I do not know anyone in higher education who does not accept the need for performance evaluation. Those I know also believe in accountability to stakeholders, including taxpayers who provide funding — albeit a diminishing share of budget needs — to public institutions. So, as an experienced and worn-out warrior from those minefields where academic and political imperatives clash, I wish here to urge not all-out resistance, but caution, as the regents, the governor and legislative leaders get set to implement their agreement to impose new performance measures on Montana’s public universities.
First, there is the constitutional issue. Article X, Section 9, of the Montana constitution confers full authority on the regents to manage and control the university system. In the beginning, some of us bloodied our heads repeatedly to protect that provision. Neither the governor nor the Legislature has authority to make university system appropriations dependent on acquiescence to management directives from them. The regents may agree to negotiated claims, as they have in this case, but when they do so, they should file a written disclaimer that their voluntary action does not indicate an intention to give up any of their constitutional authority or independence.
Next, I urge Montana to buck the misdirected trend in this country to use an English-French dictionary to translate a tome from the German. Let me explain. The United States is distinguished in one way from other developed nations by our deification of business and abject worship of “free market” magic. Thus, we measure everything with a yardstick appropriate to profit-making enterprises, and we actually believe that anything is managed better if “run like a business.” This should be avoided in evaluating any not-for-profit organization, especially universities.
In my experience, using the business model to evaluate universities results in addressing only those variables susceptible of quantitative measurement, and these, inevitably, are not the most critical ones. This approach ignores those elements of a university’s “product” which often take years before the payoff is evident. The value of these intangibles is not captured in the idiom of cost accounting.
If you ignore the life-changing experience of students, whether or not they graduate; if you disregard the quality-of-life and economic impacts of campus museums, symphony orchestras, dramatic productions, or the laboratory and library resources, the rapidly growing and externally funded research, faculty publications and professional linkages around the globe, or student public service; if you cannot measure Missoula’s Nobel laureates, Rhodes Scholars or Pulitzer Prize winners, or the impact of Bozeman’s Sloan fellows in physics and other faculty and student award winners — then you come down to this: you are in danger of squeezing the soul from the university as you re-conceptualize it into an assembly line to produce interchangeable human widgets for beginning-level niches in American business.
Universities will invest their energy and resources in maximizing those measures that attract public money. This not only distorts what a university is, but is dehumanizing for those students who wish to be risk-taking intellectual explorers while students, or who see themselves someday playing significant roles outside business — in the arts, journalism, religion, teaching in our public schools, serving in government or in the human services. None of these fetches a large starting salary, and in no case is later “success” measured by how much money one makes. Yet the assumption of the business model is that the essential purpose of a college education is to get a good job and make a lot of money.
Universities sometimes will game the system when being measured against each other to determine the allocation of scarce resources. It is rather easy, for example, to improve the retention rate from freshman to sophomore year, or the graduation rate, by lowering standards and reducing the number of students who “flunk out.”
There are also legitimate reasons that make these two measurers difficult to use. Tracking transfer students, in and out, is difficult, and then there are students who drop out for financial reasons. Some universities lose more transfers and have a larger portion of financially disadvantaged students than others. Should they be penalized as a result?
Finally the use of “productivity” measures usually is coupled with the use of “efficiency” measures. This runs up against the reality that the best universities are often the least efficient, as measured by cost accounting. They are good because they continually attract resources to sustain more and better laboratories, more books and subscriptions in the libraries, state-of-the-art technology and more and better student housing and recreation facilities. They also have smaller classes, requiring more faculty, whom they pay more. An efficiency expert might say a university is squandering money by having in its main library more books than anyone could ever read, or by having six nursing students rather than 26 surrounding a hospital bed in practicum.
Montana’s universities are much better than we deserve, considering their minimal level of state support. Let us hope that the imposition of “performance measures” will be done with care, and will not trigger an erosion of those unmeasurable things that define a great university.
Lawrence K. Pettit was Montana’s first Commissioner of Higher Education, after which he was president of universities in Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. He lives in Helena.