a parable about change in higher education: michael quinn patton shares a story with us

I recall one human service program in particular where we were asked to evaluate the staff development component of the program.  In accordance with Peter’s Principle, the person in charge of staff development had risen to her own level of incompetence: she was tenured, she had territoriality on that component of the program, she could not be fired and there was no place to which to promote her; she seemed likely to be impervious to change.  No one wanted to know what staff, clients, or administrators thought about her–that was data they did not want and could not use.  We focused instead on concrete, changeable program activities (e.g., frequency and length of training sessions, content of sessions, participant input, style of training, use of outside resources, and so on).  (Evaluation-Focused Evaluation, 1978, p. 85)

[NB: the link is to the 2008, 4th edition of the book rather, than the one I quote from here. Sorry for any inconvenience this causes]

This story is prefaced by an important observation about the distinction in purpose between personnel and program evaluations: “Personnel evaluations involve gathering information about the performance of individuals. Program evaluations focus on structural and treatment characteristics of programs.  At times there is a narrow line between the two because personnel performance can, of course, affect program effectiveness.”

Most of the accountability schemes I’ve seen focus almost entirely on the personnel dimension (if only we could fire lazy professors! or eliminate tenure! etc. etc.), without acknowledging just how few options chairs and administrators have it comes to dealing with this kind of behavior.

Yet I would argue that what outside constituencies should really worry about are the program- and institutional level evaluations. Do these groups ever ask for, or see such information? After all, long after the staffer named in Patton’s anecdote retired, I can imagine a series of hiring and managerial decisions that would perpetuate her incompetence even after she was gone.  So personnel decisions have their own kind of consequence and timeline, but what do we do about a chain of ineptitude that seems to stretch all the way into the future?

So how does change take place in higher ed organizations?


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