What makes universities better?

Universities are large, complex organizations that have multiple goals — educating undergraduates, training graduate students, facilitating and expanding research activities, serving various communities. Each of these activities depends on complex contributions by very smart faculty and administrators, often in a highly decentralized way, and each can be more or less successful. The individuals involved are generally motivated to do the best work they can do. But the organization and its leaders have a responsibility to take steps to improve the quality and effectiveness of the results.

So the question here is this: what kinds of actions and strategies can university leaders take to help their universities to improve in performance with respect to the fundamental components of academic quality that they value? (Arthur Padilla’s ACE publication, Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents, raises some of these issues.)

We might ask, to begin, what the dimensions of quality are for a university. I would highlight at least three:

  • providing successful and effective education to undergraduate and graduate students (which means that on average, students who study at the university improve their intellectual and moral abilities over time); 
  • successful cultivation of high-quality research by faculty (which means increasing the flow of published and funded research results with measurable impact in both academic and non-academic spheres); 
  • contributing to the improvement of quality of life for the communities served by the university (region, state, city, nation). 

 We might add to these core characteristics several others: creating an inclusive environment for working and learning; creating a high sense of morale and shared aspirations for students, faculty, and staff; maintaining and increasing academic quality while reducing costs.

These high-level goals of a university cannot usually be measured directly. Therefore we need to have some set of factors that are closely related to the quality goals but that can be observed empirically. Quality measures in higher education are varied, but they include things like these: graduation rates, levels of Federal research funding, percent of Pell-eligible students, number of citations to faculty-authored research, number of patents issued, number of members of the national academies on the faculty, … There are steps that a university administrator or dean can take to influence any one of these variables; but all interventions require resources, which means that choosing to increase the graduation rate may mean not taking steps to increase the number of patents. More fundamentally, fine-tuning one part of the university’s processes may actually interfere with the workings of its other processes.

There are two large philosophies that might drive the idea of increasing the quality of a university over time. One is the philosophy of continuous improvement. Here the idea is that the university is already functioning at a certain level of effectiveness in a range of activities; the imperative is to increase the effectiveness, quality, and productivity of all of those areas, giving primary emphasis to those that have the greatest impact on core values. This is a philosophy of gradual improvement and refinement.

The second philosophy is one that pays attention to the need and opportunity that sometimes exist for radical change in product and process for the organization. This philosophy downplays the idea of continuous improvement and argues instead for “punctuated equilibrium” — the need to sometimes take actions that fundamentally change the nature of the enterprise in some way. The idea that instruction should be substantially more oriented towards online courses would reflect this philosophy; it corresponds to those critics of higher education who believe that universities are like film-based camera companies in the 1990s facing the sudden appearance of digital photography. Either they adapt quickly to a new disruptive technology, or they fail catastrophically in the market.

A philosophy of continuous improvement would not have served the buggy whip industry well in the 1910s; whereas a philosophy of punctuated equilibrium doesn’t seem to be appropriate for shipping industry at this point. (It was appropriate at the time when containerized shipping was a hypothetical possibility!) So there is no reason to believe that either “gradualism” or “punctualism” is always the best option for an organization.

So what kinds of changes are needed and feasible for universities in today’s environment? This will be a disappointing answer, I’m sure, but I think the answer is: some of both. There are many improvements that can be identified in the ways that universities handle the various components of their missions. Improving retention and graduation rates is a case in point; there are many new strategies that could be incorporated to help students be more successful in their academic progress. Peer-based tutoring is one example; online tools for checking progress towards graduation is another; and improving the quality and reach of the academic advising system is a third. But it is also true that there are opportunities for discontinuous improvement in the existing university. For example, could the resource of a well-developed online course with rich media materials and evaluation systems allow the business faculty member to effectively teach accounting to twice as many students? Could a high-level learning goal for students (e.g. “ability to sort out contextual factors in a complex problem”) be better achieved by closer coordination among clusters of faculty and courses rather than by a general education curriculum that assigns one goal to one course? Is the traditional Ph.D. dissertation an antiquated ritual rather than a crucial learning opportunity for advanced students?

(Vincent Tinto has a short but interesting article on “Universities as Learning Organizations” here. Here is a piece by Judith White and Rita Weathersby on a similar topic.)

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