Transparency, institutional self-presentation, and public interest

From November/December 2010 Change,

“Here’s looking at you:  Transparency, institutional self-presentation, and the public interest”
by Alexander C. McCormick (Director of NSSE at Indiana, Bloomington), pp. 35-43.


“But transparency can be about more than consumer information.  It can provide an opportunity for a college or university to proclaim its success while acknowledging that it needs to improve in some areas” (36).


“For internal audiences, this kind of information focuses attention and signals priorities for improvement, while for external observers it offers evidence that the academy takes its education mission seriously and practices what it preaches regarding the use of evidence to support assertions, interpretations, conclusions and prescriptions for action” (36).


“Such openness is risky for several reasons, though.  Revealing shortcomings invites negative consequences, whether from a legislature that may be seeking ways to cut budgets or to demonstrate hard-nosed commitment to quality, from competitors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, from alumni or other constituents on the lookout for evidence of a decline in standards, and so on” (36).


“As a result, ‘transparency’ is sometimes a euphemism for what might be more accurately described as strategic communication or image management, in which information is carefully selected and presented so as to portray a successful and effective institution” (36).


“This is a time of great sensitivity about inter-institutional comparisons that rises in some cases to comparison phobia” (42).


“Now, let me propose two important ways that the transparency movement needs to be refocused.  A significant challenge that lies ahead for transparency efforts, and indeed for the entire accountability movement, is the exclusive and potentially misleading focus on institution-level measures of central tendency” (43).


The sooner we come to grips with the fact that variation in the student experience is far greater within institutions than between them and devise ways to represent and talk about this internal variability, the sooner we will focus on the real quality questions.  In light of unacceptably low graduation rates and a new national focus on improving college completion, we need to shift much of the energy presently focused on comparing institutions to finding ways to improve the engagement and success of the least engaged students at every institution” (43).


And finally, another imperative for accountability and transparency is to move from performance snapshots—point-estimates of student engagement and learning outcomes—to plans for improvement and results.  Policy makers and the news media should be less concerned with where an institution falls in the performance distribution than with what the results signify and what is to be done about them.  Rather than pressuring colleges and universities to disclose assessment scores, the emphasis should be on transparency regarding a different part of the assessment cycle: action plans and interventions, followed by careful evaluation of whether those interventions achieve the desired results” (43).

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