Recently there has been a flurry of concern, mainly in the administration and faculty lounges and among some influential alumni of The University of Texas and Texas A&M, about initiatives for accountability in higher education developed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and supported by Gov. Rick Perry. The initiatives primarily consist of a list of seven “breakthrough solutions” for higher education in Texas, the implementation of some of which are already underway at Texas A&M. (Full disclosure: I was a founding Director of the TPPF 20 years ago and served on its board for five years.) They are available at www.texashighered.com, and some of them I find to be pretty reasonable attempts at crafting an agenda for accountability. The more threatening of them evidently involve the separation of the accountability for research from that of teaching, which I can understand, but which is a debate we should at least engage.
There is little doubt that more accountability for higher education outcomes is long overdue and we should have no fear of the process. Both basic and applied research have value and should be pursued for their own sake as well as their contribution to student learning, but we should have well developed criteria in place that objectively measures this value to the extent possible and we should also have objective criteria in place that assesses teaching.
I remember a conversation I had with the President of Stephen F. Austin State University when I was a member of its Board of Regents many years ago. I suggested that we should develop an evaluation system for faculty and he asked what we should use as criteria, to which I responded that we could start by surveying our customers. His response was, “who are our customers?” I was initially shocked but have since come to realize that this concept mystifies many in the education establishment. Incidentally, we fired this man within several months of this conversation.