Accountability in Its Many Forms
Opportunities for Academic Department Chairs
Calls for accountability in higher education have been heard for a number of years, with some of the first salvos being concerned with student learning and continual faculty productivity, the latter of which led to many institutions approving new policies on post-tenure review. There seemed to be a disconnect between what was perceived externally and higher education’s inability to clearly articulate what it does, how faculty spend their time, how we measure ourselves, and what impact we have on the lives of our students.
Today, questions continue, but they are now focused on retention, graduation rates, the cost of higher education, and the value of the degrees in some of our disciplines. In this era, legislatures, accreditation bodies, state boards, and trustees have been very active. In many states, these external groups have established state funding formulae based on degrees conferred (with some being more valuable than others), reduced the number of hours required for a baccalaureate degree (except in cases where accreditation would be jeopardized), mandated common curricula across institutions to facilitate course transferability, established programs where high school credits fulfill college requirements, and capped or frozen tuition to produce more degrees more quickly and at a lower cost to meet the present and future needs of our economy.
Performance metrics of our colleges and universities are of interest to external constituents beyond merely those with accreditation or political affiliations. Prospective students and their families, employers, graduate and professional schools, ranking organizations, and granting agencies all have interests in data on institutional effectiveness. Beyond external consumers, other important internal constituents may be impacted by institutional performance data. Current students, administration, and faculty (who are renowned for not knowing what their office neighbors are producing, never mind how the institution is performing), would also benefit from select performance data. Thus, our performance on key indicators related to student success metrics and other aspects of higher education (research productivity, engagement, and faculty effort) is critical not only for addressing the concerns of governing bodies but also for our marketing efforts and reputations as well as the morale of current employees.
The title of this piece indicates that accountability initiatives will create opportunities for chairs. This is based on the fact that when the data on performance are collected, there will inevitably be elements that will show weakness or shortcomings and the need for improvement. When one thinks about the issues underlying accountability (e.g., student retention, timely graduation, and aspects of faculty productivity), it seems obvious that department chairs are in the best position to address these issues. Other administrators can set the expectations for improvement, but they are too far removed from individual faculty work to effect changes across several departments that have different cultures that direct their activities. Chairs should keep in mind that the work they face is not just to appease outside critics who have already been forceful in bringing about change, but also to create a better external image and reputation for the unit, increasing productivity and enhancing their personal leadership profiles.
While the institutional research office will gather collective data, the chair may have to request a breakout at the departmental level to see how the department fares relative to others at the institutional level as well as to counterparts at other institutions. To get at issues around student retention, chairs may have to gather additional information. Campus-level offices can likely help with quantitative data, but soft data obtained through surveys may not be available. Should the situation require survey data, chairs are encouraged to consult with a survey expert to make certain the data obtained are valid.
Armed with the relevant data, the chair is now ready to lead changes that will improve the department’s position. While a number of examples of weaknesses and solutions might be offered, in the interest of space, I will present two —faculty workloads and undergraduate student success.
Faculty workloads were a major issue about 20 years ago and will likely surface again because this topic has financial implications for higher education. Some institutions have a formula-based workload allocation based on the percentage of time spent on teaching (T), research (R), and service (S; e.g., 40/40/20), while others assign semester teaching loads as measured in ? 3 credit course equivalents (e.g., 1 + 1, 2 + 3, 4 + 4), with varying expectations for R and S. Here, those at the low end would have major expectations in R. A look at the performance data may show that some faculty members with a 1 + 1 load or a 40% effort are not (sufficiently) R productive. That is, they are not producing research products (books, exhibitions, performances, journal articles, etc.) at a rate proportional to the time they have been given. Some may not be producing at all. What seems to happen is that initial workload assignments are assumed to be permanent and, as a result, a few faculty members continue with light overall workloads.
To remedy this, the chair might convene the research faculty and ask them to define what it means to be research active and research productive. The former might be new faculty who are getting started and those who have changed their research direction/area and are retooling. Those who do not meet the standard for being research productive would be provided with time to meet expectations, but there would be an understanding that if this is not accomplished, there would be a ramp-up of additional assignments in T and/or S to bring the total effort up to 100 percent. This can be formatively accomplished by the chair during the annual review process by providing the opportunity for the faculty member to take on meaningful and substantive (i.e., eligible for merit consideration) new assignments in teaching or engagement (negotiated or differential workloads).
Undergraduate student success is a complex issue with several outcomes that can be affected by a large number of factors. Here the focus will be on low retention and graduation rates, although root causes and potential solutions may be shared with other aspects of department health. Retention is defined as the fall-to-fall continuation of first-time, full-time freshmen. The retention of students beyond that time period is referred to as persistence. Both of these impact graduation rates, but low rates in each will have different causes for the most part.
Because retention is a first-year measure, one needs to look at major courses that students take in their first year. Examining the course GPAs and grade distributions of the retention cohort may provide some insight into the issue when the retention rate is low. Consultation with the instructors is essential because they have insight into the segments of the course that seem most problematic. It should be noted that students take classes from more than one department each semester, and, if they are first-year courses, the chair should inquire as to whether the home departments are analyzing the performance of the retention cohort in them. In any event, if the courses in the majors show negative data on student success, they should be examined for flaws. If the conclusion is that students need more support to facilitate their learning, some models being used have shown to be effective in increasing retention. Some of these models include developing a summer bridge program or themed learning communities, using undergraduate peer mentors as recitation leaders, and designing specialized programs targeted to at-risk populations (Atkinson and Lees 2015). Chairs would have to take a leadership role in seeing that the inquiries are made and the changes enacted, but this is a large venture that would involve the course instructors and the curriculum committee at the very least.
Improved retention will mean increased graduation rates, but there are other reasons students do not earn degrees in a timely fashion. Reviewing the data on persistence, one may find that the department is losing students at the junior level. Surveys from students who remain and who have left as well as course GPAs may reveal numerous possible culprits: inconsistent advising; a lack of co-curricular experiences that are common in competing programs elsewhere; key courses not being available at the best times for the students; a bottleneck course where a single faculty member has unreasonable expectations for student performance, making retakes far too common; or a stale curriculum. These are all correctable problems.
Many of the issues outlined here have real dollar costs associated with them. On the institutional side, students not retained do not return to pay additional tuition, and every student who is not retained or who leaves before graduation means less performance-based funding for the institution. On the student side, course completion delays due to poor advising, course nonavailability, or steep expectations translate into increased tuition costs and extra semesters, both of which increase student debt. Chairs who recognize these outcomes as avoidable negatives can act to satisfy external critics while improving the experience for their students and elevating their reputations as well as those of their departments and institutions.
Atkinson, S. and N.D. Lees. 2015. “Creating and Supporting Best Practices in Student Retention.” Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Academic Chairpersons Conference 65: 11 pgs. http://newprairiepress.org/accp/2015/Trends/3/.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.