Speak the word “accountability” in any college or university president’s office, and her or his blood pressure is sure to jump.
It shouldn’t—accountability is just another word for what we in higher education have already been doing, in one form or another, for years: No one enters the field without anticipating a career-long pursuit of constant learning and better outcomes. Academe’s whole raison d’etre is about analysis, continuous improvement, and many of the other terms we hear about so frequently in connection with accountability.
So it’s no surprise that such a wide diversity of higher education organizations have ongoing accountability projects for their members, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, our own American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and others.
And of course there are the multitudes of colleges and universities that already quietly and effectively hold themselves to account. To mention just a couple that are spotlighted in this special accountability issue:
- The public University of Wisconsin System has issued an extensive annual report since 1993 that details its performance on key metrics across a wide range of objectives, in addition to individual campus accountability reports that focus on how they’re meeting their mission-specific goals.
- The private University of the Pacific in Stockton, California is midway through an intensive, collaborative review of all its administrative and academic activities aimed at keeping down student costs and reallocating about $15 million in efficiencies toward improvements in programs, activities, and services.
The problem with accountability comes when it’s done arbitrarily—without regard for the wide variety of institutional missions and student demographics and imperatives—and without sufficient input from those who know colleges and universities best.
American higher education—like any field that serves millions of people and generates billions of dollars of direct and indirect economic benefits—is complicated and nuanced. Successful accountability must necessarily reflect those nuances.
It’s often said that the United States is now a knowledge economy. If that’s true, then it only makes sense to take our higher education accountability cues not from governments or fulminators, but from the institutions that do the most to create and spread knowledge: colleges and universities themselves.
Molly Corbett Broad
American Council on Education