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Oct 16, 2012

University accountability, metrics, and the dilemma of research campuses

A recent article by Dan Barrett in the Chronicle of Philanthropy caught my attention.  He noted that the understandable movement toward measurement and accountability can create a poor fit with the goals of the flagship campuses in a university system.

He opens, “For at least a decade the ties binding flagship universities to their states have been weakening while state appropriations shrink as a share of those institutions’ budgets. Now policy makers’ growing appetite for measurement and accountability could further strain the relationship.

“The impulse to rely on easily calculated measurements to judge a college’s worth often makes sense in the abstract, but it can work uniquely to the disadvantage of flagships, said Kenneth A. (Buzz) Shaw, a former head of Syracuse University, the University of Wisconsin system, and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, as well as of the SIU system. “The problem is not that we’re to have accountability measures,” said Mr. Shaw. “The problem is you can’t have one-size-fits-all.”

I am glad he started this conversation.  In Ohio the set of standards for all public colleges has many internal contradictions because the flagship OSU is measured the same as the others.  The biggest conflict is admissions criteria (tougher is better), diversity (more is better), and access (more lower income is better).  Try to recruit the best and the brightest and access plunges.  Another contradiction mentioned in the article is cost of “education” versus research grant dollars.  We all know that research buys off teaching time at many if not most research universities.

The real problem is that each university has its own priorities and goals.  Metrics should always be specifically matched to priorities and goals.  A one-size-fits-all approach pretends that all campuses have the same priorities and goals.  And, of course, that is rarely true.  The dilemma of metrics is well known.  A few years ago I surveyed my university CFO colleagues on this issue among many.  The results are in my book More Than Just Money in the chapter “Five Important Lessons.”  They learned too well that the rules you set up, whether in the budget process or in the state evaluation process, will influence behavior — and that influence sometimes leads to unintended consequences.  My own experience tells me that the fewer measures the better because after awhile additional measures tend to create conflict with other measures.  And this article hits the mark:  the effort to measure all universities the same creates disincentives for research universities to focus on their mission:  research and graduate study.