People in higher education generally accept performance evaluation and accountability to stakeholders, including taxpayers who provide funding – albeit a diminishing share of budget requirements – to public institutions. I wish, however, to urge caution as the Regents, the governor and legislative leaders get set to implement their agreement to impose new performance measures on Montana’s state universities.
Article X, Section 9, of the Montana Constitution confers full authority on the regents to manage and control the university system. In the beginning, some of us bloodied our heads repeatedly to protect this provision. Neither the governor nor the Legislature has authority to make university system appropriations contingent on acquiescence to management directives from them.
The Regents may agree to negotiate claims, as they have in this case, but when they do so, they should file a written disclaimer that their voluntary action does not indicate an intention to give up any of their constitutional authority or independence.
Next, I urge Montana to buck the misdirected trend in this country to use an English-French dictionary to translate from the German. We measure everything with a yardstick appropriate to profit-making enterprises, and we believe that anything is managed better if “run like a business.” This misconception should be avoided in evaluating any not-for-profit organization, especially universities.
Using the business model to evaluate universities may result in addressing only those variables susceptible of quantitative measurement, and these, inevitably, are not the most crucial ones. This approach ignores elements of a university’s “product” which often take years before the payoff is evident. The value of such intangibles is not captured in the idiom of cost accounting.
If you ignore the life-changing experience of students, whether or not they graduate; if you disregard the quality-of-life and economic impacts of campus museums, symphony orchestras, dramatic productions, or the laboratory and library resources, rapidly growing and externally-funded research, faculty publications and global linkages, or student public service- then you come down to this: you are in danger of squeezing the soul from the university as it is re-conceptualized into an assembly line to produce interchangeable human widgets for entry-level niches in American business.
Universities will direct their resources to those pursuits that attract “performance” money. This not only distorts what a university is, but is dehumanizing for those who wish to be risk-taking intellectual explorers as students, or who seem themselves someday playing significant roles outside business – in the arts, journalism, religion, teaching in the public schools, serving in government, or in human services. In none of these cases is later “success” measured by how much money one makes.
Yet the assumption of the business model is that the essential purpose of a college education is to get a good job and make lots of money.
The use of “productivity” measures usually is coupled with “efficiency” measures. This runs up against the reality that the best universities are often the least efficient. They are good because they direct resources to excellent laboratories and libraries, state-of-the-art technology, well-paid faculty, and better student housing and recreation facilities. They have smaller classes, requiring more faculty. An efficiency expert might say a university is squandering money by housing more books than anyone can ever read, or by having six nursing students rather than 26 surrounding a hospital bed in practicum.
Montana’s state universities are much better than we deserve, considering the minimal level of state support. Let us hope that the imposition of performance measures will be done with care, and will not trigger an erosion of those unmeasurable things that define a great university.
Lawrence Pettit was Montana’s first Commissioner of Higher Education, after which he was president of universities in Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. In retirement he wrote a memoir, “If You Live by the Sword: Politics in the Making and Unmaking of a University President,” which was published in 2010. He lives in Helena.