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Accountable Higher Education?

April 15, 2012, 4:33 PM

Thomas K. Lindsay, quite an erudite and distinguished expert, applauds the decision of post-secondary public technical schools in Texas to evaluate institutions and faculty according to how many students have gotten jobs and how much they’re going to get paid.

I’m a little skeptical about how this intrusive policy will be implemented.  Nevertheless, I can see the point.  Students who go to technical schools do so to pick up skills that will lead to good jobs.  They’re not there for any other reason.  And they’ve often been snookered if it turns out they end up less employable than the program promised.

Lindsay sees this seemingly minor breakthrough as the beginning of a new birth of accountability for American higher education generally.  According to the influential study Academically Adrift way too many students don’t achieve measurable increases in their abilities to think and write over their four years in college.  And so they’ve been basically wasting their time and money.  The burden of proof should be on the college to show they’ve been doing their students a significant amount of academic good.

This imperative for assessment and accountability, Lindsay astutely notices, is much more readily embraced by college presidents and other administrators than by college faculty.  He seems dismayed that presidents aren’t more bold in imposing reforms on recalcitrant faculty, even at the price of votes of no confidence.

The “class conflict” between administrators and especially liberal arts faculty seems, in general, to be more pronounced than ever.  Achieving reform based on measurable competencies untethered to disciplines is usually an administration project that gradually overcomes and coopts (through various incentives) faculty resistance.

That reform is often achieved by the imperatives of accreditation.  The accrediting associations have been aggressively intrusive, demanding not only that colleges provide huge amounts of quantitative documentation for their accomplishments but also that they undertake innovations according to the latest educational fashion embedded in buzzwords such as “engagement” (or “civic engagement”).  It’s laying no judgment on whether this or that fashion is progress or decline to claim that a perfectly good college shouldn’t have to embrace it just to keep its doors open.  So the process of accreditation seems to many faculty members to a combination of veiled intimidation and a pointless waste of time.

I’ve asked more than one old-fashioned college president why colleges—which seemingly own the accreditation organizations—put up with this resource-sucking and mission-distorting process.  The answer seems to be that administrators, in general, aren’t really against it, and the overwhelming majority of faculty unconnected with the world of accreditation are powerless to affect it.

Now there’s no denying that some faculty resist assessment and accountability because they’d rather not be seriously evaluated or be forced to change, even when the need for change is obvious.

But other faculty just aren’t impressed with the obsession with measurable competencies and all that.  They think that the seemingly precise but often trivial competencies inevitably slight or even miss what’s most important about what they do.  

Insofar as education is about technical competencies, assessment makes good sense.

And maybe there’s a place for it in demanding that colleges take rigor in writing and argument more seriously.  Anyone who ascends to a position of leadership in public or business life, for example, has to be able to distinguish between a correct argument and a persuasive one, and he or she  has to be able readily make connections between how people think and act in one situation and another (including, of course, in various times and places).   Thinking down this road leads to the conclusion that all our better students ought to read the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages, to counter the tendency for English to become more and more quasi-technical or just vague in accounting for human thought and action.  Every student should know why it’s ridiculous to ask for someone’s input (a term that doesn’t refer to what people do), when you really mean his or her opinion.  Thinking down that road might also lead you to conclude that everyone genuinely preparing for a position of leadership take at least a half-dozen courses in history.

But competencies rarely ascend to this level of depth or specificity.  They’re more like “effective communication” and “critical thinking,” which apparently are the opposites of ineffective communication and uncritical thinking.

If you think about it, the claim of liberal education is that human beings are not only technically clever animals but actually have souls.  The soul, from a distinctly non-metaphysical and non-theological view, means the longings (the hungry heart and mind) and the sublime capabilities given to members of our species alone.  The soul, the claim goes on, can be educated.  And that education allows those longings to elevate us in the direction of responsibilities and joys from which we might otherwise be degradingly diverted. 

 A fine professor at Berry College recently gave a compelling lecture on why the study of literature has to occur in the classroom among similarly animated students.  Literature, it turns out, is EROTIC.  It's sexy, that's for sure.  But it also arouses all of our longings—our passion—in the direction of purposes and pleasures that all genuinely educated people can share in common.  How do you measure that?


Accountable Higher Education?

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