Tread carefully on performance measures for universities

2013-03-25T08:15:00Z Tread carefully on performance measures for universitiesGuest column by LAWRENCE K. PETTIT
March 25, 2013 8:15 am  • 

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.

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(4) Comments

  1. mike1
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    mike1 - March 25, 2013 11:04 pm
    Well written article--listen to the man--he knows. You legislators "hired" the Commission of Higher Ed to Administrate higher education. They are qualified to do it, you are not. Most of you don't know how education works. Do not override their decisions on everything, just because you politically see the advantage of that. You will destroy our good education here!
  2. BobbyLee
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    BobbyLee - March 25, 2013 12:23 pm
    - "...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."

    Excellent piece! Brilliantly written!

    These days, 'performance measures' are simply old-fashioned 'targets' designed by administrators to do little more than justify their own agendas. At one time they were introduced under good faith, but that was long ago when administration was but a minor support entity, and a tiny fraction of the empire it has become. Targets, as has been proved countless times across Europe in the past decade, are destined to fail every single time because the data always gets undermined by people protecting themselves from unemployment, demotions, and school closings - if they don't measure up. (There are filmed instances of administrators explaining to groups of teachers on how to cheat!)

    This is the 21st century. It's past time that we left the outdated educational model of the 18th century alone. We don't need thousands more cookie-cutter professorships. We need people who are flexible, can twist on a dime to the changing business world, and are not frozen into one field simply because that it what they went to school for. We also need to rid ourselves of this archaic notion that a paper trail denotes either intelligence or ability: for instance; there is no reason mature students need to pass SATs and search for 40 year-old credits that, quite astonishingly, seem to carry no validity in today's pedestaled educational palaces. For they have already proved their worth in the workplace - you know, the big place that universities are 'supposed' to prepare us all for. But are failing miserably and repeatedly in order to solely protect archaically managed institutions which are administered by blinkered people who have rarely set a working foot in the real world. - Ken Robinson on changing education in a system that both kills inherent creativity and has only one factor for determining intelligence. With the result that vast swathes of the population are forever alienated simply for the mistaken belief that they were, in a very short period of time, classified as being dumb at school.

    And supposed smart, educated, intelligent people are in charge of all this. Kind of makes you wonder who are actually the smart ones. At least it should.
  3. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - March 25, 2013 10:18 am
    Most journalists, from what I've seen, are not educated - they're literate, but their education in science and math is just pathetic.
  4. Americus
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    Americus - March 25, 2013 9:11 am
    I have to agree with everything Larry says.! There is a difference between "training" and "educating". Universities should be primarily about educating its students and secondarily about training them.

    As an example, Journalism is a training program; but hopefully they become educated in the process. Uneducated, even if well trained, journalist are a danger to any society. For those who don't know the difference, there is no basis for a discussion of the subject.

    The issue of retention and graduation at the university level is a false god. Universities would be better off(as would the students) if more students left and found a more appropriate(for them) alternative.

    Universities exist to provide employment for faculty. The more students, the more faculty a university is able to hire. Bad model. Using students by lowering standards and providing more money is a disservice to everyone, including society at large; and especially the students being exploited.

    I believe in accountability, but the dangers that Larry discusses deserve, even need, to be heeded.
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