Holding Ourselves Accountable

February 23, 2010

For at least two decades, we've spent a lot of time talking about "accountability" in higher education. As with so many things in academe, the concept means different things to different people.

What comes to mind first are the continued calls from state and federal officials for uniform standards and methods of assessing student learning. But the culture of accountability in academe involves much more than that, and has taken on the form of a movement.

The appeals for state or national standards are the most well known and have sparked considerable debate. A case in point: the call by the U.S. Department of Education's Spellings Report for specific national standards for student performance and a process for accurately measuring that performance. Most faculty members and administrators agree that establishing and maintaining standards is a healthy process. It makes sense to create metrics to judge how effective courses, programs, and institutions have been in reaching those standards.

The problem, according to many, arises when nonexperts—people from outside of the academic disciplines—are the ones responsible for devising standards for the experts within the discipline. In many states, legislatures or boards of education have imposed stringent reporting requirements on universities in order to monitor one thing or another, and not just issues related to affordability, access to education, or assessment of student achievement.

I recall one governor who publicly proclaimed that his state's public universities were "fat" and "top heavy" with administrators. He then mandated that the universities reduce their ratio of administrators to other employees by a certain percentage—this despite the fact that the actual ratios varied widely from institution to institution.

Notwithstanding his unsophisticated attempt to solve the problem (imposing a one-size-fits-all solution with no sensitivity to the unique contexts of different institutions), the governor nonetheless had a point. He was, in effect, suggesting that universities with bloated administrations were not being sufficiently accountable to the citizens of the state.

As public institutions, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are using public money prudently and not wastefully. Especially in tough fiscal times, taxpayers have a right to know that their money in all sectors of government is under responsible stewardship.

In fact, responsible and ethical fiscal management is a key area of the accountability movement within higher education. Early in this decade, Illinois instituted a mandatory online ethics course that all state employees—including university faculty members, staff employees, and administrators—must take annually. Although the course covers several topics (it varies from year to year), its main focus is on the proper management of state resources, both ethically and legally—avoiding conflicts of interest of all sorts, such as claiming reimbursements you are not entitled to; awarding contracts to friends and family members; and using department telephones, computers, and e-mail accounts to conduct personal business.

To enhance fiscal accountability, many institutions are tightening their own internal controls over the acquisition and flow of money. At my own university, for instance, we have prohibited the use of state-appropriated dollars to purchase personal (not departmental) memberships, like dues for the Rotary Club or professional organizations, and personal subscriptions to magazines and journals.

We have also strengthened our controls over the use of state money for certain types of travel as well as for food and entertainment. While grant and foundation accounts may be used for a wider range of such expenditures, state-appropriated dollars are closely scrutinized so that the university can always demonstrate that it is a responsible steward. Our new measures were originally triggered by the state's dire fiscal condition, but they were adopted primarily to increase fiscal accountability campuswide.

Another often-overlooked form of accountability relates to disciplinary actions. In academe's "good old boy" past, supervisors and department heads often would ignore infractions of university rules, or privately direct the transgressor to halt the offending behavior. Over the years, I have witnessed a shocking degree of laxity in such matters. I've heard department heads dismiss unethical, unprofessional, or occasionally illegal behavior because, "after all, we're all colleagues," or because, as a former chair once told me, "rocking the boat would cause more trouble than it's worth." I've seen the same negligence among supervisors toward their staff members.

In those cases, ignoring improper conduct, or simply exhorting someone privately to behave, was in lieu of what proper practice dictates: documenting the incident so that if future infractions occur, appropriate disciplinary action can be taken. Documenting improper behavior is an important form of accountability—it demonstrates that the institution takes its own rules and policies seriously and will hold all employees equally accountable for adhering to them.

Staff supervisors, department heads, and other administrators have a responsibility to hold an employee accountable; that is an inherent part of their jobs. A department chair can reprimand a faculty member, if the circumstances call for it, while still remaining a colleague. The personal should never cloud the professional in such situations.

Similarly, the annual performance evaluations of university staff members and administrators is another area in which lax habits are giving way to much more professional practices. I have known supervisors who would consistently fail to document areas of improvement in annual evaluations of their employees because they hoped to avoid conflict or wanted to be thought of as magnanimous.

That practice is unfair to the staff members because it robs them of the opportunity to improve. What's more, failing to document areas for improvement could prove awkward if the relationship were to sour, or if the employee were later to become a "problem." There would be no documented history of the staff member's actual performance.

In recent years, colleges and universities, independent of external pressure, have begun to institute sweeping measures to hold themselves and their faculty and staff members accountable in a number of areas, so much so that "increased accountability" has become a badge of pride for some colleges. That is why the Voluntary System of Assessment (VSA) program has become so popular. VSA was jointly developed by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities as a way for state institutions to demonstrate accountability both internally and to the public at large.

It is typical now for universities to display in their literature that they are committed to accountability in all areas of their operations. That is a far cry from the practices in academe only a few decades ago.

Our increased commitment to accountability has led to more deliberate, defensible, and professional decision-making. Specifically, it has highlighted the necessity of making data-driven rather than seat-of-the-pants decisions, much less ideologically driven ones. Becoming genuinely accountable means being able to demonstrate that decisions derive from specific facts, not from anecdote, impression, gut feeling, personal agenda, or ideology. It entails fostering a culture of evidence within the institution, which has led, in turn, to the increased importance of involving information-technology and institutional-research departments in key decisions.

Recently I was invited to participate on a panel of experts in information technology and institutional research about the importance of data-driven decision making in strategic planning. The consensus was that having sufficient access to the right data enables universities to make more sophisticated, fine-grained decisions and to demonstrate the rationales behind them.

Clearly, "accountability" in academe can refer to a vast array of attempts to become transparent and open in decision-making processes. Whether it is an attempt by curricular programs to illustrate that they are truly delivering what they promised, or an effort by academic departments (or entire institutions) to demonstrate that their students really are acquiring the skills and knowledge demanded by their disciplines, or measures taken by institutions to tighten their fiscal controls, the answer to "Why accountability?" is this: Because we have a responsibility as public stewards to answer for the trust we have been given.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John W. Presley, of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at