Who’s In Charge Here? Getting Accountability Right in Higher Ed

By Daniel Regan

“Accountability” is one of the buzzwords of contemporary U.S. higher education. At times, it’s deployed primarily to strike a pose: We’re tough, we mean business. At other times, when this noun conveys not only muscularity but a real commitment to substantive results, its use is often imprecise. This imprecision has consequences and poses a danger.

The concept of accountability, deployed loosely, can spark dismay in the ranks of those held wrongly accountable. These may be individual staff members, faculty or administrators. When an individual or unit is held responsible for a goal not achieved, while, in fact, the shortfall “belongs” to others as well, it is easy to imagine that cynicism and despair may prevail. Or when someone is singled out for celebration and praise, for an achievement in which others might rightfully share, they may exhibit the “chopped liver” syndrome (“What am I, chopped liver?“). There’s good reason, then, to think through how we apply the term and, especially, to whom.

At least two types of accountability exist in higher education; and it’s important to distinguish between them. (Here I draw from Mark Friedman, Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, FPSI Publishing, 2005.) The first is “population accountability,” which refers to a situation in which responsibility is assigned for bringing about intended results that improve the well-being of a population—students, say. This work requires contributions of various types from a wide array of partners; no one can do it alone. This kind of accountability implies that multiple paths must intersect to shape the improved well-being of a population. Although there can be a lead person or a sponsoring group, responsibility for progress does not, and cannot, rest with a single person, program or unit.

Then there is “performance accountability,” which refers to situations in which managers and their staffs are charged with improving the performance of particular programs and services. Whether or not they have succeeded may be determined from indicators that address (according to Friedman) three key questions: How much did we do? How well did we do it? Is anyone better off? The two types of accountability are related in that the recipients of services in situations of performance accountability are drawn from those whose overall well-being is at stake under circumstances of population accountability.

Two examples may usefully clarify this distinction and highlight the need to get accountability right:

Early student success. Practically every institution emphasizes early student success, which in the broadest sense includes students embarking on a path that will lead to an eventual, timely graduation as well as taking first steps on planning satisfying lives after college. But the key result is typically the rate at which students in their first year return for a second. To affect and monitor this trend against an established baseline, colleges and universities often feature some version of an office of first-year experience. The responsibility of moving the needle on first-to-second year retention frequently falls on the shoulders of staff in this office. Hooray to the first-year office for a one percent rise in retention! A  drop of similar magnitude might lead to a serious conversation with a supervisor.

But when you think of it, unique responsibility—in our terms, population accountability—may be misplaced. Others may be equally deserving of kudos for the gains, or equally responsible for a shortfall. After all, student success is the product of multiple dimensions of college life, and thus a range of experiences may shape a student’s decision to stay or leave. From a beginning student’s perspective, these would include whether campus life facilitates connections, whether the environment is a supportive one, whether beginning courses provide the right level of challenge, and even whether food, housing and the feel of the campus are sufficiently appealing.

These are, in large part, items over which most offices of first-year experience have little control. But if no single office can be held responsible for first-to-second year retention, does that mean that no one is responsible? Emphatically no.

Where early student success is an institutional priority, it cannot be allowed to fall through the cracks. In such instances, senior leadership should make this a responsibility that goes right to the top. If improvements in student services or residential life are determined to hold the most promise for retention gains, then a vice president or dean for student affairs might be the accountable party. If the main institutional goal is improvements in high-quality learning, from which retention will follow, then ultimate responsibility must reside where there is some sway over faculty, in light of the latter’s significant role in student retention. This might point to a dean of undergraduate studies or academic affairs or, perhaps in small institutions, the provost. Even where there is an actual director of retention, we would have to know whether the scope of her duties reasonably allows the assignment of ultimate responsibility and accountability. A sample Chronicle of Higher Education ad says the director will “oversee and coordinate campus initiatives related to retention, persistence and completion, including but not limited to cohort tracking, analysis and direct student support in conjunction with other campus resources,” but stipulates little in the way of authority over staff or faculty to accomplish these ends.

On the other hand, that aforementioned office of first-year experience should be held accountable—for the specific programs it provides and services it renders. This is an example of performance accountability. At my institution, for example, those activities and services would include orientation, a common reading initiative along with a semester-long series of related events, the monitoring of required first-year seminars, and a credit-bearing course that requires students to attend and reflect upon a range of campus events.

For each of these, we can devise measures of success that answer the three performance accountability questions. An answer to “How much did we do?” would include the number of activities and events sponsored, as well as the number of students who participated. The measure of “How well did we do it?” would tap student satisfaction and the extent to which students feel better poised for success, by virtue of their participation. “Is anyone better off?” would delve into specific skills (for instance, library skills) that students may have developed, as well as knowledge they may have gained of their institution’s facilities, services, programs and personnel and evidence of behaviors that those activities are intended to foster.

Development. Among other key areas for the college, take, for instance Institutional Development—undeniably a complex endeavor. For one thing, it involves much else besides fundraising per se, such as image-cultivation and reputation-building, public communication, of course relationship-building, as well as institutional research. For another, fundraising is itself multifaceted, typically including major gifts, the annual campaign, scholarship support, and endowment-building, among its dimensions. And finally, development involves a wide range of participants. Faculty present to prospective donors who may wish to invest in exciting research; student callers gather for a phonathon; vice presidents and presidents nurture relationships. Despite this complexity, in the end, it does make sense to hold accountable for results the most senior development officer, possibly a director of development or dean of advancement, or perhaps even a president hired by a board with specific fundraising goals in mind. That would be an appropriate exercise of population accountability, even while the performance of other staff members might be weighed against measures of performance accountability for their piece of the overall development puzzle. Nevertheless, this assignment of overall responsibility through accountability would always be a judgment call that requires thought, since naturally no individual would be in full control over each and every aspect of development.

In today’s results-driven (and not just effort-driven) environment, especially where resources are limited, accountability is indispensable if colleges and universities are to move forward. But higher education leaders should assign real value to the concept by using it not just gesturally but with definite purpose. Just as important is the need to consider thoughtfully how to apply and assign accountability in particular circumstances—to whom, for what, and on what basis.

Daniel Regan, a sociologist, is the former dean of academic affairs at Northern Vermont University-Johnson.


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