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).

Questions about "Outcomes-based" learning

Questions about “Outcomes-based” learning A comment in a forum on revising WSU’s General Education Program gives more context for challenges of our assessment work…

“My primary concern rests with the heavy emphasis on “outcomes based” learning.  First, I find it difficult to imagine teaching to outcomes as separate from teaching my content — I do not consider “content” and “outcomes” as discrete entities; rather, they overlap.  This overlap may partly be the reason for the thin and somewhat unconvincing literature on “outcomes based learning.” I would therefore like to see in this process a thorough and detailed analysis of the literature on “outcomes” vs content-based learning, followed by thoughtful discussion as to whether the need to focus our energies in a different direction is in fact warranted (and for what reasons).  Also, perhaps that same literature can provide guidance on how to create an outcomes driven learning environment while maintaining the spirit of the academic (as opposed to technocratically-oriented) enterprise.”

Quote From the Open Forum of General Education

Q:           Why focus on learning goals?  What is the empirical evidence that universities that focus on learning outcomes vs. those that have more traditional distributional/content-based requirements actually produce better/more successful graduates?  Isn’t it just a fad?

[SACS] Student Learning Outcomes – Business

On the question, does every major have to report outcomes:

From: SACS Commission on Colleges Discussion Forum [mailto:SACS-L@LISTSERV.UHD.EDU]
Sent: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 2:57 PM
Subject: Re: [SACS] Student Learning Outcomes – Business

I can guarantee it is every major within a degree. Also you must show that every program has been assesed and that improvement strategies have been implemented; not plans to improve. Also at your reaffirmation every program must be finished with this process not just a portion.

Comment to the original post


I believe they are somewhat farther down the assessment trail. 

Can we ask this same question directly of our accreditation agency?

Yeidel, JoshuaNo presence information at 3/31/2010 5:39 PM

Five Tips for Surviving Accreditation Reviews (Faculty Focus)

Faculty Focus Newsletter | Faculty Development

March 22, 2010

Five Tips for Surviving Accreditation: A Tongue-in-Cheek Reflection
By Thomas R. McDaniel, PhD
Many academic leaders are involved in regional accreditations, and I am no exception. The six regional accrediting agencies are becoming increasingly stringent in the application and interpretation of their standards, and this can make the accrediting process a difficult one to survive. Our institution was a founding member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and has been accredited continuously from the beginning. I have been involved in four of the 10-year “reaffirmation” activities, serving as chair of the college steering committee twice and serving as our institutional liaison with SACS for many years.

These experiences are incredibly time-consuming, are increasingly focused on data and student learning outcomes, and can lead institutional leaders to sometimes justified states of paranoia. Nevertheless, you can survive your regional accreditation. While I use SACS as my prototype for a survival guide, I am confident that the strategies I suggest below are equally applicable to any accreditation effort.

1. Work on your SACS appeal. This strategy requires you to be attentive to allurements. Of course, when the visiting committee arrives on campus, you want to be sure that your buildings and grounds are in their very best shape. It will not hurt to do whatever you can to encourage faculty and students to manifest their best manners and to show extreme courtesy to the honored visitors. But your SACS appeal also can be enhanced by how you present your documents to the accrediting agency even before anyone arrives on campus. Do you have an attractive cover design? Has your formatting followed all the specified requirements? Do your various documents show your institution in its best light? If not, you may end up making an appeal to SACS to show how you have remedied your weaknesses.

2. Develop Your SACS education program. You should not be surprised to find that many faculty and students are oblivious to the existence of accreditation agencies and have very little idea about their importance to your survival. Both during the self-study process and the follow-up visitation from a committee of your peers, it is crucial that you educate the entire campus to the significance of the enterprise and the nature of its importance to your own survival. Your educational strategies should cover the gamut of your communication processes: regular and special meetings of faculty, students, and trustees; updates and announcements on your campus website; and educational forums to discuss issues and ideas related to the accreditation.

For insightful articles on academic leadership development and other topics of critical importance to department heads, deans, and provosts, get Academic Leader. It’s the must-read newsletter for today’s leaders. Available in print or online.Subscribe now »

3. Practice safe SACS. Often, the greatest challenge for academic leaders involved in the accrediting process is the unknown. Will the chair of the visiting committee be reasonable and supportive? Has the steering committee addressed all the standards completely and accurately? Have there been any unanticipated changes in the accrediting agencies’ operating procedures—or even the development of new standards not yet contained in the accreditors’ manuals? You will want to do everything possible to eliminate unanticipated surprises that have resulted in part because you have not protected the institution to the maximum extent possible.

4. Anticipate SACS harassment. Regional accreditations used to be more social, congenial, and enjoyable than they are now. While you can be reasonably confident that your peers will be highly motivated and will understand your responses to standards from your perspective, this may not always be the case. To be sure, this is a “quid pro quo” relationship with an outside agency that is responsible for a thorough evaluation. If you give them what they demand, they will give you your desired accreditation. Because regional accrediting agencies have attempted to forestall federal takeovers of the accrediting process–an actual proposal afloat in Washington–they have become determined to be rigorous stewards of institutional quality. For you, this may create the appearance of a “hostile work environment” as evaluators press you for your information, your cooperation, and your compliance. While you may feel harassed, it is wise to assume the best intentions from those who have “invaded your personal space.” After all, they are just trying to do their jobs well. [emphasis added by OAI. Ed]

5. Pursue SACS therapy. At some point, the process will come to an end. Not really an end, you might note, as accrediting agencies will do their best to keep you in line and continually focused on the demands of the agency. This may take the form of “probationary status,” “monitoring reports,” or “periodic reviews.” But once the intensity of the self-study and the visit is over, you should take steps to return the campus to its previous state of healthy equilibrium. Celebrate whatever successes you can identify; assure those who feel wounded that you appreciate their efforts and understand their frustrations. Identify small ways that you can reward those who have participated in the process. It is important to develop healthy SACS relations while also helping those on your campus to conclude that the accrediting process is ultimately a very satisfying one—when you have survived.

It is unlikely that many faculty or administrators have chosen their professions based on the opportunity to enjoy the process of accreditation. Nevertheless, the regional accreditation of your institution is an important mark of success and an essential ingredient in its development. The survival strategies above are intended to help you think through the best ways to succeed in the face of increasingly complex and demanding accrediting policies and practices. The ultimate objective, however, should not just be to survive such processes, but indeed to thrive as you help your institution become the best it can be. [emphasis added by OAI. Ed]

Excerpted from Surviving Your Regional Accreditation: A Tongue-in-Cheek Reflection, Academic Leader, February 2009.
Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education and senior vice president at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

Faculty Focus
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Ending casual approaches to assessment

“We’ve got to end casual, undisciplined approaches to learning and assessment.”
–Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

More on VSA and CLA from Ewell

A friend –struggles with the national politics of the VSA — noting it is “counter to what we really need to be working on.”  He worries about the political pressures and requests insights.

We share the recent piece (also included in the Rain King Chronicles):

On page 10 Ewell notes:

“Several states, including Missouri and West Virginia, have recently experimented with the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) as the ‘new kid on the block,’ but none has as yet repeated the effort [Cal state University, University of North Carolina, and University of Texas systems are footnoted as experimenters]. —probably because these programs are expensive and maintain them requires spending a good deal of political capital in the face of substantial institutional opposition.”

On page 15 he says:

“Many colleges and universities hold the position that such information should be comparable across institutions, a position reflected in the VSA; but many do not do so, maintaining that each institution should be free to set its own learning goals and assessment methods.  A parallel discord surrounds the term ‘respond.’  The VSA is unambiguous in construing ‘response’ to be complete public disclosure, while many intuitions continue to construe ‘response’ to mean conducting a program of assessment that measures up to accreditation standards, regardless of whether the public ever gets to see the results.”