P E R S P E C T I V E S
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Higher Education Accountability Policy
BUSINESS, POLITICAL & ACADEMIC
Evidence of the emergence of accountability expectations for higher education in the United States and throughout the world is abundant; it is in national reports, conference themes, mandated assessments, accreditation guidelines, and government statues and regulations. Yet some research establishes that business, political, and academic stakeholders do not necessarily agree as to either the purpose of accountability policy or what constitutes “evidence” of accountability. This paper presents survey results from academic, business, and political officers in five states, noting significant areas of consent and dissent regarding higher education accountability policy.
EMERGENCE OF ACCOUNTABILITY POLICY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
The authors would like to thank the following contributors—from the
University of Tennessee (except where noted)—for their work on this paper:
Dr. India Lane, Associate Professor
Dr. Kristi Nelms, Director of Housing
Dr. Gary Skolits, Assistant Professor
Dr. James Devita, Assistant Professor,
University of West Georgia
Mr. Les Fout, Doctoral Student
Mr. Phil Cook, Doctoral Student
Ms. Edee Vaughan, Doctoral Student
Ms. Angie Smith, Doctoral Student
Among the earliest markers of the call for higher education performance accountability was regional accrediting agencies’ shift in the 1980s and 1990s from the use of process indicators to educational outcomes and institutional effectiveness indicators as the bases for assessment and program/service improvement (Bogue and Hall 00). At the same time, state government became a more assertive player in higher education accountability policy, mandating assessment practices (Ewell, Finney and Lenth 1990) and calling for reporting on the basis of selected performance indicators (Bogue, Creech and Folger 199, Borden and Banta 199, Gaither, Nedweck and Neal 199). Individual campuses, multi-campus systems, and national policy agencies added to the accountability impulse with a range of report card policies. Perhaps no accountability policy initiative has provoked as much discussion and debate as the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s Measuring Up 2000 (reissued in 00, 00, 00, and 008).
Two reports furnish conceptual bookends to the political and professional dialogue on higher education accountability from 197 until 00. In Accountability in Higher Education, Kenneth Mortimer (197) commented that “Accountability accents results—it aims squarely at what comes out of an educational system rather than what goes into it.” In 00, the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education released Accountability for Better Results: A National Imperative for Higher Education. The Spellings Report (A Test of Leadership), released in September 00 by the U. S. Office of Education, offered six recommendations for improvements in higher education, including a call for a shift “from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance… which will be more easily achieved if higher education institutions embrace and implement serious accountability measures.”
In response to the challenge posed by the Spellings Report and to other calls for higher education accountability, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (formerly the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges) entered into a policy partnership. Many of the approximately 00 colleges that are members of these two organizations are creating the Voluntary System of Accountability—College Portrait, Web sites that will provide (1) institutional information for students and families (e.g., enrollment costs, degrees offered), () data relating to student experience and perceptions (these will derive from one of several surveys, e.g., National Survey of Student Engagement), and () data pertaining to student learning outcomes (these will derive from one of several instruments, e.g., College Learning Assessment) (Voluntary System of Accountability 007).
Similarly, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities launched the University and College Accountability Network, an online venture that provides student enrollment profiles, graduating student profiles, costs of attendance, and information about campus life.
THE RESEARCH PROBLEM
Higher education accountability literature (Lingenfelter 00, Millett 008, Spellings Report 00) and at least three dissertation studies suggest differences in the academic, business, and political perspectives on accountability in higher education—including its definition, accountability policy purpose, acceptable evidence, and communication of results (Roberson-Scott 00, Tanner 00, Tipton-Rogers 00). Business officers are primarily interested in the readiness of college graduates for work; they rarely cite other accountability outcomes. Political officers often are unaware of the accountability reports that are furnished annually to state political leaders. Distrustful of accountability reports furnished by higher education campuses and boards, they are more likely to trust independent assessments such as those conducted by an audit process or a state comptroller’s office. Academic leaders are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of current accountability policies and reports and anticipate that accountability will remain a prominent policy expectation.
While the call for accountability thus remains strong, it is not clear that different stakeholders agree as to the purpose of accountability policy, evidences and standards of acceptable performance, issues of credibility, and application of results.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
The research reported in this article was intended (1) to discern the extent to which academic, business, and political leaders’ expectations of higher education accountability policy differ and () to explore means of improving the design and impact of such policy. Two research questions guided the study:
W What differences, if any, exist among academic, business, and political stakeholders with regard to issues of collegiate mission and definitions and evidence of accountability?
W What are the most important steps higher education can take to improve its performance accountability?
This research builds on Bolman and Deal’s (00) “organizational frames” model, in which the complexities of organizations and associated leadership roles may be examined through four “frames”: structural, human relations, political, and symbolic. The structural frame focuses on organizational charts, policy manuals, and position descriptions. The human relations frame focuses on relationships and interpersonal needs—the talent investments and aspirations of workers. The symbolic frame focuses on values, shared assumptions, celebrations, storytelling, and ways of doing business as means of understanding an organization. This paper focuses on the political frame, which posits that no organization exists without conflict over purpose, policy, process, resource allocation, and performance assessment.
Survey questions were framed around six themes derived from a review of accountability literature and research: W preferred definitions of accountability;
W effectiveness of existing accountability instruments/policies;
W priorities in higher education mission and purpose;
W importance of accountability stakeholders;
W expected outcomes of accountability policy; and
W importance of accountability evidence/indicators.
The survey was revised twice in response to feedback from a review panel of higher education policy experts and scholars as well as a pilot survey administered to selected legislators and business leaders.
The survey was sent to academic, business, and political leaders in five states in different geographical and institutional accreditation regions. The five states were Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, and Oregon.
Survey participants included the president, chief academic officer, and faculty senate president of each public institution in each state, a convenience sample of business leaders identified from selected chamber of commerce member lists in each state, and all legislators in each state.
We make no claim that the study respondents are statistically representative of these three populations. Indeed, the modest number of political responses refutes any claim of adequate population representation. This must be counted an exploratory study only.
Each participant was sent a link to an online survey that invited responses to six areas relating to policy interest and perspective; follow-up “reminder” e-mails were sent one week and two weeks after original transmission of the survey. Response rates were lowest for individuals in the business and political categories. Finally, in an effort to increase response rates, we mailed a hard copy of the survey as well as a postage-paid envelope with return to Dr. E. Grady Bogue. (See Table 1 for information regarding survey participants.)
We limited our analysis to findings for each of the combined stakeholder groups. Future research may focus on analysis of the data by state or other classification variable (e.g., academic position, political affiliation, size of corporation).
The tables that follow present the mean responses of the three participant groups (academic, business, political), the F-test for the analysis of variance, and the significance level of each survey item.
Definitions of Accountability
Survey respondents were invited to use a four-point Likert scale to rate their level of agreement with each of four definitions of accountability in higher education. Responses were compiled by “frame” (academic, business and political) and are presented as the mean response by frame. (See
Table , on page 18.)
Survey respondents showed the greatest level of statistical agreement in their definition of institutional accountability as institutional goal achievement, though that definition was not the highest ranking of any of the three groups. Each survey group gave high ratings to “fiscal and management integrity” as a definition of accountability in higher education. Significant differences were apparent in the groups’ perceptions of “achieving state goals”
and “offering public evidences on educational and fiscal Instruments of Accountability performance.” More than survey respondents in either the Which are preferred accountability instruments? Survey academic or business group, those in the political group respondents were invited to rate five measures using a deemed institutions’ responsiveness to state goals as an Likert scale in which 1 represented “least effective” and Respondents from the
ity of an enterprise, it seems
reasonable to ask whether stakeholders agree on the mis- There was general agreement on three of the four imsion and purpose of that enterprise. (See Table ). Beyond provement impacts of accountability policy, with disagreeagreeing that higher education should contribute to economic and workforce development, the participant consensus disappears. Academic leaders place higher value on (a) student discovery of talents, interests, and values, (b) serving as depository of cultural history and heritage, (c) sustaining and strengthening democracy, and (d) serving as forum for public policy debate. Though not reaching significance at 0.0 or 0.01 levels, academic leaders place a higher value on the unimpeded search for truth than business or political leaders. Business leaders do not accord as much value to the “public policy forum” mission of higher education as do political and academic leaders. These differences in perspective on higher education mission and purpose reinforce the need for faceto-face dialogue among stakeholders on precisely what is expected of colleges and universities.
Survey respondents were asked to use a four-point Likert scale to indicate their extent of agreement with each of four statements regarding the impact of accountability policy. (See
ment between academic and political leaders on improving government confidence. (See Table ). Academic and business participants place first priority on improving fiscal and educational management as an outcome of accountability policy, with political participants close to even on that purpose and improving government confidence.
Attitudes Toward Accountability Policy
Again, participants were asked to use a four-point Likert scale, this time to rate their agreement with each of six statements pertaining to the form and credibility of accountability efforts. (See Table .)
Differences are evident in the groups’ ratings of all six statements. As might be expected, academic respondents were more trusting of the credibility of institutional accountability data than were business and political respondents. This finding accords with those from previous qualitative inquiries (Roberson-Scott 00, Tanner 00, Tipton-Rogers 00). Business and political respondents were most supportive—and more so than academic respondents—of independent educational and financial audits. Business and political respondents also were more inclined than academic respondents to believe that campuses will use “cosmetic and adaptive” approaches to deflect public attention away from unflattering data. Finally, business and political respondents were more supportive than academic respondents of periodic public polls to gauge support of higher education. Academic respondents agreed most strongly with the statement that “isolated instances of integrity problems in higher education can overshadow good reports of academic and fiscal stewardship.”
Evidence of Accountability:
Survey participants were asked to use a four-point Likert scale to rate the importance of the satisfaction of six separate constituency groups as an indicator of institutional accountability. (See Table 7., on page 1)
Academic, business, and political respondents agreed that the two constituencies whose satisfaction is most important as evidence of institutional accountability are employers and currently enrolled students. Whereas academic respondents placed the least value on parents’ satisfaction as a measure of institutional accountability, business and political respondents valued alumni satisfaction least Academic respondents also valued faculty satisfaction more highly than did business and political respondents.
Evidence of Accountability:
Student Learning Outcomes
Survey participants were asked to use a four-point Likert scale to rate their agreement with each of eleven statements describing student learning outcomes as evidence of higher education accountability. (See Table 8, on page .)
See Table 8 showing differences among 9 of 11 student learning outcomes. Academic leaders place higher value on knowledge of other cultures, democratic heritage, modes of thought and pursuit of truth, systems of ethical and religious thought, artistic/aesthetic expression and analytical/critical thinking. Business leaders tend to favor interpersonal skill/interaction.
DISCUSSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
This research demonstrates that the call for accountability in higher education is not a simple policy challenge. Key stakeholders disagree as to what should be the mission priorities of higher education, the purpose of accountability policy, and the evidence of accountability.
It seems unlikely that a credible system of accountability will be developed given the lack of consensus regarding the mission and purposes of higher education. A primary emphasis on the economic development role of colleges and universities is understandable in the context of today’s global marketplace. But while economic development and workforce readiness are legitimate purposes of higher education, they are not its only purposes. Who will assert the importance of higher education as a venture of personal discovery, as a guarantor of liberty and guardian of democracy, as a depository of heritage and culture, as a forum for policy critique and debate, and as a facilitator of the search for truth? Given the complexities of the history and mission of higher education in the United States—and its existence in a climate of chronic crisis and continuing criticism—guarded attitudes about the possibility of framing a broadly accepted accountability policy seem warranted. Disagreement and debate are at the core not only of our colleges but also of our democratic society. We thus should welcome dissent and dialogue and not shrink from the hard work that will be required to develop accountability policy that is credible and useful to academic, business, and political stakeholders.
Each of the participant groups in this study believes that accountability is essential. Each group also believes that evidences and instruments to demonstrate accountability exist. Each group believes as well that higher education exists to serve multiple purposes and multiple constituents—students being foremost among them.
Despite these areas of agreement, the academic, business, and political respondent groups differed in their ratings of the purpose, evidence, instrumentation, and communication of accountability in higher education. Given these differences (and evidence of comparable differences in other research), it seems reasonable to conclude that a more useful and credible accountability system could be developed were representatives of each group to meet for this purpose: Rather than arguing for or against current accountability measures in higher education, stakeholders should initiate and persist in transparent and candid exchange until they devise an accountability policy and procedure(s) that reflect reasonable agreement as to their purpose, evidence, methods, and evaluation.
We therefore recommend that the following actions be taken:
W Each state should convene a representative group of academic, business, and political leaders to review current accountability efforts and to revise/develop accountability policy that is acceptable and meaningful to all stakeholders. (North Dakota is already working in this direction. See Dunn 00.)
W Each of the six regional institutional accrediting agencies should consider undertaking the challenge of building consensus among academic, business, and political leaders regarding higher education accountability. Such an effort could guide campuses and states that seek to strengthen their accountability policy.
W Regional policy agencies (e.g., SREB and WICHE) should consider taking responsibility for the design of accountability policy that would be deemed credible by academic, business, and political stakeholders.
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About the Authors
DR. E. GRADY BOGUE is Professor of Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee. He served for eleven years as Chancellor of
Louisiana State University in Shreveport (1980–1991) and for one year as Interim Chancellor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He was named Chancellor Emeritus of LSU Shreveport by the LSU Board of Trustees in 1991. Dr. Bogue was named a distinguished alumnus of the University of Memphis in 1986. He has served in a variety of other campus and state level administrative positions. He has written ten books on leadership and accountability themes and has one more in press. Presidential Derailment in Higher Education, with Stephen Trachtenberg and Gerry Kauvar (Rownan and Littlefield), will be released in spring 2012 He has published more than60 articles in such journals as the Harvard Business Review, Leader to Leader, Journal of Higher Education, Educational Record, Phi Delta Kappan, Planning for Higher Education, College and University, and Trusteeship. Over the past two decades, seven of his public speeches have been carried in Vital Speeches of the Day.
KIMBERELY BINGHAM HALL is the Executive Vice President for South College in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she has served for sixteen years. Including her current position, she has worked in private higher education for more than 24 years. Dr. Hall earned her doctoral degree in Education Administration and Policy Studies, with a concentration in Higher Education Administration, from the University of Tennessee. In her current position, she works closely with all aspects of institutional and program accreditation, as well as planning and assessment. She is an active participant in the accreditation process in service on task forces, accreditation committees, visiting teams and special accreditation teams.
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