When was the last time most faculty, staff, and administrators were asked to demonstrate their value in the university’s success?
In the summer of 2019, after nine years, I left my role as Dean of Student Learning and Engagement to move to an emerging area of higher education called institutional effectiveness, most commonly focused on the use of planning and assessment to improve the Interior focused workings of the university. I was responsible for helping ~60 administrative units at Baylor demonstrate more intentionality in their work and better document that their unit goals were demonstrated in terms of improved effectiveness over time. This role is quickly becoming a part of almost every college in the nation in one way or another. This is in part because institutional effectiveness has been integrated into the regional accreditation agencies (which are the main accreditation agencies), prompting universities to document their efforts to improve over time in order to continue receiving government grants and student loans to obtain.
Who doesn’t wish for a more effective and efficient university? The challenge for universities is to demonstrate improved operations. For example, does it involve increasing revenue, decreasing costs, improving public image or rankings, student success metrics, more academic and athletic awards and championships, paying faculty and staff above benchmarks, expanding institutional size, etc to do? (For more information on this topic, see the article The Story of a College Family.
Most accreditation agencies require improvements to be linked to institutional missions and goals. As most of us know, these goals are usually written in such general terms that if I were to remove the names of mission statements, few, if any, would be able to tell the difference between most mission statements (and even most goals). to recognize. Just as an example, read the three mission statements below and tell me which are Harvard University, Clark University (which is 45 miles from Harvard, by the way), and California State Long Beach College of Liberal Arts.
Educate our students to be global citizens and community leaders. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of liberal arts education.
To educate undergraduate and graduate students to be imaginative and contributing citizens of the world, and to push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding through rigorous scholarship and creative endeavors.
To educate citizens and civic leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of liberal arts and science education. (Answer see end)
In short, the goal is gigantic – it’s like telling a child to come home with a passing grade. The reality of the accreditation process is almost identical. Having participated in assessments for seven different institutions over the past few years, I’ve learned not to give much, if any, improvement feedback. My initial efforts to identify a variety of actions universities could take to improve their effectiveness were often met with feedback from accreditors that our job is not to offer ideas for improvement but to determine if the institution has the lowest compliance standard met. I complied to be invited to participate again by removing my suggestions for improvement and basically writing a paragraph or two about how the university meets the minimum standards.
Contrast this approach to measuring effectiveness with my last few months exploring the world of work with college counseling. After leaving Baylor University in January 2022, I made my way to stay in or near Waco while working for one of the many fast-growing companies that exist to strengthen the universities and to prevent them from joining the growing pool of closed universities. I was thrilled to finally be able to put my 30 years of higher education experience to the test in a world where visible results are not only expected but required for job security. It may seem like common sense, but through my many years in higher education I have come to realize that job security is typically only loosely related to job performance and the best indicator of staying power is often agreeableness, compliance and maintaining the status quo.
What I didn’t realize, however, was how important my ability to demonstrate a tangible return on investment would be. In a job interview, I was asked about the “account book” that I would bring to the company. The truth was, I don’t know if I ever conceived of my work in higher education as a “business book.” That being said, I soon produced a one-page document listing eight main areas, each with three ideas where I could help institutions increase revenue or reduce costs. I’ve also learned that my experience in academic success is often respected, but is not that attractive to consulting firms. The challenge, as I understand it, is that the impact of the effort required on student success is indirect and not easily measurable (see the My Million Dollar Idea article for a possible solution to this problem).
What universities are willing to pay millions to college consulting firms, however, are direct actions to improve revenue and reduce costs. My analysis of higher education consulting priorities included: 1) increasing student applications and enrollments, 2) strategically using grants to increase student yield, 3) identifying academic programs that attract students the most and cost the least to implement, 4) expanding online degrees that require significantly less institutional overhead, 5) increasing outside research funding, 6) improving fundraising, and finally, but technically first, according to many of these companies, 7) selling promised technology solutions that change the way how colleges do business will “revolutionize.” As one company put it to me, “Our consulting efforts are aimed at getting a university to sign a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract where we will oversee the adoption of new technologies and, ideally, change how they do business.”
As I understand it, my likelihood of being hired depends on my ability to demonstrate that my salary is directly linked to company revenue over time. That really shouldn’t surprise me. Isn’t that the reality of the world? We “eat what we kill” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times from the consulting world in recent months.
As a result, I keep asking myself this question: “Was it a good thing that I didn’t think that way in college for almost 35 years?” Was I protected from the “natural selection” of failure (or success)? If yes, was that good? I don’t think the answer is easy. What I do know is this: For far too long, most universities have focused on getting more money—more money in the form of tuition, gifts, and government funds. This expansion of resources is impressive, but increasing revenues rarely help universities to accurately assess their real value to students and society.
Research in Academically Adrift (2011) found that 45% of undergraduates did not perform any better in their critical thinking and writing by the end of their sophomore year than they did when they entered college. Making people feel good about their college choice is something most colleges have mastered. The real question I’m currently learning is: when was the last time most faculty, staff, and administrators were asked to demonstrate their value to the university’s success?
The mission statements are listed in the order Cal State Long Beach, Clark, Harvard.
Jeff Doyle currently works as a consulting consultant for Higher Talent Executive Search and serves on several doctoral committees. From 2010 to 2022, he worked at Baylor University, where he served as Dean for Student Learning & Engagement for nine years and as Dean for Student Learning & Engagement for two and a half years in Institutional Effectiveness. Doyle also has undergraduate and graduate degrees in organizational behavior, leadership, and university management. His blog is Deep Thoughts on Higher Ei.e.
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