is transparency the same thing as accountability?

I was a little surprised to see all the traffic that came over here about yesterday’s Yglesias/Newfield post, until I realized that Yglesias had responded to me on his own blog.  Since Yglesias seems genuinely interested in communicating with academics on some policy issues (though they sometimes seem less eager to hear from him), I thought I’d lay out my differences with him.  This seems particularly important, since Yglesias seems to believe that my “alternative [to the status quo at universities] is very much along the same lines as what [he is] arguing for.”

Um, afraid not.  Yglesias, for whatever reason, does not seem to register that the point of my post was that Newfield (unlike Yglesias so far) seems to understand the negative political consequences of higher ed accountability regimes for institutions that serve underrepresented populations.  In Newfield’s historical argument, which he has elaborated upon in several books, efficiency regimes and disinvestment go together, because one serve as the pretext and rationale for the other.  This seems to be historically demonstrable, and describes, for example, the plight of the California system much better than any “tenured professors are lazy parasites who don’t care about their students” theory.

I understand that this is an arguable point, but I do wish that Yglesias would attempt at least to recognize it, along with my other point, which is that long-term disinvestment in public universities is a) a political problem for those interested in liberal or left-wing ideals of democratic access to higher education and b) a major part of the right wing privatization and politicization strategies that have overtaken K-12 and now higher ed reform for some time.  So any educational reform that does not at least try to recognize the political contexts of the productivity “debate” is a non-starter, in my opinion.  At the very least, such a technocratic view of educational policy cannot be considered very left-wing, or liberal, in my view, because it ignores the ideological valences of current debates over defining and account for teacher “productivity.”

My disagreement with Yglesias can be summed up in the innocent-sounding sentence I found in his response, which omitted any discussion of Newfield or his point:

We could try to debate the difference between this kind of “transparency” and the dream “accountability” model, but I think they amount to the same thing.

Well, no.  If he hasn’t lived through an institution’s trying to implement such accountability measures (as I have), he may want to read some books on the bureaucratic complexities that such measures introduce into both faculty’s and students’ lives.  But the fundamental point is that such measures, no matter how appropriate or well-designed, can never be considered transparent, and have only an indirect relation or benefit to the actual business of teaching and learning at a university.

So my message to Yglesias would be: propose what you want, but remember that your proposals would be better, and certainly better received, if you showed more awareness of how they would concretely impact the people and institutions you’re talking about.

Best wishes,



9 responses to “is transparency the same thing as accountability?

  1. Building on my comment on the last post (now that I’ve read Yglesias’s response and yours to his), here’s another this with which I take issue:

    “Universities—meaning each specific institution individually—need to do a better job of explaining to donors and taxpayers what it is they’re doing. That means being transparent about what money is being spent on, and articulating a theory about why that’s a good allocation of resources.”

    To some extent, yes, but when I say that the survival of higher education depends on an overhaul of our public discourse, I don’t mean that universities and academics bear this responsibility alone. Our “accountability” to the public depends on the public’s ability to account for higher learning as a real and essential component of social good. I think there are many good, even excellent, accounts from within academia of what a humanities education does, but they disintegrate at the hands of a public that thinks solely in short-term, corporate models of value. I’ll take on the responsibility of “articulating a theory” about intellectual work if my audience agrees to take theories seriously, even when they depart from their preferred models.

  2. Thanks, Gena. But one of the responses I had to MY’s demand for better explanations was that we are already providing lots of explanations and lots of information to multiple constituencies, through regional accreditation, through voluntary self-assessment programs like the VSA, and to state agencies through all sorts of self-reporting mechanisms. The problem is that none of this gets read except by those who (like myself) sit on the committees that prepare the reports, while the demands for information get ramped up regardless of previous information.

    As for the question of how and when to intervene in public discourse, I’m coming to feel that we need to wade in however and whenever we can on educational policy, because it’s precisely when the argument is framed badly that we need to go in and offer an alternative rhetorical framework.

  3. Yes, I think you said it perfectly here:

    So any educational reform that does not at least try to recognize the political contexts of the productivity “debate” is a non-starter, in my opinion. At the very least, such a technocratic view of educational policy cannot be considered very left-wing, or liberal, in my view, because it ignores the ideological valences of current debates over defining and account for teacher “productivity.”

    And I wonder, now, whether the continued demands for information–despite the increased supply of such information–owes more to the ways in which the information fails to speak to the rhetoric of productivity and value outside academia (which is what I was presuming earlier) or to the fact that “demands for information” like MY’s are largely empty rhetorical gestures designed to prolong debate at the expense of progress. (Or, to be less accusatory, to carry on the debate ignorant of how the field is actually functioning and changing.)

  4. Pingback: Assessing higher education, or the problem of “accountability.” | angels in machines

  5. FWIW, I don’t think that MY is arguing in bad faith, which is why I’m trying to spell out how and where we differ. Nonetheless, I do believe there’s a gaping hole in his arguments about any kind of school “reform,” and it invariably involves the bureaucratic, stratified, differential effects of accountability, which can never be assumed to produce transparent accounts of the institutions they survey. There’s an educational policy expert, Richard Elmore, who writes about this issue all the time in terms of Bush’s No Child Left Behind, so it’s not like any of this stuff is a secret. Even assessment experts are quick to acknowledge factors like the power differentials in these kinds of processes, so I’m mystified how left-wing people can fail to understand the political implications here, in even the most conscientious and well-designed practices. We are in effect committing to certain forms of indirect oversight of people’s labor, and so the information gathered and used should be handled responsibly.

    As for the unending demand for information, I’m not sure anything will stem the demand, in the same way that instituting conservative “reforms” like Charter Schools and high stakes testing have not really reduced conservative desires to defund and privatize schools. I think schools need to do what they think will allow them to do their jobs better, and that includes better practices of self-assessment. But the efficiency regime as I understand it has no logical stopping point, and would be happy to end both liberal arts education and the contemporary research university. Those are the kinds of stakes, and the kinds of discussions, I think we’ll be having in higher education for some time to come.

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    A really nice response, but I wonder if it’s possible also to think about the overlap between you an MY. Your post asks if there is a difference between transparency and accountability, and I agree that this difference is important. By transparency, you are speaking of the obligation of universities to reveal the way money gets spent, which might very well be in tension with educational ideals held by the faculty and usually claimed by the institution. Accountability, I take it, is all those ways we keep track of what we do and how we’re doing it, to be reported at great length to accreditors. But efficiency, I think, is something else, and accountability can have goals other than efficiency. (You can try to figure out whether or not your students are learning what you want them to learn.) I believe the main difference between you and MY is not over accountability (which is what I think he’s staying in his post) but over the goal of efficiency, and this is what makes his position neoliberal. To return to the Olive Garden: the purpose of the Olive Garden is to turn a profit by selling food. Thus its sole interest lies in making food as cheaply as possibly and selling it for as much as it can get away it. While we would agree that universities should not be wasteful, they have (unlike fast food) historically been thought of as providing a public benefit (as Newfield argues). I think this is the big piece missing in MY’s comparison with the Olive Garden: society as a whole benefits from students being educated. I think you are equally critical of many of the other things that universities do that do not result in students being educated. MY, I think, needs to consider education as part of a public infrastructure rather than an easily replicated commodity. I *think* you would agree that accountability could be part of this, but that the efficiency model that may have worked for the Olive Garden would not improve universities. The biggest problem with the “for-profit” universities is that in general they neither education nor graduate students. Like the Olive Garden, they make money at the expense of those they claim to serve.
    My 2 cents for now.

  7. Thanks, Laura. FWIW, my objections to MY’s analysis goes along political and educational policy lines: from the perspective of left politics, it’s nuts to concede higher education to right-wing narratives about productivity and lazy professors; from the perspective of higher ed policy, the productivity/efficiency regime, as Newfield shows, leads to reduced quality AND reduced access. This is because public higher ed institutions are forced to make increasingly safe bets about who to admit, to demonstrate their effectiveness as stewards of public money etc. etc.

    Your point about the Olive Garden model, which I hope he regrets, is right on:

    MY, I think, needs to consider education as part of a public infrastructure rather than an easily replicated commodity.

    MY needs a much, much more sophisticated account of educational quality and defining “improvement” in a variety of contexts than what is offered here.

    I suppose my final objection to the analysis is its naivete regarding the stakes of accountability itself. Accountability, even under the best circumstances, represents a mechanism that wields considerable power over those it manages. How you define what you are measuring, how you report it, what you do with the results, all these things have real-world impact on people throughout the system, with the biggest impact on the littlest and least powerful people. I don’t think that public universities are possible without some degree of state oversight. So I agree that my disagreement is probably not with accountability per se as MY’s conflation of accountability with his unexamined notions of efficiency, educational quality, and improvement.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    The policy analysis came through in your post, and yes, the real problem is the conflation of accountability with unexamined notions of efficiency. This also speaks to James M’s point in the previous discussion. No one (at least here at The Long Eighteenth) is denying that education has a financial dimension, but it is consistently disturbing to see thinkers aspiring to a progressive vision capitulate to the conservative impulse to refusal to accept the need to build infrastructure in this area, even when they support it in so many others. I’m really not sure why this is the case.

    Do you think that maybe there is some kind of prize at progressive journalist conventions for bashing higher education? MY seems very proud that academics don’t like his ideas. This pride has become a trope in much journalism, like the way all politicians claim to be outside the beltway. Even academics, I think, like to boast that academics don’t like their ideas.

    • One of the interesting things here is that MY is so proud of his Olive Garden reverse-snobbery ploy that he’s doubled down (yes, I mean he actually slid the cheese between two slabs of fried gristle) on his conceit in an extraordinarily unconvincing post today. So much for learning. However, if you look at his comment section, you find statements like this:

      Still, there is something irritating about these posts. Part of it is the Chunky Megan McCardle aspect, but another part is ascribing scientific inevitability to the whole thing and then trying hitch it to stupid ideas about education. I think on the whole chains have had some good influences, but maybe they destroy some good stuff too? Not to speak of some chains, cough Wal Mart, destroying the wages of people working small shops and supermarkets with more generous labor policies. Why this broad assertion that all of this is awesome and the wave of the future? I guess I would like him to be a bit more careful about what he does and doesn’t like, a bit more discriminating, and to maybe take some of the other stuff, like small independent places, working people, etc. into consideration once and a while.

      The blogger Atrios has a good take on the fixation of the liberal pundit class on contrarianism, which is that it’s an easy way to draw people to one’s site and stir up an essentially apolitical form of controversy. This kind of positioning, however, is merely rhetorical, since someone like Yglesias can walk away from any controversy (like this one) and write another post. So I take it that praising industrialized food and mediocrity in education is supposed to signal some kind of “independence” to whoever it is that he thinks he’s addressing. I dunno.

      But I, like you, find it really strange that higher ed, which is probably one of the last places where left-wing views are still tolerated, receives such treatment from people who claim some kind of allegiance to left-wing politics and the value of education.