Effective Living

Summary. In difficult economic times, educational institutions, organizations, and businesses, need to closely evaluate and examine their budgets and look for ways to reduce costs while maintaining or increasing productivity without diminishing quality.

Goals. Such introspective exploring and self-examination should begin with a clear definition of goals, values, and desired outcomes. The metrics for quantitative and collective thought and collaborative decision making need to reflect the mission of the institution.

Metrics. The University of Iowa recently went through a self-evaluation. Some people in the UI community feel that the metrics used to evaluate departments and programs unfortunately resembled a corporate business model of decision making that looks solely at quantity rather than quality.

Factories Thinking. For factories, it makes sense to measure the number of widgets produced and look for ways to reduce the number of workers on the factory floor while increasing productivity and output. For many businesses, the quality of the widgets doesn’t really matter. Profit is the primary goal. The same metrics used to measure success and productivity in a factory, when applied to education result in disastrous and fatal decision making.

“The influence of corporate business methods on academic institutional thinking has educators thinking and believing that they are working in education factories. Students are no longer students but customers who are buying knowledge like a product. Sometimes it’s not clear whether it is knowledge or perhaps the students who are viewed as the widgets in these education factories.” ~ Anonymous

Grading Institutions. In an educational environment, quality, not quantity, should be the primary concern. Educational institutions are measured based on the quality of education they provide. Consider that, within academia, if a five page paper is due, the instructor doesn’t care that you provided 8 pages (three extra pages of quantity). They are looking at the quality of your writing not the quantity. The same methods used to grade students should be used to grade academic institutions.

Academic Institutions Aren’t Factories. The University of Iowa assembled a Task Force to consider which departments and programs should be considered for elimination. Some people feel the task force examined the University of Iowa as if it were like a factory instead of an educational institution.

Viewpoints. The following commentary is excerpted from the article The University’s Reason for Being by Rick Altman, Professor of Cinema and Comparative Literature, Director of Film Studies. The short and long versions of the article are available online.

“Judging from the criticisms leveled at those programs initially judged “Weak” (subsequently relabeled “Requiring Further Evaluation”), qualitative concerns such as the caliber of faculty and student research took a back seat to such quantitative measures as completion rate and time to degree.

Dean Keller notes that “The focus of the assessments was on graduate student outcomes.” What he doesn’t say is that the data furnished to the committee defined “student outcomes” in a particularly narrow way. Instead of focusing on the quality of dissertations, the number and quality of student publications, or the type of institution where students found jobs, the Task Force focused instead on easily measurable (but not necessarily pertinent) figures including “time to degree.”

The case of the Film Studies PhD program is instructive.

  • The fact that a recent Film Studies student won the national prize for best dissertation was not taken into account.
  • The number of Film Studies dissertations that have been published by prestigious presses was deemed less important than the amount of time it took those students to complete their degrees.
  • No attention was paid to the fact that recent Film Studies graduates are now in tenure-track positions at Catholic University, the University of Chicago (2), Fordham, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Trinity, the University of Iceland, and Yale. Or that earlier Film Studies graduates are now tenured at dozens of major universities, including Brown (2), Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern (2), Notre Dame (2), Texas, and Yale.
  • The fact that Iowa PhDs have been crucial to the development of Film Studies as an academic discipline, and continue to make major contributions to the field, is ignored in favor of time-to-degree data that make no distinction between a diploma mill and a world-class program.

This is a sad moment in the history of a great university. I feel a profound sense of shame when our university’s chief academic officers proclaim that restructuring should be based on something other than faculty and graduate student excellence. If we forget the university’s reason for being — its educational mission — we will have abandoned the very values on which the university is built.

Conclusion. As the above report shows, it’s important to have equal representation in institutional governance not just for equity sake, but also for reasons of effectiveness. It’s also important to clearly affirm an institutions goals, values, mission, and purpose before starting to cut away at non-essentials. One must be reminded of what’s important before trying to remove what isn’t important.

Exploration. Some people prefer the more personalized attention and experience provided by smaller colleges and universities. For an example, take a virtual tour at the Averett University campus to learn more about the university facilities, academic programs and the culture. The official site is found at Averett.edu.

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