Accountable to Who?

July 7, 2010

Clifford Adelman published a piece last week in Inside Higher Education entitled “The White Noise of Accountability.”  Adelman is a Senior Associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and always worth reading on higher education matters.  I’m not crazy about the tone of this piece — it has a superior air to it — but it’s a smart, thought-provoking analysis.

By “white noise” he means that we use the term “accountability” so often, so unreflectively, that we really don’t know what it means.  And yet we act like it must mean something important.  So he distinguishes and comments on some alternative possibilities.

“[H]owever we define accountability, we are describing a relationship in which obligations and responsibilities dwell.”  From that opening postulate, he distinguishes six possible alternative types of relationship:  contractual, regulatory, warranty, ethical, market and environmental.  He finds all of them wanting.  He urges us to give further thought to what we mean.

The contractual and warranty understandings fail, he argues, because there really is no one on the other end of the contract, formal or unilateral.  The regulatory understanding fails for independent institutions because they are not (easily) subject to governmental control, and fails for public ones because no state agency is ever likely, really, to visit consequences.  He dismisses the market understanding on the argument that consumers cannot possibly understand the validity or meaning of claims that institutions make about themselves.

For an “ethical” understanding of accountability he references Socratic self-understanding:  institutions are “simultaneously witness and judge,” scrutinizing themselves in public largely for purposes of self-improvement.  He believes that “U.S. higher education has placed all its eggs in [this] Socratic basket,” but to me he is less than convincing about why this is a bad thing.  He notes institutions are providing huge amounts of information, not all of it worth attention, but why isn’t that an argument for thinking through and justifying what information colleges and universities should disclose?

Astonishingly, Adelman makes no mention — none whatsoever — of accreditation, which, at its best, makes accountability a matter of shared professional responsibility.  Individual institutions are not simultanteously witness and judge, but rather exercise judgment about one another, using frameworks and standards for disclosure and mutual scrutiny that are collegially and professionally agreed upon.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that our current accreditation process doesn’t live up to this ideal of shared professional responsibility.  But I believe it is the best and right approach.  I can’t fathom why Adelman does not mention it, even if to critique the shortcomings of current practice.

[UPDATE]  Adelman does comment on accreditation in the comments on his piece:

“Now, accreditation was, in fact, purposefully skirted as a topic in
this piece because:

“(1) If it is the answer to everyone’s prayers
about “accountability,” why do we have commissions on accountability,
state accountability mandates, the VSA, pronouncements from the likes of
ETS and the Business-Higher Education Forum, and a huge collection of
blogs from the commentariat, etc.? Something isn’t resonating somewhere,

“(2) To include accreditation would be to distract from the
central purpose of the piece. Readers would plunge in with arguments
over an issue that, given the purpose of this essay, is at the
margins—and neglect the rest.”

I’d rather we DID argue about what we wanted accreditation to be.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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