I want to discuss the Arkansas Higher Education Reform Act of 199x. It's coming! The handwriting is on the proverbial wall. The real challenge before us will be to ensure that the legislation will be reflective and forward thinking rather than reactive. To understand this challenge, we need a bit of history.
Our story begins with the 1960'S space race. The Kennedy administration wanted to be first in space. To be first in space, one needs to be first in science and technology. So the Federal Government did what it does best. As Carl Sagan might explain, it threw 'billions and billions and billions' of dollars at the problem. Research became the primary pursuit of some university faculty for the first time in history, and 'external funding' became a common term in academic households. Academic administrations looked to external funding to solve their resource problems because of the luscious 'indirect costs' (hefty surcharge under 'cost-of-doing-business' rubric). Everyone was happy. For awhile, at least.
Unbeknownst to most, the higher education community was undergoing an extremely subtle, but nonetheless radical, transformation. Very few academics could foresee the long-range implications of the quest for the scientific 'holy grail'. The university, for the first time since ancient times, had begun to change the way it did business. It was no longer just the site of intellectual transfer from the master to the student - it became big business. The brick and mortar flew. Administrations mushroomed. Institutional missions became complex, convoluted and often inconsistent. The viability of policies and standards which had remained essentially unchanged and unchallenged for hundreds of years came into question. It wasn't always clear what educational institutions were trying to accomplish, and as a result the traditional reward structure began to break down. With the reward structure went accountability - if the institutional mission became fuzzy, it became increasingly difficult to measure effectiveness.
While the story above is an oversimplification, there is a great deal of truth to it. The Higher Education Reform Acts which are currently being considered around the country are a fallout from the rapid change which universities have undergone in the past few decades. At the heart of this legislative initiative is accountability - making the institutions accountable to the public for the monies expended. Nothing wrong with requiring accountability per se, so long as it is some genuine measure of something important. All too often, however, we fall into the trap of what I shall call 'measurement mania' where we expend countless energy measuring what we can rather than what we should.
One illustration of what an Arkansas' reform might look like may be found in the ADHE working draft entitled "Productivity for Higher Education in Arkansas" dated April 9, 1993. On this account, the focus is on the development of a "means of encouraging greater institutional accountability and to consider methods of addressing productivity, with particular attention given to statewide goals, indicators of goal achievement, and resulting funding policies" (p. 1). The problem, as I mentioned above, is that this objective is predicated upon an out-of-date model of higher education. Let me explain.
The five goals of this ADHE report deal with retention rates, graduation rates, quality of academic programs, general educational proficiency and the focus and allocation of resources. Notable goals, all. Each goal is further associated with a productivity incentive, i.e. a means of linking future funding to some set of 'measurables'. One might link future funding to standardized test scores or graduation rates, for example. There are several problems with this approach, not the least of which is that they fail to address the most serious problems facing higher education today.
First institutions of higher education lack focus when it comes to institutional mission. The best institutional mission, in my view, has the 3-C's: it is a clear, concise consensus (in my view, there is no redundancy here). It is neither a wannabe wish-list of what it would be like to be another Harvard, nor does it dwell with the pedestrian and obvious. It reflects, in considerable detail the objectives of a cohesive group who are working towards more-or-less common goals. Further, the reward structure is tailor-made to be completely in tune with the mission. There are few surprises when it comes to salary increases, promotion and tenure because everyone knows what to expect. The role of external funding in these matters is clearly understood by, and agreed to, by all. There is relatively little faculty turnover, for new applicants are aware of the mission, the mission is more-or-less stable over time, and is in concert with the expectations of the institutions constituency and the realities of the competitive marketplace. Reality checkpoint: Ask a local academic if his institutions' position on the role of external funding is clearly stated in its governance document. Inquire whether the criteria for promotion and tenure is stable or a moving target.
Second, higher education has been rudderless for decades when it comes to administrative expectations. We are now suffering the aftermath of the worst period of 'administrative bloating' in the history of higher education. For the past few decades, administrative expenditure has increased twice as fast as expenditures for faculty. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average administrative charge to a full-time college student in a four-year public university is $1,750 per year. This is not surprising given that less than one-third of those employed in higher education actually educate. In fact, Federal data show that only one-half of the 'professional' ranks in higher education are involved in education, the remainder being administrators, attorneys, coaches, counselors, systems analysts, etc. Reality checkpoint: Look for the increasing frequency of what I call 'adjectival titles' in university directories (e.g., Assistant this, Associate Vice that). If your local institution has an Assistant Associate Vice Director of something, it is truly in the majors.
Third is the issue of quality. Higher Education Reforms attempt to legislate quality. Since there is no way to do that directly, they work with the quantifiable: graduation rates, retention rates, and the like fall into this class. Quality, like morality, simply defies legislation. After the bills are passed and put into law, the same ill-defined and ill-equipped educational infrastructure is asked to produce more reports, write more memos, hold more meetings and sit through more conference calls, in order to try to quantify the un- quantifiable. After all is said and done, higher education will continue to serve too many masters, have too many constituencies and will continue to suffer from lack of direction. It must be remembered that laws, regulations and their like serve a very limited function in bureaucracies: to varying degrees, they protect the system from crooks and fools. - However, they do not promote excellence. This observation calls for a compelling conclusion. Such rules and regulations should be applied with restraint and be applied as sparingly as possible lest the creative initiatives which foster excellence be stifled.
To be sure, there are many problems facing higher education in Arkansas and elsewhere. However, we must resist the temptation to play the numbers game because it is easiest to master. Even a cursory investigation into our graduate computing programs, for example, will reveal problems that simply can't be addressed by the sort of reforms currently in vogue. The same holds true when it comes to the availability of research resources, the basic and strategic research programs, the global competitiveness of our programs, and so forth. If we want to excel as a Statewide computing profession, we'll need a very different type of higher education reform, one which re-visits our de facto (vs. de jure) institutional missions, focusses on the way we conduct our academic affairs, and emphasizes the quality of the educational experience.