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“Studying” Accountability is Not Enough


The Commission on the Future of Higher Education met again last Friday to discuss accountability and assessments. Thanks to the leadership of former University of Texas Regent Charles Miller, the Commission has been raising important questions about how to ensure America’s system of higher education remains the finest in the world–questions that go to the failure of federal accreditation, rising costs, and consistent lack of accountability in the higher education community.

At the latest field hearing in Indianapolis, one panelist, the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, responded with the usual: He delivered yet another “discussion paper” along with a promise that his association will now “study” and pursue how to improve student learning through enlisting colleges and universities in voluntary accountability and assessment measures. The paper itself offers no concrete solutions, but simply recommends – as so many have recommended before–that the higher education community be left alone to examine itself.

This appeal is not only nothing new, it’s a means of forestalling action with expressions of good intentions. That’s why, in our Friday testimony, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni warned the Commissioners not to listen to those in the higher education community who continually say they will take care of things while opposing outside input and advice. (Our complete testimony can be downloaded as a pdf file here.)

For too long, constituencies such as alumni, trustees–and, yes, Commissioners–have been expected to remain outside the walls of the ivory tower, particularly when it comes to issues of academic quality and accountability. There are those inside the academy who steadfastly believe they should have absolute autonomy. For them, the role of trustees, alumni, and government commissions is to provide support–period. But as ACTA outlined Friday, current conditions in the academy urgently call for outside scrutiny.

A large community–led by ACTA–has moved beyond “discussion papers” to concrete and articulate advice for institutions that want to make themselves voluntarily accountable. ACTA has for years provided guidance and support ranging from our studies on general education, grade inflation, and active and informed stewardship to the 2003 launch of the Institute for Effective Governance, an organization devoted to training and advising trustees.

While others pallidly proclaim the need for (apparently indefinitely prolonged) institutional self-study, ACTA has done the homework on how institutions have failed to make use of their opportunity–no, their obligation–to be accountable. On Friday, we provided the Commissioners with detailed information on the troubling decline of general education, on the rampant spread of grade inflation, and on widespread lack of institutional transparency; we also offered a list of corrective actions we believe must be taken by trustees and higher education institutions. These include:

1. Review and reform of the general education curriculum.

2. An end to grade inflation.

3. Development of institutional expectations and assessments for student learning.

4. An end to mandatory federal accreditation.

5. Gubernatorial focus on informed college and university trustees.

6. Trustee training.

7. The hiring of presidents who will be agents of change.

8. Board transparency.

Although you wouldn’t know it from reading the press accounts (which inexplicably downplayed and even ignored ACTA’s contribution to the Indianapolis session), these recommendations were received warmly by many members of the Commission. Several commissioners expressed gratitude for the information ACTA provided and acknowledged that a focus on curriculum and quality was essential to the Commission’s endeavors. One Commissioner, former MIT president Charles Vest, even thanked ACTA for helping to reframe the Commission’s discussion. Vest praised ACTA for moving the discussion from a fairly limited focus on how to respond to students as consumers to a more fundamental and far-reaching perspective on the ultimate mission and purpose of higher education: preparing students to be informed citizens, effective workers, and lifelong learners.

Rather than simply trying to measure what students are learning–or, perhaps I should say, what they aren’t learning–ACTA hopes the Commission will turn its attention to what institutions are teaching and whether they are living up to their obligation to provide a quality education for the next generation.


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