accrediting agencies, and will move to a position on a new campus in August. They are visiting scholars at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley.


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