What We Talk About When We Talk About Accountability

Wonks like me tend to support policies whereby colleges that receive public money are held accountable for numerical performance measures. People who actually work for colleges generally hate this idea. At the most extreme, they say it violates some kind of sacred principle of total institutional autonomy. More reasonable critics argue that quantitative measures of university quality are so unavoidably reductive, simplistic, and distortionary that creating an accountability system based on them would do more harm than good.

To the latter, let me offer the latest issue of Binghamton University Magazine, which features a lengthy ode to outgoing president Lois DeFleur, who recently stepped down after the Division I men’s basketball program she championed collapsed in a wave of drugs, crime, academic misconduct, scandal and disgrace completing two decades of service to the Binghamton community. The magazine summarized her accomplishments by listing the following changes at Binghamton from 1990 to 2009:

  • The number of Ph.D. recipients increased from 72 to 116
  • The number of Ph.D. programs increased from 18 to 41
  • The number of students increased from 11,883 to 14,713
  • The percent of students who are minorities increased from 17 to 33
  • The number of international students increased from 704 to 2,132
  • Year-to-date fundraising increased from $1.58-million to $30-million
  • Outside research funding increased from $12,147,459 to $36,563,590
  • The last two capital campaigns raised $43.7-million and $84.2-million
  • The university opened a two-building academic complex, doubled the size of the student union, built a $31.1-million Events Center, erected five new dorms, and established a $39-million University Downtown Center.
  • Moved from Division III athletics to Division II in 1998, and to Division I in 2001. (Hilariously, the only athletic accomplishment listed was a 2003 swimming and diving title. I guess the Big Dance is safely down the memory hole.)
  • Finished third out of 210 schools for recycling bottles and cans in the national RecycleMania competition.

Higher education already has an accountability system based on quantitative measures of performance. It’s right there in the bullet points above. Every current or aspiring president understands how it works. It wasn’t imposed by a government agency or newsmagazine. It was created by the academy itself.

So the question isn’t whether we’ll evaluate university performance with numbers. We already do that. The question is which numbers.

Two things about the list above stand out. The first is the unwavering focus on quantity.  The article is subtitled “DeFleur leaves Binghamton bigger, better,”  but the last word is redundant—everyone understands that in higher education, too much is never enough.

The second is the near-total absence of information about quality, students, and learning. Did teaching improve at Binghamton from 1990 to 2009? How much did students learn? Did they go on to graduate and professional schools and succeed there? Were they able to pursue rewarding careers? Did college help them become better citizens, thinkers, and people? How good are those 23 new Ph.D. programs? How much better are the 18 that were already there? More minority students enrolled, but why are they less likely than white students to earn degrees?

The very powerful de facto American higher education accountability system makes perfect sense from the perspective of the faculty and administrators who make their careers at individual institutions. More money in the bank, nicer buildings, lots of graduate programs, a pleasingly diverse body of students to walk among, exciting Division I sports events to attend—all positive from the staff standpoint. The missing items make sense too. Who wants to be on the hook for hard questions about quality, students, and learning?

As long as we stick with the current accountability system, college will keep getting more expensive. Presidents will continue devoting their considerable talents to the pursuit of bigger-as-better. Quality, students and learning will continue to stagnate.

It’s good that American colleges and universities aren’t content to stay in place, that higher-education leaders are driven to build records of achievement. The problem is how achievement is currently understood. Quality, students and learning are a lot messier and more difficult to measure than dollars in the bank, students in the dorms, and wins on the athletic field. Doing so requires a stomach for controversy and a tolerance for ambiguity and error. But that’s the only way that future university presidents will be driven to leave behind fuller legacies than this.

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