By Provost Joseph Alutto
Among the issues that will shape the future of our institution is accountability. I am confident that we are well positioned to succeed as we move into that future, in large part because of our firmly held institutional values - led by our commitment to openness and accountability.
Accountability is increasingly important - not just for our university but for all of American higher education. A reading of Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University or any other history of the development of higher education will show that institutional success has been achieved where difficult choices were made - and the reactions of students, donors and other supporters verified the success of those choices. Indeed, distinction cannot be achieved when a university goes its own way with little accountability beyond its campus. True distinction has been achieved only when leaders have set bold objectives, identified and implemented clear strategies to generate resources, and then held achievement up for all to see.
The issue is not whether universities are accountable, but the demand for measures of accountability that are more quantifiable, more consistent and more independently assessed than abstract assertions. Up to now, many universities have simply believed that if they have invested heavily to attract students and faculty, then they must be effective. The message to students is “Trust us. Twenty years after you graduate, you will see that we provided what you needed.”
As we all know, there is a widespread belief that what we teach, and the effectiveness of what we teach, cannot be measured. That belief goes hand in hand with the traditional rhetoric of university life, which implies that every proposed activity can and should be supported, for everything has an inherent value. But this rhetoric alone has never constituted a sustainable model for any university. What is crucial is assessing the scale and scope for academic investments where there are insufficient market returns to warrant continuation.
While universities have long operated on a principle of internal reallocation, they have tended to do so by quietly redirecting resources from “profitable” programs to those activities believed essential but incapable of becoming self funding. The move to greater accountability is really a call for making such decisions more visible and more structured.
Here are the steps required by a more structured environment - which I believe will define the future of American higher education.
- We have to be thoughtful, systematic and transparent about what we are attempting to do.
- We must accept the reality that no matter how specific or metric driven we are, there will always be some imprecision in our performance measures. But the more we rely on undocumented assertions about our performance, the more difficult it will be to secure support for our institutional goals.
- We must view the university and its missions in a holistic sense that supports innovation and investment in important scholarship, teaching and engagement. Those capable of generating net resources will continue to be asked to supplement others, and those being subsidized will have to be as efficient as possible.
- Leadership will have to be both more nuanced in approach and more willing to be guided by data.
- Faculty members will need to forego the age-old “winners / losers” defensive response. They will also have to be more flexible in resolving tensions among commitments to discipline, profession and institution.
- The search for multiple paths to goals must lie at the heart of these discussions. We must abandon the notion that “the only way to be great is to grow,” and we must learn how to reach across boundaries, both within and between universities, without creating bureaucratic self-defeating barriers.
- We must never abandon the need for values-driven judgments in making decisions. Providing support and opportunities for innovative programs and scholarship is essential in our mix of activities.
While these steps will clearly demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment to institutional accountability, each of us as individuals must also embrace our own personal accountability. A critical component of this or any university’s success is an environment of civility, which sometimes has been missing as institutions have adjusted to change. This is the crux of the culture we want to foster at Ohio State. Indeed, this is the culture that will best support and enhance our success. Our character can, should and will remain the same as we continue our pursuit of ever greater discovery, learning and engagement.