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Accountability and Higher Education offers a comprehensive and timely book that presents the principles and practical guidelines for effective accountability systems for states and colleges and universities. This important resource examines the most recent developments and offers the latest models for each of the major approaches to accountability for higher education.
1. The Many Faces of Accountability (Joseph C. Burke).
2. Accountability and the Private Sector: State and Federal Perspectives (William M. Zumeta).
3. Accountability and Governance (Richard C. Richardson Jr., Thomas R. Smalling).
4. Accountability and Accreditation: Can Reforms Match Increasing Demands? (Ralph A. Wolff).
5. Can Assessment Serve Accountability? It Depends on the Question (Peter T. Ewell).
6. Standardized Testing and Accountability: Finding the Way and the Will (T. Dary Erwin).
7. Imagine Asking the Client: Using Student and Alumni Surveys for Accountability in Higher Education (George D. Kuh).
8. Academic Audit for Accountability and Improvement (William F. Massy).
9. State-by-State Report Cards: Public Purposes and Accountability for a New Century (Patrick M. Callan, Joni E. Finney).
10. Reinventing Accountability: From Bureaucratic Rules to Performance Results (Joseph C. Burke).
11. Resources and Reputation in Higher Education: Double, Double, Toil and Trouble (J. Fredericks Volkwein, Stephen D. Grunig).
12. The Dog That Doesn’t Bark: Why Markets Neither Limit Prices nor Promote Educational Quality (Robert M. Zemsky).
13. The Three Corners of the Accountability Triangle: Serving All, Submitting to None (Joseph C. Burke).
Joseph C. Burke
Accountability is the most advocated and least analyzed word in higher education. Everyone uses the term but usually with multiple meanings (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2002). Writers say it faces in every direction-"upward," "downward," "inward," and "outward" (Corbett, 1996; Vidovich and Slee, 2000). It looks, in turn, bureaucratic, participative, political, or market centered. To many beleaguered leaders in colleges and universities, accountability appears two-faced, with sponsors and stakeholders demanding more services while supplying less support. To many outsiders in government and business, higher education seems more interested in autonomy than accountability-in demanding support than supplying services. Falling public funding and rising client demands contribute to the confusion by shifting the focus of accountability from governments to markets and incentives from public subsidies to private purchases. As Day and Klein comment, "[I]f there is a great deal of interest in accountability, there is also a great deal of confusion about what this chameleon word means" (1987, p. 1). Clearing up the confusion is critical, because the conflict over accountability is eroding what was once a national consensus-that higher education is a public good for all Americans and not just a private benefit for college graduates.
Merriam-Webster defines accountability as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions" (Merriam-Webster, 2003); answerability is its closest synonym (Schedler, 1999, p. 14). Accountability imposes six demands on officials or their agents for government or public service organizations, including colleges and universities. First, they must demonstrate that they have used their powers properly. Second, they must show that they are working to achieve the mission or priorities set for their office or organization. Third, they must report on their performance, for "power is opaque, accountability is public" (Schedler, 1999, p. 20). Fourth, the two "E" words of public stewardship-efficiency and effectiveness-require accounting "for the resources they use and the outcomes they create" (Shavelson, 2000, p. 8). Fifth, they must ensure the quality of the programs and services produced. Last, but far from least, they must show that they serve public needs. The last five of these accountability demands represent tall tasks for higher education because of its unique purposes, collegial governance, and diverse constituencies.
The term accountability raises several deceptively simple but devilishly difficult questions: Who is accountable to whom, for what purposes, for whose benefit, by which means, and with what consequences? (Lingenfelter, 2003; Behn, 2001; Trow, 1996) The pronouns who, whom, and whose represent, respectively, the traditional trio of agent, principal, and beneficiary in political and organizational theory. In democracies, elected officers such as governors and legislators are the agents, while the "general public" plays the dual role of both principal (delegating the authority) and beneficiary (receiving the ultimate rewards). Delegation of authority down the chain of government agencies adds to the confusion about who is accountable to whom. As delegation and decentralization drop deeper in government and public service organizations, agent self-interest rises while the sense of public purpose recedes (Moe, 1984).
Delegation especially affects the academy, with its prized autonomy and collegial governance. At the state level, higher education coordinating or consolidated governing boards are nearly always the agents exercising the authority delegated by governors and legislators as the principals, mostly over public colleges and universities but, to some extent, over private institutions as well (see Chapter Three). The beneficiaries are, ultimately, the general public and, more immediately, students, businesses, governments, and social and civic organizations.
At the campus level, senior administrators become the agents, exercising the delegated authority of their principals and boards of trustees for the immediate benefit of students and external clients and, ultimately, for the public at large. Moving down the campus-delegation ladder, professors, in theory, exercise the authority delegated through deans for the same beneficiaries. It is indeed a long distance from the initial delegation of authority from governors and legislators to state higher education boards to the professors providing the instruction, research, and service that benefit society. Not surprisingly, in such long-distance delegation, both the connection and the communication often become unclear.
The concepts of upward, downward, inward, and outward accountability represent types of connections between principals and agents in higher education and other public services (Vidovich and Slee, 2000).
Upward accountability represents the traditional relationship of a subordinate to a superior. It covers procedural, bureaucratic, legal, or vertical accountability.
Downward accountability focuses on a manager being responsible to subordinates in participatory decision making or collegial accountability in higher education.
Inward accountability centers on agents acting on professional or ethical standards and often appears in organizations dominated by professionals, such as in colleges and universities, where it becomes professional accountability.
Outward accountability means responding to external clients, stakeholders, supporters, and in a democratic society, ultimately, to the public at large. It includes market and political accountability.
Accountability for what-its purposes or goals-becomes even more confusing and changeable. "You can't have accountability without expectations," says Behn. "If you want to hold people accountable, you have to be able to specify what you expect them to do and not do" (2001, p. 7). But clarity is an uncommon characteristic in elected government and collegial governance. Both often sacrifice clarity for closure, if not consensus. In addition, higher education-the knowledge and information institution in a knowledge and information society-suffers from too many, often conflicting expectations. The purposes or goals of accountability programs for higher education have shifted over time from system efficiency, to educational quality, to organizational productivity, and to external responsiveness to public priorities or market demands. As is often the case in public policy, new purposes are always added, but earlier goals are seldom abandoned.
Higher Education: Accountability with a Difference
Academics always argue that the academy is different, and accountability is no exception. Insiders see the differences between higher education and other public services as arising from the special character of the academic profession and its responsibilities. Outsiders counter that discovering and disseminating knowledge is no more complex and challenging than the problems confronting other professions, such as medicine and law. The presence of professionalism in higher education and other specialized organizations does complicate accountability. "The growth of professionalism and expertise ..." according to Day and Klein, "has led to the privatization of accountability, in so far as professionals and experts claim only their peers can judge their conduct and performance" (1987, p. 1). Contrary to popular opinion, professors are not the only professionals who make that claim.
The correct claim of academics for special treatment relates not to their profession but to the special role of higher education in society. Robert Berdahl (1990) vividly describes the dual demands of this unique claim. "Universities have generally had ambivalent relations with their surrounding societies: both involved and withdrawn; both serving and criticizing; both needing and being needed" (p. 169). Berdahl and others insist that colleges and universities must stay sufficiently safe from external pressures to safeguard their societal critique yet sufficiently responsive to external needs to sustain societal support. They must simultaneously serve and scrutinize the society that supports them.
These dual roles demand both autonomy and accountability. As is often the case, balance is the key. Too much autonomy encourages colleges and universities, both public and private, to slight society's needs. Too much accountability produces dependent institutions subservient to society's whims (McGuinness, 2002). Somehow, higher education and society's representatives must reach for an agreement that seeks the middle ground of service without subservience.
The Higher Education Social Compact
Society and the academy once appeared to have such an agreement. After World War II, stimulated by the success of the GI Bill, a social compact seemed to exist between American society and higher education. Although bows to state and regional differences are always in order, this compact clearly covered the country. It rested on a few felt but unwritten principles-on trust, not rules. Americans accepted as an unquestioned act of faith that access to a college education was a public good for society, as well as a private good for students (Knight Higher Education Collaborative, 1999; Selingo, 2003). Access to college opportunities allowed our nation to champion both sides of the American dilemma of how to achieve both equality and quality. Equality meant that society offered the opportunity for college to a growing percentage of the population while leaving the achievement of quality to the talents and efforts of individuals. Americans also acknowledged the need for a surprising degree of academic autonomy from governmental control.
On a more practical plane, the compact obligated state taxpayers to provide adequate operating funding for public colleges and universities, which in turn would keep tuition reasonably low. In addition, states with strong private colleges and universities supported some level of choice for students who wished to attend private or independent institutions. The compact depended on mutual trust that each side would keep its share of the bargain.
The federal policy of supporting basic scientific research in universities added research and service to the social compact of public benefits. People who never went to college or directly benefited from research or service saw higher education as a public good (Zemsky, 2003). They would nod with approval as leaders of colleges and universities claimed, in a paraphrase of GE's slogan: "We bring good things to life."
Decades of Decline
Like most compacts, the one between American society and higher education became strained when rights and responsibilities moved from vague generalities to specific demands and competed for funding with other public services. Specifics always strain consensus, as do funding constraints. In addition, external complaints about the rampant costs, questionable outcomes, inadequate outputs, and the internal focus of colleges and universities raised successive questions about their economy, quality, productivity, and responsiveness to societal needs (McGuinness, 1997). Not surprisingly, recessions and falling revenues contributed to these complaints. As a result, says Massy, "universities and professors began a long slide from objects of awe to subjects of accountability" (2003a, p. 20).
The social compact that provided the glue between the general public and higher education stuck fairly well through the 1950s to the late 1960s, when student lifestyles and war protests alienated some of the general public and government officials. During these decades, the older public and private colleges and universities expanded, and new campuses emerged to meet the burgeoning demand for college education spurred first by the GI Bill that encouraged returning soldiers to enroll in college and then by the so-called baby boom of their sons and daughters. The following decades brought problems that undermined the consensus of the social compact. Although the problems and programs of accountability never fall neatly into ten-year spans, the decades described next capture the changing trends.
By the early 1970s, fissures in the social compact opened up, beginning with the falling revenues from a recession and fears of enrollment declines at the end of the baby boom. States adopted more centralized governance through coordinating boards and multicampus systems to control development of new institutions and program duplication (McGuinness, 1994). In response to an anticipated decline in enrollment demand, more centralized governance sought to limit the resources granted to higher education. With economy as the goal, regulation became the lever of accountability and bureaucrats the agents. A pattern developed in this first decade of decline in the social compact. Each partner started holding the other side to more specific and stringent tests. States and society reduced support and demanded more services; colleges and universities requested more funding and started raising tuition, although not nearly to the degree as in the next decade.
By the 1980s, external concerns moved from economy to quality. Complaints about the lack of student learning in public schools, as voiced in A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), eventually moved to college campuses. Two-thirds of the states mandated, by legislation, that public colleges and universities adopt plans for assessing student learning. State officials dictated the policy but left the method of determination to campus professionals (see Chapter Five). Assessment shifted the focus of accountability from centralized state regulations to decentralized campus processes for identifying the knowledge and skills that graduates should possess, developing the method for assessing the extent of their achievement, and using the results to improve institutional performance. Although assessment programs focused on campus processes, the real goal was improving quality outcomes in student learning (McGuinness, 1997). This approach tried to combine public accountability with professional autonomy by tying external accountability to institutional improvement (see Chapter Five).
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