Historical reflections on accountability.

Author:Ohmann, Richard

Imagine that almost all academics think of ourselves as responsible to others, and, if pressed, might allow substitution of "accountable." Responsibility to our employers is contractual, and the professional ethos urges responsibility to students (our clients), to colleagues, and to vague but strong principles of intellectual conduct that obtain in our disciplines. The professional idea calls for responsibility to society as well: we earn our privileges not just by guarding and augmenting our special bodies of knowledge, but by undertaking to put those knowledges to work for the good of all.

"For the good of all" opens up a vast ideological space for disputes that are familiar enough, and a space for the anti-professional cynicism that, as Stanley Fish has argued, festers endemically within professional groups, not just among the envious laity. Still, even cynics tend to think they serve the needs of important others; and except in times of deep conflict (such as the years around 1970), professionals with different allegiances live more or less comfortably together, under the capacious roof of that "all."

To speak of professors: most believe that open inquiry and free debate do in fact advance the interests of a democratic society. For liberals, that may be enough. Conservatives tend to identify the good of all with the good of the sovereign individual. People of the left inflect it toward the good of those lacking wealth and power. At this level of abstraction, accountability is not especially controversial, nor exacting. Certainly it was not so for this person of the left. Accountability to my students: plan the course, show up in class, keep it moving, comment thoughtfully on papers, mentor when asked, submit grades, write recommendations - the usual packet of services. To my departmental colleagues: take on my share of core courses and administrative duties. To the administration and trustees: just don't make scenes, I guess; the thought rarely crossed my mind. To society as a whole: I cheerfully held myself account able to the wretched of the earth, the workers, the women, the racially cheated and despised, the queers, the reds, all the disempowered. And aside from the enmity of a very few colleagues and students, this noble commitment was virtually risk-free at Wesleyan University, as were the commitments of faculty conservatives and liberals. I know that accountability imposes itself more obstinately in the working lives of teachers at less privileged institutions, and teachers without tenure at all institutions. Still, when faculty members have been able to define our own obligations to society, we have charted a high road--the good of all--that practitioners can travel easily together in spite of different values and allegiances, and without much fuss about ways in which our specific work meets those obligations, or doesn't.

This mild regime of self-policing has been under pressure for some time. It articulated well enough with such concepts as responsibility and obligation. But accountability, the more salient concept in recent decades, is different, and in major ways. First, as its root suggests, accountability means keeping score, Not sufficient, in the new regime, to invoke free inquiry, critical thinking, socially beneficial knowledge, and other such ideals, however wide their appeal to the public. Accountability entails being able to show that the efforts of an instructor or department or institution actually did move toward the desired end. That in turn requires framing the goal precisely enough to permit agreement on the state of affairs that would constitute its fulfillment, and on the amount of progress made in its direction at any point. Measurement, in short. And while the measure of success may be crude (e.g., Wesleyan set its sights for a while on reaching at least a certain spot in the U. S. News and World Report rankings), it must be quantifiable. Academic resistance to accountability owes in part just to that fact: how can the complex things we most highly value be reduced to numbers?, we ask.

Quantification of aims and accomplishments may seem less rebarbative to scientists than to humanists. All in the arts and sciences, however, are likely to be put off by the ideas and language of business that have trailed along with accountability in its migration into the university. A 1994 book on Measuring Institutional Performance in Higher Education (edited by Joel W. Meyerson and William F. Massy; Peterson's: Princeton, NJ,) works in a semantic medium of "client feedback," "stake holders," "make or buy options," "output" (of departments), "use synergy," and the like, and carefully recommends to educators common business practices such as TQM (total quality management), BPR (business practice reengineering,) and benchmarking (comparing your performance by quantifiable measures to "best practices" at other institutions). A brochure for administrators from Johnson Controls offers "open system architecture," "system integration," "cost control," "project management," and "performance guarantees." Speakers at an October, 1999 conference on "Market-Driven Higher Education" sponsored by University Business (1) used a lexicon of "markets" (e.g., students), "product," "brand" (your university's name and aura), "value added" (including, I guess, to students as labor power), "marginal cost," "deals," and "resource base" (the faculty, chiefly). They taught why to want and how to get "customization," "knowledge management," "just-in-time learning," "strategic partners," "faculty management," good "assessment models" (though some said no good ones exist), "policy convergence" (I took this to mean something like consistency, and the left hand's awareness of what the right hand is doing), and--my favorite--the "Hollywood model" (i.e., the sort of contract put together by agents, actors, producers, and so on, in contrast to the antiquated and feckless arrangements we now have in higher education for owning and selling knowledge).

Administrators are becoming fluent in this language. It feels alien to many faculty members, and not centrally because of academic distaste for business. Some are hostile to business, some not; but I think all can see that the discourse of books on accountability and of the University Business conference is...

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