[image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maginot_Line%5D
The new AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom came out this week, and I was happy to see that David Porter, a Psych professor and former administrator, had responded to the journal’s earlier essays by Powell and Champagne about assessment.
Porter does a pretty good job of countering the caricatured version of assessment found in Powell and Champagne, when he uses his own experience as a faculty member, administrator, and accreditation liaison to argue that
1) assessment is an integral part of learning (and hence education), 2) assessment is a necessary function of effective and adaptive organizations, and 3) involvement in assessment activities is particularly important for the AAUP and its members. Assessment is about creating a culture of evidence that is much more than merely collecting piles of data and accumulating a multitude of meaningless measures . . . (3) [my emphasis]
Porter moves the discussion from Powell and Champagne’s “culture wars,” where the humanities are always besieged, to a “culture of evidence,” in which social scientists bravely, carefully, patiently do battle with a dominant culture’s myopia to correct educational institutions. This is a smart rhetorical move, since it raises the question of who is truly the insider and who the outsider here, and who is really representing the interests of Truth in these debates. But is this really a debate worth having?
In some sense, we haven’t really gotten past the problem of mutual disciplinary caricatures and endless reaffirmation of tribal identities, when what we really want to know is why assessment so often fails to attain its stated institutional and educational goals. Powell and Champagne ignore assessment as it is professionally practiced, in order to affirm the superiority of the humanities over the social sciences (e.g., Powell 12; Champagne 15). Porter, perhaps encouraged by his interlocutors’ crude self-descriptions, does some fingerpainting to dismiss Freud and Marx and their followers as insufficiently “scientific” (where’s the falsifiability?) (or, more tellingly, excessively interested in “conflict”) (18-19).
In neither Porter’s nor the Powell/Champagne approach do I find an acknowledgement that the market forces overtaking the contemporary university are affecting all its component disciplines, or that the reflection, and action consequent on reflection, necessary to contest this problem will probably need to be similarly comprehensive. Why would anyone concerned about a problem of this scale rule out of court potential allies and the kinds of evidence they could bring to the larger debate?
Finally, and this is a point I think I owe to my debates with my rhet/comp colleague JZ in my own department, I think that that much of the anti-assessment discourse in the humanities is indebted to the longstanding left critique of bureaucratic rationality from the ’60s and ’70s. (And, indeed, much of this critique still holds true, in particular contexts; cf., for example, this).
But at this point in US history, after several decades of political reaction to the Great Society, do we really believe that the reason for non-responsive government is that favorite of conservatives and neo-libs: i.e., “bloated bureaucracy”? Or is it the capture of once-public institutions by unaccountable financial and corporate interests? This is why I think that much of the anti-assessment discourse in Powell/Champagne’s work is a Maginot Line designed to defend us against a political opponent who no longer exists.
If we look at the intertwined history of assessment and accountability from the vantage-point of post-Occupy American politics, what we would say is that the accountability movement, in its obsession with finding “efficiencies” in public higher ed spending, has used the long-term disinvestment in public institutions by state and federal governments to weaken internal governance and to force universities to partner with corporate interests at every level. In the meantime, neither movement has developed any cogent response to the single biggest threat that I see to the future of higher education in this country, which is the mounting student debt load necessary to attain a college degree.
So public costs are a matter of obsessive public debate, and these debates simply reinforce the drive toward disinvestment. In the meantime, the leaders of our so-called educational establishment have nothing to say about the growing alliance of finance and higher education, or how this privatization is slowly undermining the public credibility of educational institutions.
Apparently, as long as students and families are paying ever-growing amounts to private entities to gain an education, no state legislators or administrators can be bothered to intervene. So how much money would you contribute to a school run by Mark Yudof? Or Linda Katehi? (And, indeed, no accountability advocate I’ve read seems to worry about how efficiency and privatization might impact US higher ed’s unique ties to philanthropic giving, which is unparalleled in other national systems)
In the context of the incredible debt-load that students now carry, we can now safely assume that the accountability movement has done nothing to reduce costs to students (as opposed to taxpayers), since reducing public investments in higher ed has only driven students and their families into the maw of the (under-regulated) for-profit schools and the financial industry.
As far as I’m concerned, no savings, no give-backs wrung out of public institutions and their labor force can keep pace with the disinvestment accumulated over 30 years, and now capped off by falling state revenues during our Great Recession. And as Krugman has pointed out in the context of the Austerity Debates, the rhetoric of controlling costs is not about “debts or deficits at all; it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs.”
So what is the way forward with accountability and assessment, under the conditions I’ve just outlined? I’ve published some thoughts about this before, so I won’t rehash, but I think that any defense of the contemporary research university will have to take in the perspectives of all the disciplines housed inside it, as well as the full range of students we teach, and will have to develop a professional, reflective, publicly accessible view of its teaching activities to be communicated to the multiple publics we address. Porter’s emphasis on “learning organizations” (11) sounds like a variation on my own proposal of Schon’s “organizational learning” in the university context, but I think it will have to take place in the criss-crossing, sometimes irritating discursive loop-de-loops and cul-de-sacs we are all familiar with in academic life. In other words, no reason to over-idealize academic debate in the context of our disciplinary “tribes.”
I also think that if Porter wishes for assessment to gain the trust and respect necessary for it to be successfully integrated into our “learning organizations,” the assessment experts will need to take some responsibility for the conditions under which it is imposed. When he writes,
Rather than building community, the hierarchical imposition of externally generated, but ill-conceived, assessment programs and inadequate protocols fractured academic communities. These initiatives also distracted and frustrated educators throughout the organization. Most of these problems, however, appear to be a consequence of the misuse of assessment principles and processes rather than deficiencies in assessment itself. (21-22)
So what ethical and professional responsibility do assessment experts like Porter take when their processes or results are misused by upper administrators or external stakeholders? In what ways do they defend the scientific rationality of their enterprise or the deliberative process around the dissemination of its results? How much do assessment experts attend to the organizational learning of the units whose behavior they analyze? And how reflectively do they analyze their own role in the inevitable distributions of power and hierarchy throughout educational institutions?
In effect, to call his (and his tribe’s) long-term goal the installation of a “culture of evidence” gives the game away, because it means that the goal is not so much about instilling a respect for universal scientific reason across the university community, but trying to see whether his specific culture’s goals and values might be shared by the others in the university. And I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t, so long as we felt that they helped to strengthen the university as it pursues its mission.
Trying to defend not just one’s discipline but the contemporary university, as mixed as it is, means making some attempt to understand the other disciplines’ practices and what they are attempting to do; it also means developing a professional and reflective view of one’s own instructional activities and curriculum, so that students can begin to understand your discipline’s knowledge structures; finally, it means having some account of how your discipline and your university are affecting the lives and livelihoods of the people who help to support you. How unreasonable does that sound?
- If you want a really enraging example of how privatizing a public good completely distorted it, check out this piece by Andrew Leonard about Sallie Mae’s role in the student loan debacle.
- According to this piece in College Guide, Iowa is the latest state to devise new budgetary gimmicks to reduce its support of in-state college students.
- Sherman Dorn offers a much better and more patient demolition of David Brooks (sorry, no link for you, DB) on accountability than I could ever do, and gets into some of the real complexities it poses, especially for accreditation.
If others have additional links or sources they’d like to bring into the discussion, put them into the comments and I’ll put them up here. Thanks, DM