There be monsters here: Making sense of postsecondary accountability in the current era

By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department

Those of us who’ve spent what feels like a lifetime in the academy have of late felt the rather haunting presence of a spectre creeping its way into postsecondary education institution by institution. In an era characterized by retrenchment in the public sector and the determination of well-meaning policymakers to get the most ‘bang for the buck’ out of our educational systems, we have become bedeviled by efforts to become more business savvy and attentive of prospective markets for our services. This is particularly true for those divisions of the University that are entirely self-supporting and for those taking maiden voyages across the entrepreneurial sea. With few accurate maps and even fewer devoted cartographers available, we run the risk becoming grounded upon rocky shoals or worse yet, set adrift in open sea.

Recently, an instructor in our College Counseling program shared an intriguing piece on the subject by Daniel Luzer in the Washington Monthly online: ‘The Worst Trends in Higher Education.’  This brief commentary offers a compelling framework for understanding where we might be headed and a cautionary note about the shallows and where creatures might skulk about.

Whilst there is a fairly universal consensus around the need for postsecondary accountability; professional relevancy; and for public universities to continue to seek out non-public funds, the compelling questions are those associated with identity and metrics. In other words, prudent assessment is driven by who we are as institutions and those things we purport to do. They are rooted strongly in our values as individual departments and divisions within institutions and our collective identities as campuses and systems.  We have discovered — much to the chagrin of our faculties — that conventional business-based metrics too often fail to capture the unique nature of postsecondary education and the complexities of interwoven relationships between departments, faculty and students.

At the same time, we are somewhat beholden to market forces that propel us ever forward as well as to policymakers eager to apply patchwork to the holes in our system. The very nature of postsecondary education — an institution that holds proudly to its traditions — has transformed and continues to morph like a vaccine-resistant virus. Just as we are able to grasp hold of who we believe we are as a collective, things change. Nowhere is this more evident than in our own Education Department, where we have been obliged to re-examine our own missions, objectives and audiences. Our very understanding of education and what it means to be educated has taken rather a wallop.

In a time where gratification is immediate, it is indeed tempting to measure our worth on the fly, grabbing assorted measurement strategies from the great cauldron. Yet, I’d advise some caution in the process, avoiding capricious and hasty judgments. The value of education in its broadest sense is not something someone knows when they see it. Rather, it is determined by our own identities, values and understandings — and that is worth time and through study.  As we contextually ground curriculum and personalize instruction, let us do the same for postsecondary accountability, lest we encounter great beasts or fall from the edge of the earth.

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