Scholarship is Societal Sustenance

The work of university faculty has commonly been distributed across three broad areas of activity: teaching, research, and service.  Over the last two decades the concept of university teaching has evolved significantly as the information revolution has transformed higher education.  The expansion of distance, distributed, and hybrid instruction as well as ubiquitous access to the nearly infinite mass of digital resources has disrupted the traditional role of the faculty as the primary transmitter of academic information.  University teaching is no longer a unidirectional flow of knowledge from the faculty expert to the student novice.  This change is recognizable in the now broadly recognized concept of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  The role of the student as an active participant in the learning process, the role of the faculty as both expert and guide, and the integration of experiential and problem-based learning are now all common, if not required, components of university curricula.  Likewise, the concept of faculty service, to the university through committee work and participation in faculty governance, and to the profession through refereeing manuscripts, leading technical sessions and symposia, and perhaps through elected office in professional societies has evolved to the broader and richer concept of the scholarship of engagement (SoE).  In addition to participating in traditional forms of university and professional service, an engaged scholar applies her or his professional knowledge to the challenges of and for the betterment of society at local, regional, or global scales.

My long-time friend and colleague, Professor Emeritus Alan Sandstrom, former chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), was frequently frustrated by the attention and energy that went into defining and supporting the expansion of these new arenas of faculty work.  When others would extol the virtues of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or promote the value and impact of the Scholarship of Engagement, Alan would exclaim, often loudly, that while those activities had merit, universities were primarily in the business of the “Scholarship of Scholarship”.  While his pithy criticism would generate a laugh or two from those hearing it for the first time or a wry smile from those who knew him well, Alan was pointing out the undeniable facts that the creation of new knowledge is a defining characteristic of a university and that both the processes of teaching and engagement would soon grow stale without the constant infusion of energy, new ideas, and new understandings that come from the faculty-driven creative act known variously as scholarship, research, or creative endeavor. In the following I hope to use Alan’s oft repeated comment as a spring-board to further define the value, significance, and variety of faculty scholarship, to defend the centrality and significance of scholarship to the mission of regional comprehensive universities such as IPFW, and ultimately suggest an underlying force in the current socio-political drive to limit the scope and significance of scholarship within the regional university setting.

What is Faculty Scholarship?

For the purpose of this essay I wish to use the term scholarship to encompass the full spectrum of faculty work that includes pure and applied research, archival and text-based scholarship, literary and cultural criticism, as well as artistic and creative expression.  While these fields of faculty activity are astonishingly diverse they all share several important characteristics:  a foundation of preexisting knowledge, one or more guiding theoretical frames in which work is conducted, a rigorous process of peer evaluation that defines what is and what is not a significant contribution to the body of knowledge, and finally the privileged position at the modern terminus of the interwoven and ever growing fabric of human knowledge and understanding that stretches back to antiquity.

 Because of the great variety in disciplinary history and traditions as well as conceptual and theoretical frameworks that are the subject of faculty scholarship at a regional comprehensive university, it is understandable that external observers would find greater value and significance in some domains of inquiry relative to others.  It is not acceptable, however, to extend the limited vision of any individual or group of individuals to a political or economic effort to restrict or constrain the academic mission of the institution.  A defining characteristic of a university is that it is a locus for the creation of new knowledge.  If one domain of knowledge is given a position of privilege over another, if technical or applied knowledge is valued more than foundational or theoretical knowledge, then the balance in the institution’s comprehensive mission is disrupted.  In order to maintain the rich and dynamic intellectual environment of a university, all forms of scholarship must be both embraced and valued.  Institutional strength is to be found in the diversity of methodologies and intellectual approaches of its many faculty, not through a constriction of mission that serves to stifle or even eliminate any academic domain that does not bear immediate tangible economic benefit.  Of course a university must also balance the benefits of comprehensiveness with its cost.  It is not possible for a regional university to have programs of study in all domains of human knowledge.  Additionally, good scholarship generally does not occur in isolation.  Establishing collegial groups of scholars with overlapping areas of expertise is an essential prerequisite to sparking the synergy necessary to maximize scholarly achievement.  Yet universities must distribute their resources – primarily in the form of faculty positions – among a finite number of academic programs.  In so doing, it is essential to establish or build on existing strengths in ways that support the institution’s comprehensive and regional mission.

 It is beyond the scope of this essay to adequately or even partially define scholarship as it pertains to any single academic discipline.  To capture the broader definition of scholarship encompassing all disciplines is a task more suited to epistemologists than to essayists.  None-the-less it is possible to conclude that all academic scholarship, while diverse in detail, shares several common characteristics – a foundation, a framework, a review process, and the cumulative contribution to human knowledge.

Why is Scholarship Essential to the Comprehensive University?

Questioning the significance of scholarship runs so counter to the academic perspective, faculty at times have difficulty engaging in a rational analysis of the value and impact of their work.  Obviously some areas of discovery provide immediate benefit to society.  Medical research, engineering, crop science, digital and wireless technology are obvious examples of the social and economic impact of faculty-driven research.  Conversely, the work of some scholars carries with it no promise of direct economic return and seems clouded in the misty heights of sub-disciplinary specialization.  Yet such work can help us understand ourselves and our place in the universe, it can enrich our lives in ways that cannot be measured by employment rates or taxable income, and it continually affirms our ability to learn and grow in our collective understanding and appreciation of the achievements of other cultures and civilizations, both extant and ancient.  If we consider these two ways of valuing faculty scholarship as end-members ranging from the most immediately applicable to the most esoteric and incorporeal we will find, I believe, that the vast majority of academic scholarship to exist along a line connecting those two extremes.  Frequently, faculty research falling within this spectrum is filtered through secondary or tertiary processes of application.  Only years, decades, or even centuries later do we identify the relationship between the Bridges of Konigsberg and ad hoc wireless networks.  As such, I believe we can identify the value of faculty scholarship as being in some cases purely applied, in others exclusively enriching and enlightening, and in most cases foundational to future application.

Irrespective of where any individual faculty member’s scholarship is thought to reside along the spectrum of applicability, the combined processes of exploration, discovery, creativity, and synthesis that occur during the advancement of that scholarship are essential components of the intellectual atmosphere of a university.  Students engaging with faculty who are active scholars in their field are exposed not only to the most recent advances but equally importantly to the dynamics of knowledge creation.  It is too simple to say that active scholarship results in better teaching but there is no question that having faculty that are wrestling with the challenges of making contributions to their discipline’s body of knowledge will sustain levels of professional energy and enthusiasm that are appreciable transferrable to the students in their classroom.  Instructors that know their subject matter intimately, who are aware of the people and the personalities advancing the field, are able to convey more than content.  They bring to their students the vitality, passion, and pleasure of scholarship.  In so doing not only do the faculty make the subject matter more interesting, their behavior models the kind of inquisitive and self-motivated life-long learners every employer recognizes as essential in successful employees.

Of the many lines of reasoning one could bring to a discussion of the value of scholarship, I would like to select one final strand for consideration.  Every university defines a community with which it interacts.  For small institutions the community might be no more than a single population center or a small cluster of towns while research intensive universities typically define their community at a global scale.  For institutions such as IPFW the primary community is defined as a particular geographic region.  Irrespective of the scale of definition, every community is advantaged by having faculty scholars serving as active participants and public intellectuals.  The multiplicity of backgrounds, the diversity of theoretical frameworks and bodies of knowledge, and the commitment to open dialogue and honest inquiry are explicit examples of the ways in which faculty enrich the cultural, social, and political fabric of their community.  Limiting or eliminating the primacy of faculty scholarship not only diminishes the range and rate of the creation of new knowledge, it serves to stagnate discourse and to stifle debate.

I firmly believe faculty scholarship not only supports and sustains economic, social, and cultural well-being.  Likewise, I believe scholarship serves to enrich, enliven and inform high-quality teaching and deep learning.  But I also believe faculty scholarship stands as an essential exemplar of a process by which open debate and honest dialogue can adress complex and challenging issues.  One is left to question if it is for this reason that the critics of faculty scholarship seek to narrow the breadth of faculty-driven intellectual inquiry to a limited range of technical and applied professional subjects?

Sapere Aude ~


The (mis?)Measurement of Academic Units

It is always interesting and surprising to me how experiences from the distant pass rise in significance while grappling with the challenges of the present.  Over thirty years ago as a high school student I received as a gift from my father a paperback copy of Steven J. Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man.  This book, perhaps Gould’s most densely argued and quantitative offering for the general public, addresses the now largely outdated concept of establishing measures of intelligence either through direct physiological measurements such as craniometry or psychological measures such as the intelligence quotient (IQ) test.  Gould’s argument, which received significant criticism over the years, was that efforts to establish a single measure of intelligence were in fact examples of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead defined misplaced concreteness as the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete”.

From Whitehead’s analysis of the concept of absolute position, to Gould’s attack on notions of a racial basis of intelligence, I have begun to see parallels in the passion the American higher education enterprise has developed for the use of “metrics” as essential tools for academic administration.

Why Metrics?

Throughout the twenty-first century American higher education has increasingly embraced quantitative analysis as an important, perhaps even essential, aspect of administrative practice.  The use of various metrics to measure academic productivity and efficiency is aligned with the demands of those most vocal university stake-holders for greater transparency and accountability.  As such, metrics are now deeply integrated into the style of academic administration known as “data-driven decision making”.

For what purpose are quantitative measures calculated and analyzed by academic administrators?  While nearly any aspect of university activity can be subject to numerical measurement, a handful of usages are most commonly made of metrics.  If an administrator wishes to evaluate the status of an department or program at a moment in time metrics such as total credit hours delivered or number of majors can be used to provide a “snapshot” view.  Variation in such metrics over time can provide an historical, or as it is termed longitudinal, record of change.  Metrics can be used as part of the program review process to compare the status of programs to peers at other universities, or to compare departments within a college across the university.  In all cases, administrators are expected to make use of metrics when reaching decisions regarding resource allocation as well as the even more significant challenges associated with establishing the short- and long-term viability of programs.  Metrics are now an essential part of all strategic planning efforts as well as a standard part of the institutional response to continuing accreditation.

When used well, metrics provide valid and useful information to the academic leader.  Their use, however, is not without risk.  To guard against committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness it is essential to keep in mind that an academic unit is more than a collection of quantitative measurements.  Defining academic quality in terms of efficiency or productivity alone presents an over simplification of purpose.  As such, it is appropriate to consider some of the challenges associated with the collection and analysis of quantitative academic data.

The Challenges of Data Collection and Analysis

The collection, verification, and analysis of academic data are difficult, complex, and very time consuming tasks that require the active participation many administrative and support functions within a university.  Universities are awash in data, the use of student information systems integrated with enterprise level software make it possible to assemble large sets of data and to develop complex multivariate analyses.  Therefore it is essential that the collection of data be defined by, aligned with, and used for specific purposes.  Transforming data into usable information, and that information into knowledge cannot be achieved haphazardly.  The notion that understanding will emerge from a mass of unstructured data is fanciful at best.

A second challenge to the collection of quantitative information is the assurance of data accuracy.  In the absence of complete integration of databases it is possible, perhaps even highly likely, that significant data discrepancies will exist.  Not only do discrepancies lead to inaccuracies in calculations and errors in analysis, even minor problems with accuracy undermine the interpretations and conclusions drawn by administrators from the flawed data.  Issues with validity become compounded when efforts are made to make comparisons between departments or within a single department over time.  Can the academic administrators document that the processes of data collection, the definitions and procedures used, are consistent from department to department?  A metric as fundamental as the number of majors in an academic program becomes clouded by issues such as how double majors are counted or how individual departments deal with inactive majors.

Even when the data available are both complete and demonstrably valid there remain a wide range of barriers to the accurate and meaningful analysis of metrics.  The first and most significant challenge is the need to establish a complete understanding between the available metrics and the academic concerns under consideration.  When used well, academic metrics allow administrative hypotheses to be tested.  For instance, “student progress towards graduation is better in department X than in department Y.”  A variety of metrics could be used to test this hypothesis.  Yet even when the data are of high quality, and the metrics used are applicable to the hypothesis, there remain dangers of interpretation.  It would be foolish indeed to conclude that the faculty in department X were better, more concerned, more dedicated teachers than those in Y solely on the basis of student progress towards graduation.  The interrelated processes of teaching and learning are far too complex for such a simple interpretation.

One commonly held concern of faculty is that metrics are used not to test hypotheses but rather are developed, measured, and analyzed by administrators to support a predetermined position or conclusion.  Because of the wide variety of measurements that can be made of academic programs and departments, it is important to ensure there is a clear relationship between the metrics considered, the mission of the unit, and the larger goals of the college or university.  Few departments will be strongly positioned with respect to all metrics an administrator could consider.  As such, it is essential to maintain an open dialogue between faculty and administrators as metrics are identified and analyzed.  By being clear, from the beginning, with regard to the administrative questions to be asked, the underlying reasons for those questions, and the metrics most suited to those questions, much of the resistance to the use of metrics can be addressed and the fear and distrust that can develop between faculty and administrators will be avoided.

The Use of Direct Metrics and Metric Ratios

It is now common practice for administrators to identify academic metrics, measure them, and then combine those measurements with other metrics to produce metric ratios.  However, using directly measured metric values is the simplest approach to the analysis of academic programs.  Direct metrics such as number of majors, total credit hours taught, or number of degrees awarded are both easy to calculate and easy to understand.  The lack of ambiguity in these metrics leads to confidence in their interpretation.  There is a risk, however, that the use of direct metrics alone can overvalue unit size.  That is, is a larger department in any way “better” than a smaller one on the basis of number of majors or credit hours generated?  Using direct metrics can suggest that bigger is always better and this certainly is not true – quality is very significant.

Metric ratios such as student credit hours per faculty full time equivalent (FTE) are very useful in efforts to evaluate academic efficiency or productivity.  Given that the ratio is calculated from the values of two metrics, interpreting changes in that ratio over time can present challenges.  In the case of a simple ratio metric such as degrees granted divided by number of majors in a program, changes in the ratio over time could be complex since there is a necessary lag between when an increase or decrease in new majors occurs and when it is reflected in the number of degrees awarded.  Making administrative decisions based upon changes in the ratio metric, without understanding the origin of changes in the direct metrics used in the calculation, could result in taking actions that are ultimately detrimental to the department and contrary to the best interests of the college or university.  While ratios are highly useful in the comparison of departments and are also well-suited to assessing programmatic efficiency or productivity, interpretation in the absence of a complete understanding of the origin of observed changes can be misleading.

The Most Useful Metrics

As described above, a wide variety of metrics can be collected and utilized in the analysis of academic programs.  Those that are most useful and significant vary from department to department, from college to college, and from university to university.  Likewise, no single set of metrics is ideally suited for all administrative needs.  As the goals and objectives of an institution change over time the metrics most vital to its success will naturally also change.  None-the-less, I believe there is a group of metrics that are of broad general utility and are of particular value at the present time to my institution, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW).  In the following I list and briefly describe the academic metrics I believe are most significant.

Number of Students Graduating Each Year – Nationally, regionally, and locally, critics of higher education increasingly stress the economic significance of improving college completion.  Typically reported in terms of four- or six-year graduation rates, enhancing college completion is of primary concern for IPFW as well as for all but the most selective and elite institutions of higher learning.  However, I feel strongly that the ratio metric graduation rate (expressed as the percentage of first time, full time students completing their degree at a single institution in four or six years) is ill-suited to measure success in an era that supports and encourages student mobility.  Rather, the direct measure of the number of students graduating each year is the best metric of student success and is, I strongly believe, more closely aligned with the goal of economic impact stressed by many external stakeholders.

Ratio of Graduating Students to Number of Majors – This metric was introduced briefly above and like all ratio metrics must be considered within the context of variation in both the numerator (number of graduates) and the denominator (number of majors).  Despite the inherent challenges of interpreting a ratio metric, I believe this is a useful general measure of programmatic health and is well-suited as a basis for comparisons between various departments and programs.  Interestingly, the value of the metric can be inverted to provide a measure of the average time to graduation for majors in that program.

Total Credit Hours Taught in an Academic Term – This direct metric is a measure of gross revenue generation.  While this metric might be considered to be too closely aligned with the so-called neo-liberal agenda that is gaining influence in higher education, it must be remembered that nearly all colleges and universities are highly dependent on tuition revenue.  As state support for public higher education has declined over the past several decades institutions such as IPFW have become increasingly dependent on the cash flow provided by tuition revenue.  While variation among departments and colleges is to be expected at a comprehensive university, tuition revenue is of such paramount importance that this critical metric cannot be discounted.

Credit Hours Taken by Majors – While this metric might be thought to be closely aligned with Total Credit Hours Taught, it is in fact significantly different for many programs.  Professional programs with highly structured or cohort based curricula typical make limited contributions to the general education program of their institution.  Conversely their majors, in addition to the courses taken within the department, take a significant number of credit hours outside of the department.  The small size of some highly successful programs might make them targets for reduction or elimination during periods of financial crisis.  Failing to consider the total credit hour contributions of majors in such a department would undervalue the significance of the program to the economic health of the university.

Tenure Stream Instructional FTE Divided by Number of Faculty – This metric provides information on the relative efficiency of a department’s use of its tenured and tenure track faculty towards the core departmental mission of student instruction.  If we accept the broadly held assumption that students at every level of instruction benefit from interaction with full time faculty, it is entirely reasonable to evaluate how departments are allocating the workload of their faculty.  At IPFW there is a tendency for faculty workload to gradually shift from the essential tasks of teaching and research to a wide variety of useful but perhaps non-essential administrative tasks.  This metric provides a way to track changes in workload over time, to make useful comparisons between departments, and to evaluate the impact of administrative reassignments on instructional capacity.

Percentage of Majors Graduating or Retained from One Year to the Next – Unlike the ratio metrics of graduation rate or graduates divided by number of majors, this metric provides an annual measure of student success.  In the ideal scenario this metric would be 100%.  Of course, students change majors, they transfer from one institution to another and they drop out or stop out for an infinite number of personal and financial reasons.  Of course, some students are academically unsuccessful and are dismissed from the university.  The fraction of students that are successful, who either graduate or persist from one academic year to the next, is perhaps the best measure of student success.  While it must be recognized that students are often not retained for reasons that fall far beyond a department’s ability to influence, this is a metric that can be the basis of comparison and the starting point for positive discussions of the origins and barriers to student success.

Student Success in Key Courses – This metric narrows the administrative focus from the level of the department or degree program to the most granular level of review, the individual course.  Student success should not, I believe, be strictly interpreted as the distribution of grades earned.  Rather, success should be understood in terms of those grades that allow progress towards graduation (A, B, and C) and those that do not (D, F, and W).  Placing too much emphasis on grades earned can lead to the undesirable outcome of inadvertent or purposeful grade inflation.  Administrators must recognize the vulnerability junior faculty may feel with regard to institutional efforts to improve student success.  As such, I believe focusing on the percentage of students who either withdraw from the course or who earn a grade of F due to failing to complete the course are more useful measures.  The categories of courses for which this metric should be calculated include (but need not be limited to) high enrolling general education courses, courses that serve as gateways or pinch-points within the major, and capstone or other critical senior level courses.

Percentage of Credit Hours by Mode of Delivery – The landscape of higher education is vastly more complex and more competitive than it was ten years ago.  This metric allows for evaluation of departmental response to some of those environmental challenges.  At IPFW the primary modes of instructional delivery are traditional face-to-face lab and lecture courses, distance and distributed courses taught off site, online, or through some hybrid arrangement, and the significantly expanded program of school-based instruction through dual credit high school and college courses.  While the distribution of departmental instruction across each of these three modes that is appropriate or desirable must necessarily vary from program to program, it is critical that administrators have at hand data on both the current distribution and historical trends in the modes of instructional delivery.

Cautionary Thoughts

In order to summarize this discussion of academic metrics it is worth returning to Whitehead and Gould.  The use of metrics in academic administrative decision making can provide important insights and valuable understanding of institutional complexity.  There exists a very real risk, however, that we can fall victim to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when becoming overly confident in our ability to interpret the meaning of academic metrics or overly reliant upon quantitative data in the exercise of administrative authority.

In order to avoid those errors, it is useful to keep in mind several cautionary considerations related to the collection, analysis, and interpretation of academic metrics.  First, no single metric is best suited to the analysis of all departments.  In a comprehensive university or even within the curricular complexity of a large college of Arts & Sciences, the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of each department and program must be evaluated independently.  Force fitting all departments to a single measurement methodology will lead to significant misunderstanding of the programs under consideration as well as elevated levels of dissatisfaction and distrust among faculty.  Second, metrics provide data, not knowledge.  Moving beyond raw data to an understanding based on the interpretation of numerical data requires careful consideration informed by experience and qualitative understanding of the programs under review.  Third, metrics should be used to frame a policy discussion not to validate a policy decision previously reached.  Similarly, the collection and analysis of quantitative academic data must include opportunities for vetting of the raw data, for responses to the methodology of analysis, and a period for remonstrance to the conclusions reached by administrators based upon those metrics.  Failure to follow these steps will naturally result in a lack of understanding and acceptance of the policy decisions that follow.  Finally, after going through the complex and difficult process of establishing a comprehensive set of academic metrics, resource allocation must be tied directly to unit performance measured by those metrics.

Sapere Aude ~

Evaluating the Economics of Educational Mission

For the past eighteen years I have had the privilege and pleasure of pursuing a career in higher education.  Throughout that time I have remained at one institution, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), a regional public comprehensive university serving northeast Indiana through a uniquely collaborative partnership between the Indiana University and Purdue University systems.  Over the years I have had many wonderful experiences: those magical instances when students grasp conceptual relationships they had not recognized moments before, the thrill of scientific discovery when one small part of nature’s complexity comes into focus in a new way, and the powerful results of collaborations between the university and its partners in the business, governmental, and social services sectors.  I began my academic career with all the brash bravado so typical of newly minted Ph.D.s.  I taught my classes.  I mentored my students.  I conducted my research that that was funded by my grants.  While I certainly do not regret that period of my academic life, I now recognize the egocentricity I displayed was a personal expression of the attentiveness, focus, dedication, and passion that are essential elements of academic success.  Thankfully, not every faculty member gives external expression those internal characteristics in the same ways I did.  My faculty colleagues possess astonishing levels of intrinsic motivation and professional dedication tempered by an Aristotelian balance between self-confidence and humility.  Transitioning from teacher and researcher to academic leader allowed my self-awareness to grow along with an expanded understanding of and appreciation for the work of my colleagues.  As I have come to more fully recognize the variety of activities and range of achievements occurring at IPFW, I have embraced the challenges of guiding and directing, as well as resourcing and rewarding, the full spectrum of faculty work.  In order to do so with fairness and with integrity it is necessary to have a clear understanding of individual and programmatic strengths as well as how those strengths are best aligned with institutional priorities.  IPFW, like so many of its peer institutions, is subject to a variety of forces that combine to shape, limit, and ultimately evolve the institution’s mission.  I propose to consider the mission of higher education within a framework of basic economic theory in order to illustrate how external forces and internal responses are challenging the meaning of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

IPFW is developing a new strategic plan after more than a decade of growth driven by the successful implementation of two previous plans.  The most basic question to be addressed by the current planning process is also the most challenging: what is IPFW’s mission?  I will not attempt to define my university’s formal mission statement in this essay; doing so is an integral part of the work of the committees charged with writing the strategic plan.  The institution’s current mission is to “meet the higher education needs of northeast Indiana.”  Given that this region, like all other regions of the country, has a need for educated citizens it seems obvious IPFW’s mission should begin with meeting that educational need.  The challenge lies, however, in first defining the educational need of the region’s citizens and then establishing how the university is to go about meeting a need so defined.  That is, it is essential to move beyond broad and idealized statements to clearly defined terms.  Only then will IPFW, or any other similar institution of higher learning, be well positioned to fully achieve its mission with an appropriate level of efficiency.

The Significance of Mission to Accreditation

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, along with hundreds of other institutions, is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools – one of six regional accrediting organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.  The HLC establishes the standards by which institutions in its geographic region are evaluated for reaffirmation of accreditation.  The first of the five HLC accreditation criteria concerns the institution’s mission.  The Commission requires that the institutional mission be stated both clearly and publically and to fully reflect the institution’s commitment to human understanding and cultural diversity.  Demonstrating a commitment to the first three components of the mission criterion is readily achieved by regional public universities such as IPFW.  It is in the fulfillment of the fourth criterion, calling for a demonstration of how the institution meets its commitment to the public good, that allows for the greatest degree of institutionally and regionally specific expression.  It is this expectation of contributing to the public good that I will explore within a context of elementary economic theory.

Establishing an Economic Understanding of the “Public Good”

Component 1.D. of the HLC mission criterion states “The institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.”  The concept of “public good” is very broad and must be defined as it relates to public higher education before a university can document its commitment to meeting this aspect of its mission.  To do so, it is necessary to evaluate the relationships between the notions of public and private as well as between a specific public good and the broader concept of the public good as they relate to higher education.  While it is common to interpret the phrase “the public good” in terms of political or societal contexts – the AASCU’s American Democracy Project would be an example of a University’s commitment to those types of public good – it is an economic interpretation that I believe has growing significance to and impact on higher education.

During the last half century the American higher education system has experienced a significant shift from public to private financing.  For example, since the late 1970s the total state appropriation to IPFW has increased by a factor of 5 while the proportion of the general fund budget covered by that appropriation has decreased from 70% to less than 40%.  IPFW is now defined as a state supported rather than a state funded university.  Critics of American higher education frequently advance plans to initiate or expand outsourcing of various aspects of institutional operation in order to achieve increased efficiency at reduced cost by allowing private for-profit ventures to competitively bid for contracts to provide service and manage support functions for the university.  Looking forward is it unreasonable to expect increased efforts to privatize not just those auxiliary activities but in time the core functions of public universities?  I see the on-going trend towards privatization as a challenge not only to the mission of regional public institutions but indeed to the foundational purposes for which these universities were established.  Reconsidering criterion 1.D. not within the context of a societal understanding of the public good but rather within an economic understanding of knowledge as an economic public good presents a robust framework for evaluating the criticisms of and potential opportunities for public higher education.

Much of the tension that currently exists within the American higher education system is derived from a conflict between public understandings of the concepts of knowledge and education as economic goods and services.  To begin an analysis of these terms consider the supposition that knowledge is an intangible public good.  That is to say, knowledge has the general characteristics of being both non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  To possess knowledge or to grow in knowledge does not occur at the expense of others.  Knowledge is not a finite resource that can only be gained by making another person less knowledgeable.  Likewise, in the ideal sense, one cannot be excluded from the possession of knowledge.  Yet knowledge is typically not obtained through hermitic contemplation.  Rather, knowledge is gained through processes of learning which are enhanced and accelerated by social interaction.  To become knowledgeable one must interact with others who have knowledge.  It is in this process of interaction that knowledge shifts from being an ideal public good and begins to incorporate characteristics of excludability.  Access to knowledge, to loci of learning, indeed to interaction with other knowledgeable individuals is clearly excludable and it is in the concept of excludable access that the bridge from knowledge to education is established.

Education as a Service not a Good

Higher education has traditionally existed within the service sector of the American economy.  Review of the characteristics that define an economic service can highlight those aspects of education that are currently subject to the greatest political, social, and economic pressure.  When the service provider (the university) enters into an economic exchange with the service consumer (the student) the relationship that is established is direct, participatory, and variable.  In order for education to occur, the student and the university must be directly linked through the processes of enrolling, attending, and delivering educational experiences.  This linked process of education is termed either teaching or learning when viewed from the perspective of either the provider or consumer of the service.  As a service consumer, the student must actively participate in the exchange of the service.  Universities cannot inject learning into the minds of unwilling or unmotivated students.  Students are not passive billets of raw intellect that can be refined and machined to specific dimensions and tolerances of knowledge.  Because learning is a personal process, the education achieved is unique to each individual.  This is true at all scales of teaching and learning, from the experiential aspects of a single assignment to the completion of a curriculum of study, each student’s experiences are both personal and uniquely personalized.  Conversely, instruction that is indirect, non-participatory, and invariable is technical training not teaching and learning, and ultimately results in the achievement of competency rather than knowledge.  Simply stated, the so-called commodification of learning, the application of market concepts to higher education, is shifting the mission of public higher education from the facilitation of learning to the production of training.

Critics of higher education intended to disrupt the traditional structure of university teaching and learning in several ways.  First, the educational process is viewed to possess an undesirable and unacceptable level of variability.  Requirements for the establishment of state-wide learning outcomes that define the minimum expected levels of education for courses, domains of learning, or programs of study are intended to impose a degree of uniformity to education that many faculty believe undervalues and ultimately undermines the significance of individuality in the teaching and learning experience.  Second, in a quest for convenience and efficiency students are expected to partake in the educational process rather than participate in it.  Proponents of a more efficient higher education system expect students to achieve minimum proficiencies through the consumption of discrete lessons; the inefficiencies that are natural and essential aspects of high level cognitive activities such as integration, synthesis, and interpretation are neither acknowledged nor appreciated.  Third, in a further quest for improved efficiency, critics of higher education are narrowing the curricular pathways students can choose to meet degree requirements by imposing greater levels of uniformity, reducing the number of degree options available, and homogenizing to the lowest common denominator regional variations in degree programs, all of which result in reduced opportunities for student involvement in the personalization of education that is characteristic both of robust learning experiences and valid economic exchanges for services.

Returning to the requirements of the Higher Learning Commission, universities must demonstrate both that their “educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes” and that the response to the needs of external constituencies are addressed as fully as “mission and capacity allow.”  By redirecting political and social efforts to “reform” higher education away from discussions of the efficiency of instruction and back on improving student learning, regional public universities such as IPFW will more fully achieve their central mission of serving the public good.

Sapere Aude ~

Returning to Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s Educational Revolution

Across the American higher education landscape there exists a complex ecosystem of institutions competing for students and resources in an environment defined by dynamic economic, political, and societal forces. For regional public comprehensive universities such as Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, increased competition has come from both public and private sectors. The growth of for-profit and proprietary educational institutions emphasizing distance and distributed teaching has been met by the expansion of the publicly funded online educational provider Western Governor’s University. Additionally, in Indiana, the Ivy Tech Community College system has grown from a source of vocational training to its current role as the State’s centrally administered community college system offering access to the first two years of general, professional, and technical education. Concurrently, state lawmakers have demanded greater coordination in the acceptance of transfer credit through the establishment of a state-wide core transfer library as well as the standardization of general education. In order to achieve the economically motivated goal of producing more college graduates, more rapidly, and at lower cost, the state has aggressively supported the expansion of college level courses offered in high schools for concurrent credit. Collectively these systemic changes in higher education call into question the fitness of regional public comprehensive universities as well as their ability to adapt in the face of an evolving higher education environment. The quest for more, faster, and cheaper is not new; rather, it is a recurring theme that has been expressed in different ways at different times throughout the history of American higher education. With each wave of economic, political, and societal pressure American higher education has been realigned and reorganized to meet the nation’s changing needs. It is the purpose of this essay to review one such educational revolution and consider how the challenges of the 21st century can be addressed in an equally transformational way.

The Role of Private Foundations

In addition to the cyclical attentiveness of state legislatures, public higher education has long been a subject of interest of private foundations. At the beginning of the twentieth century Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the purpose of conducting research on issues related to educational standards and policy. Instrumental in establishing financial security for college professors through the Teacher Insurance and Annuity (TIAA) system as well as providing access to education through the Pell Grant program, the Carnegie Foundation is primarily known for its system of classification of institutions. Fostering a close collaboration with the Federal Government, the Foundation helped guide the growth and expansion of American higher education throughout the twentieth century and continues to be an influential force in areas such as university-community engagement.

At the end of the twentieth century, the Carnegie Foundation was joined by two high-profile foundations with interest in higher education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation designated post-secondary educational success as a focus area for its U.S. Program. By identifying four key aspects of higher education performance (college readiness, personalized learning, performance measures, and research and advocacy) the Gates Foundation intends to support the establishment of “a postsecondary system that is an engine of social mobility and economic growth and fuels the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy.” The Gates Foundation is expanding its funding, and its influence, in American higher education while maintaining a suite of highly successful humanitarian and educational efforts in developing countries.

The Lumina Foundation, established in 2000 as part of the sale of USA Group to Sallie Mae, was restructured from the former USA Funds, an organization that at the time was the largest guarantor and administrator of student loans. Unlike the Gates Foundation, Lumina is dedicated exclusively to post-secondary access and success. While the foundation has funded programs supporting access to community colleges, improving institutional efficiency, and reforming higher education financing, Lumina’s primary mission is to fund innovative efforts designed to advance the national level of higher education attainment to 60% by 2025. Private foundations are now, more than ever, playing a leading role in shaping public and governmental expectations for university performance as defined by graduation rates, particularly in technical and professional fields, in order to meet the demands of the globalized, highly competitive, and increasingly information-based twenty-first century economy.

Origins of Federal Involvement in Higher Education

Many aspects of the current challenges to American higher education are not new. During the late 18th and early 19th century the impact of technological advances driven by the introduction of steam power and automation spread across the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the American economy resulting in demand for a workforce that was trained in the industrial and agricultural arts. During the first half of the nineteenth century American universities were centers of traditional learning focused on classical texts informed by the social and political ideas of the enlightenment. It became clear that the existing educational system had neither the capacity nor the inclination to meet the demands of the increasingly industrialized economy and required both curricular reconceptualization and a significant infusion of resources. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a graduate of Yale University who upon moving to Illinois became a leading voice in the movement to establish federally funded agricultural colleges, convinced then Representative, and later Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont to introduce legislation in 1857 that would come to be known as the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.

While the desire to establish agricultural colleges supported by federal funds was highly controversial in a pre-war political climate dominated by sectarian disputes, federal involvement in education was far from a novel idea. Section 14 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 consists of six articles that define the agreement between the original states of the Atlantic seaboard and those inhabitants of the Northwest Territory. Supporters of Morrill’s legislation pointed to Article 3 which states “… knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Additionally, Article 4 provided the mechanism by which Congress could fund the creation of technical and agricultural colleges. “The legislatures of those districts or new States, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers.” From the Northwest Ordinance the concept of land-grants for educational purposes first took form as the township-based public school system of the Midwestern states. Subsequently, Turner’s advocacy for a land-grant approach to the creation of public agricultural and technical universities was built on the legislative foundation provided by the Northwest Ordinance.

The Morrill Act of 1862

Morrill’s land-grant legislation, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, consisted of two important parts. The first, and by far the most controversial, set the parameters by which federal land was to be designated for sale, how the proceeds from that sale were to be distributed among the several states, and what rules of investment the States would be required to observe. Turner had hoped for an equal distribution of funding for each State. Morrill, however, recognized that to secure political support for his legislation the formula for distribution of funds had to be linked to population. Therefore, 30,000 acres of federal land was allotted for each member of Congress and the distribution of proceeds from the sale of those lands resulted in greater levels of funding for the eastern industrial states relative to their western agricultural counterparts. The second, and less controversial, part of the Morrill Act defined the purpose for which the land-grant money was to be used by participating states. “Any State which may take and claim the benefit of the provisions of this act shall provide, within five years from the time of its acceptance … not less than one college…” The purpose of that college, and the reason for a complicated and controversial mechanism of funding through the land-grant process, is derived directly from Turner’s vision for a new system of American higher education. The law provides for “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” (U.S. Code, Title 7, Chapter 13, Subchapter 1, § 304).

The land-grant colleges were a novel and aggressive response to the demands of a rapidly advancing industrial economy. One of the most important aspects of the Morrill Act resides in its explicit reference to the intended beneficiaries of the legislation. The choice of the phrase “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” makes a clear distinction between the small number of students of wealth and privilege who had access to higher education during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and those students of lower station for whom higher education had previously not been attainable. By the use of “industrial classes” Morrill was describing the industrial workers of the northeast as well as the agricultural labors of the western states. To fund the education of these “industrial classes” required an innovative approach to financing public education. The 1862 legislation designated over 17 million acres that was sold for over $7 million dollars. While certainly a vast sum of money in the middle of the nineteenth century, the corpus created by the sale of federal land was not sufficiently large to establish and sustain the number of institutions that would have been necessary to bring advanced technical education to all workers of the “industrial class”.

Sustaining Privilege Versus Supporting Populism

How then could the States best respond to the goals of the Morrill Act with the limited funds at their disposal? Some politicians and civic leaders argued successfully that technical curricula should be added to existing institutions. In so doing, the land-grant funds could be directed primarily towards establishing academic programs in the targeted fields since the capacity to provide the supporting liberal education already existed. This approach was most appealing in the eastern states where, for instance, Rutgers and Cornell Universities were expanded to meet the land-grant mission. By interpreting the goals of the Morrill Act in this somewhat narrow way, the eastern states directed resources not towards the needs of the “industrial classes” but rather towards the education and training of the next generation of industrial and agricultural innovators and leaders in academic environments that retained a strong sense of exclusivity.

Conversely, populist sentiments prevalent in the western states guided that region’s philosophical and practical response to the Morrill Act. Rather than expanding existing institutions, many states west of the Ohio River chose to found new universities with a strong agricultural and industrial focus. Iowa State University, Kansas State, and Purdue University were established with the mission of providing a portal to general and applied education accessible to students from a broad range of economic and social backgrounds. As such, enrollments were much stronger in the western than the eastern states during the first decade after the implementation of the Morrill Act – despite the significantly higher levels of funding provided to eastern institutions.

Regional Universities and the Land-grant Tradition

The tensions between populist and privileged models of higher education highlighted by the implementation of the Morrill Act of 1862 continue to be significant factors in the nation’s ongoing higher education conversation. In post-World War II America the primary point of access to higher education shifted from the land-grant colleges that had been established one-hundred years earlier to a group of newly created comprehensive universities with regional missions. Why did this shift in mission occur? Two important factors redirected the access mission from the land-grant universities to the smaller regional institutions.

First, the growth and maturation of the land-grant institutions caused them to take on many characteristics common to their non-land-grant counterparts. That is, they became more selective in their admissions criteria, more global in scope, more comprehensive in curricular offerings, and more theoretical in the approach to the acquisition of knowledge. While land-grant universities continue to offer strong programs in engineering, technology, agriculture, and other applied sciences their focus has changed from undergraduate to graduation education, from applied to primary research, and from their initial role as a gateway to education for the “industrial classes” to highly selective institutions attracting elite students from around the globe.

Second, the institutions founded in response to the Morrill Act were not sufficient to meet the educational needs of the expanding number of college goers in the second half of the twentieth century. As such, some states established robust regional campus systems, linked to their land-grant institution, where the goals of accessibility, a focus on applied technical and professional curricula, and the utilization of scholarly knowledge to the betterment of the community were achieved. In other states the modern “industrial classes” have accessed educational opportunity through state college systems administered independently of the land-grant campus, or through a combination of two- and four-year institutions. Irrespective of the method, the heart of the land-grant mission has passed from the universities founded in the 1860’s and 1870’s to institutions with regional missions founded in the last fifty years.

Returning to Turner’s Vision

As the heirs to the land-grant mission, institutions like Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) now are responsible for achieving Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s vision of a well-educated and technically trained workforce. Turner’s 19th century goals are recapitulated in the 21st century language employed by the Lumina and Gates Foundations. The institutional performance metrics used by the State of Indiana to establish funding levels for regional campuses are philosophically aligned with Turner’s goal of a larger, more technically trained, workforce. While responsibility for meeting the goal of educating the “industrial classes” has shifted from the research universities to the regional campuses, the magnitude of federal funding has not. During academic year 2011-2012 Purdue University received over $215 million in funding from federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Agriculture in support of primary and applied research, an annual award amount that is more than 30 times the value of the corpus of the 1862 Morrill Act endowment for all the states participating in the land-grant program. During the same year at IPFW approximately $2.7 million in federal funding was received. Of this total more than a third was directed towards non-academic infrastructure improvements, twenty-eight percent towards engagement and regional economic development, eight percent towards research, and only twenty-seven percent ($740,000) towards programs that support academic access and success. That is, federal investment in research at a “land-grant” university was 290 times larger than investment in student learning at a regional campus that now has primary responsibility for achieving the goals of the Morrill Act.

Who will be the 21st century’s Jonathan Baldwin Turner? Who will provide the philosophical and conceptual framework that will motivate transformational federal legislation? A leader is needed to restate the challenges of bringing education to today’s “industrial classes” in order to allow them to more fully access the “social mobility and economic growth” envisioned by the Gates Foundation. We must reconsider how the Federal Government is investing in higher education. Certainly, sustaining our nation’s capacity for primary research is essential to a strong economy. Yet when levels of federal funding directed at supporting the accessibility and quality of higher education sits at a fraction of one percent of research funding it becomes both appropriate and necessary to question if the populist vision of higher education advanced by Turner and advanced into law by Morrill can be achieved by anything short of a revolution in the structure of Federal funding of higher education.

Sapere Aude

The History and Future of Grades in Higher Education

Grades have long been part of the American educational experience. From the elementary classroom to graduate and professional schools, grades are used to record students’ progress and, with varying degrees of fidelity, measure their mastery of facts, concepts, and a wide range of academically or professionally valuable skills. If grades were used solely to provide confidential formative feedback – to identify areas of strength and weakness in academic achievement as well as to guide future study – they would not have become such a highly institutionalized and controversial metric of student success. Rather, grades are now the currency with which scarce academic resources are purchased. Competition for admission to selective programs of study, access to merit scholarships, professional or technical certification, and ultimately employment are in part, often in large part, measured by the academic transcript. While the grade point average has become the defining metric of the individual learner, the process of assigning grades is increasingly viewed as an unreliable method of measuring student learning.

As a result of this conceptual dissidence, the modern higher education accountability movement has demanded the application of a more systematic and valid process of assessing student learning. Accrediting bodies, governmental commissions, and state legislatures are increasingly requiring universities to define, measure, and report student learning. What value then do grades have in American higher education? Have they outlived their usefulness? Can grades and the process of grading be reconsidered in ways to make them more relevant to all university stake-holders? A review of the history of the development of grading systems in America will illustrate both why and how the measurement of learning has evolved, shed some light on the future of the assessment of student learning, and perhaps illustrate ways in which grades can regain their utility in the assessment of learning in higher education.

Transition from Oral to Written Examination

Higher education in America was initially available exclusively to the sons of socially prominent and wealthy families. Modeled on their European counterparts, American colleges and universities of the 17th and 18th centuries provided courses in the traditional liberal arts as well as exposure to legal and religious studies. Because of the elite nature and small number of enrolled students, instruction occurred through a combination of didactic lectures and elenctic seminars. Students were advanced to further study following satisfactory performance on oral exams administered by the faculty. In an era when patronage was an essential aspect of the economic health of the institution and when children of privilege filled the class rolls, subjectively evaluated oral exams were conveniently flexible methods of evaluation. Higher education was, at that time, a highly personal experience. There existed no standardized curriculum, no specified learning outcomes, and no direct connection of course content to technical or professional education. Rather, instructors developed lessons based upon their personal academic strengths and interests as well as the antecedent knowledge and capacity to learn of their students. Individualized oral examination was a natural and logical outgrowth of this highly individualized mode of instruction.

Two factors marked the decline in the use of oral and subsequent growth in formally structured written exams. First was a desire on the part of instructors and institutions to evaluate students’ mastery of concepts more consistently. Because of the dialectic nature of the oral examination process, the experience of the instructor interacting with each student and the experiences of the students with the instructor were prone to great variability. There was no way to assure either consistency or validity in the evaluation process, nor could the students’ achievements be measured relative to the progress or achievements of their classmates. The desire on the part of instructors and institutions to establish rankings of students’ achievement required that examination procedures become more structured and standardized.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution the American higher education system experienced an intense wave of democratic and competitive forces. A defining aspect of that era was a growing incompatibility between the old order dominated by the privileges of class and wealth and an emerging meritocratic order. Not only were oral exams ill-suited to the competitive evaluation of student achievement, they were subject to inadvertent or intentional manipulation in favor of high status students. As such, a transition to written exams provided a mechanism by which instructors and institutions could assure uniformity in the examination process – each student was asked the same questions in the same way with the same period of time allotted for composing answers. Additionally, formally structured written exams provided an objective and publically available record of student achievement. Lastly, written examinations were a more efficient way of measuring student achievement in that an entire class could undergo an examination at the same time while the instructor could mark each exam in much less time than would be required to conduct a series of oral examinations.

Early Subjective Categories

Once the evaluation of student learning moved from a dialogue between the professor and the student to an institutionalized procedure for measuring academic performance, the next step was to establish a system of categorical rankings of achievement. The first institution to document the use of a categorical ranking system – the forerunners of modern letter grades – was Yale University. President Ezra Stiles, in 1785, recorded the grades of students as falling into one of four categories. “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores.” By 1813 Yale had systematized the record keeping process by creating the Book of Averages and requiring “The average result of the examination of every student in each class shall be recorded in this book by the Senior Tutor of the class.” Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the first use of grading categories at Yale resulted in a pronounced skew towards favorable rankings.

By 1817 the College of William and Mary was using a more fully described categorical system consisting of four ranks “No. 1. The first in their respective classes; No. 2. Orderly, correct, and attentive; No. 3. They have made very little improvement; No. 4. They have learnt little or nothing.” These categories are defined by four different types of criteria: rank one is based on achievement relative to the peer group; rank two is defined primarily by behavioral rather than academic performance; rank three considers growth in knowledge over the period of evaluation; while rank four is based upon an absolute measure – a lack of learning. Clearly, categorical ranking systems represented an initial, and in most cases incomplete, effort to bring organization and structure to the evaluation of student learning through a reporting framework that could be made available to students and their parents as well as the faculty and governing boards of the institutions.

As categorical grading structures came to common use in American colleges and universities, there emerged a concurrent desire on the part of employers, parents, alumni, and governing boards to compare the results of these rudimentary evaluations of student learning among institutions. However, the variety of systems employed, the use of highly qualitative and conflicting assessment criteria, and an ill-defined understanding of what distinguishes outstanding from satisfactory and satisfactory from unsatisfactory work limited the validity of institutional comparisons.

Grade Distributions

From their very first recorded use, grades grouped students into categories of achievement. As described earlier, the Yale students of 1785 populated with decreasing frequency four grade categories from Optimi down to Pejores. Over the last one hundred years the meaning and significance of various distributions of grades has become nearly as contentious a topic in higher education as has been the validity and reliability of individual grades that comprise any particular distribution.

Without detouring too far into a discussion of grading statistics, it is useful to consider the origin and significance of some commonly observed characteristics of grade distributions. When the most frequently occurring graded category (mode) lies at or near one of the ends of the distribution the sample is said to be skewed, as is illustrated by the Yale grades. When the modal category is near the middle (median) of a symmetrical sample the distribution is described as normal, Gaussian, or “bell-shaped”.

In 1906 Northwestern Professor Winfield Hall compiled the grades of 2000 students and found them to be highly skewed towards favorable marks. Hall’s systematic study provided quantitative support for the conclusions reached a few years earlier by Washington and Lee professor LeConte Stevens who found the “tendency to high marking is inherent in human nature. Every professor wishes to be at least as fair, at least as generous, as his conscience may permit; and he is apt to regard his own teaching at least as good as that of his colleagues. Every student wishes credit for the best he has done, and is at least willing to have his short-comings excused. He considers the professor who gives him a high mark to be eminently fair; and the professor who remembers all short-comings is thought to be unsympathetic and inconsiderate.” Beyond the psychological forces that influence the process of evaluating students, one must also consider how grades will be used to either reflect the mastery of academic concepts or to differentiate the levels of learning achieved by different students.

While different instructional and evaluative aspects of a course influence grade distribution, the two general types, skewed and normal, often are associated with two distinct philosophies underlying the evaluation of student learning. When the instructor’s primary concern is to evaluate and document concept mastery, it is common for students to achieve a positively skewed distribution of grades. Conversely, when the instructor establishes a grading system designed to separate the stronger from the weaker students, irrespective of absolute levels of learning achieved, a more symmetrical or “normal” distribution results.

These generalities, of course, call into question the purpose of grading. Is the instructor’s objective to evaluate mastery, differentiate levels of achievement, or to document students’ efforts or commitment to learning? The confusion of purposes illustrated by the William and Mary grade categories from 1817 unfortunately remains a part of the philosophical landscape of higher education nearly two hundred years later.

The Assessment Movement

Despite their widespread use, grades and grading processes are criticized by proponents of the modern accountability movement in higher education. The criticisms are derived from two perceived short-comings. First, grades are at best indirect measures of student learning. A complicating factor is the incorporation of student behaviors – attendance, participation, effort – into grading systems, which causes the resulting final grade to become a measure of motivation rather than of academic achievement. Second, even when behavioral measures are not included, grades are integrated measures of performance over the academic term. Often the final grade is calculated from a set of assignments conducted at various points in time and as such neither adequately measures a student’s absolute knowledge at the end nor academic growth throughout the term. Of course an instructor can devise grading systems that will capture information regarding absolute knowledge (a comprehensive final) or academic growth (pre-test/post-test methodologies), but the flexibility that makes such variation possible underscores the weakness perceived by some – the lack of uniformity in grading process between courses and instructors.

The assessment of student learning differs from the assignment of grades in a very significant way: assessment is a part of an integrated cycle of planning, teaching, assessment, and reflection. Each step in that learning cycle is informed by knowledge gained in the other steps. Conversely, the assignment of grades is structured as an outcome of a linear process of planning followed by teaching. As a summative evaluation of student performance, grades do not possess the depth or richness to fully inform curricular change or enhance student learning.

When implemented as a part of an ongoing cycle of learning, assessment provides formative feedback on student achievement, aligned with specific learning outcomes, which can be of great value both to the student and the instructor. Faculty resistance to assessment typically takes one of three forms: a failure to appreciate the summative/formative difference between grades and assessment; a belief that the role of the faculty is primarily one of differentiating, sorting, or gate keeping rather than one of facilitating, mentoring, and guiding; or the perception that the investments in time and energy necessary to conduct meaningful assessment, reflection, and curricular modification are not justified by a marginal enhancement in student learning. Despite lingering resistance on the part of some faculty, assessment is now an essential part of American higher education.

Do Grades have a Future?

With every passing semester grades are assigned, GPAs are calculated, and students are graduated, retained, placed on probation, or dismissed from universities based upon the grades received. Scholarships are conferred or withdrawn; students are admitted to or dropped from honors programs based upon what are at best incomplete measures of learning. At the same time the accountability movement demands universities become more effective and productive. Student success as measured by retention and graduation – both of which are highly dependent on GPA – is an increasingly critical metric in the funding formulas of public universities.

Can the system of grades be reconsidered and reconstructed in ways that will bring it into coordination rather than in conflict with the desire to measure and report student learning? The complex variety of grading methodologies in use strongly suggests that a whole-scale re-imagination of the meaning and use of grades resulting in consistency and uniformity is unlikely. Alternatively, could the system of grades be abandoned in favor of an integrated process of learning assessment and pass/fail measures of achievement? Despite the historical and cultural entrenchment of grades in American higher education, current trends strongly suggest the future of student evaluation will be one characterized by a fully implemented granular and nuanced system of assessment linked to course and curricular learning outcomes. Students will be measured against a matrix of defined skills, abilities, and achievements, rather than through the use of a GPA calculated to three or four significant figures.

Sapere Aude

Academic Freedom and American Higher Education

Increased public scrutiny of the efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and productivity of public universities has become an increasingly common component of the national political dialogue.  In Indiana laws have been enacted, in collaboration with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, that create requirements for the universal transferability of college credits, limit the number of credit hours required for most baccalaureate degrees, expand the concurrent enrollment programs for high school students in university level courses, and most recently establish a framework for a state-wide general education program.  Taken individually these pieces of legislation are aligned with public demands for a higher education system that delivers graduates to the workplace in ever cheaper, faster, and more standardized ways.  Collectively, however, these actions are viewed by some as an extensive, systematic, and politically coordinated incursion into the institutional control of the higher education curriculum and as such ultimately call into question the meaning, the significance, and the future of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is commonly expressed as the understanding that institutional academic integrity resides primarily in the ability to provide an environment where scholars, teachers, and students are empowered to freely consider all aspects of intellectual inquiry through research, discourse, and teaching without fear of censorship, reprimand, or reprisal.  Given that universities exist to serve the greater public good, the free exercise of their mission is essential for the betterment of society.  Any limit placed on that freedom constrains their ability to add to the body of human knowledge and apply that knowledge to the improvement of the human condition.  Within American universities academic freedom exists at both the institutional and individual levels and both will be considered in light of their relationship to the other.

Institutional Academic Freedom

Institutional academic freedom originated with the establishment of the western scholastic tradition marked by the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088.  Independent of the direct authority of both church and crown, secular institutions such as the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, and Padua were organized much like professional guilds under the leadership of their senior scholars.  Conversely, in North America the nine colonial colleges founded during the late 17th and early 18th century were charted by the colonial governments with institutional authority bestowed on governing boards composed of prominent citizens of the community.  That is, the American higher educational system was founded by citizens, for citizens, and organized in such a way as citizens, not academic professionals, were charged with its supervision.  Institutional academic freedom in modern American colleges and universities is vested not in the faculty as it is in continental universities but rather in those appointed boards of trustees that oversee all aspects of institutional operation.

The legal foundation of institutional academic freedom was considered in the 1957 Supreme Court case Sweezy v. New Hampshire where Chief Justice Warren writing for the majority concluded, “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation.” (354 U.S. 234 [1957]).  In a concurring decision in the same case, Justice Frankfurter provided an explicit definition of institutional academic freedom, “It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail ‘the four essential freedoms’ of a university — to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” (354 U.S. 234 [1957]).  Likewise, the 1967 Supreme Court decision in the case Keyishian v. Board of Regents noted, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us, and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment.” (385, U.S. 589, 385, U.S. 603 [1967]).  While these cases, along with the subsequent decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (438, U.S. 265 [1978]), did not directly address issues surrounding the validity of legislatively established mandates intended to limit and standardize university curricula they have affirmed, through the concept of institutional academic freedom, the right of the university to exercise its four “essential freedoms” independent of any extramurally imposed constraint.

Individual Academic Freedom

Given that the American higher education system originated through the creation of publicly chartered colleges under the control of governing boards rather than through the direct actions of groups of scholars, academic freedom in American universities is held by the governing boards not the individual members of the faculty.  Yet in practice there exists a rich history whereby the academic freedom of individual scholars and teachers is defined in terms of, and is naturally extended from, the concept of institutional academic freedom.  The organization most responsible for defining and defending individual academic freedom has been the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

One hundred years ago higher education in America was in the midst of a tectonic transformation driven by decades of industrial expansion and the resulting diffusion of wealth into a rapidly expanding professional class.  With increased opportunities for employment in the technical and commercial fields came the need for specialized education that extended beyond the traditional vocational apprenticeship.  The Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 were specifically designed to address the nation’s demand for higher education through the transfer of federal land (in 1862) or direct federal subsides (1890) to the states in order to fund “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” (U.S. Code, Title 7, Chapter 13, Subchapter 1, § 304).

 The creation of the land-grant colleges had a direct impact on the understanding of individual academic freedom in several important ways.  First, the new colleges and universities created a demand for more university teachers which in turn raised questions concerning professional standards, the use of instructors not holding faculty rank, and ultimately the rights and responsibilities of the growing number of college teachers.  Second, the land-grant colleges were founded specifically to meet the educational needs of the so-called “industrial classes” of American citizens.  No longer was higher education an exclusive privilege of the wealthy.  The expansion of educational opportunities to include the working classes created unprecedented heterogeneity within the student body in terms of a common knowledge and understanding of the western cultural traditions in which wealthy students of the past had been fully versed.  Finally, land-grant colleges were leaders in the expansion, differentiation, and specialization of the university curriculum beyond the traditional medical, legal, and liberal arts curricula of the 19th century.  These factors, along with a growing sense of vulnerability among university faculty regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, were instrumental in the founding of the AAUP in 1915.

The AAUP’s first significant act was to adopt a “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” drafted by a committee of fifteen eminent senior scholars and chaired by the economist Edwin Seligman of Columbia University.  By first affirming that the basis of academic authority resides with the university’s governing board, this declaration highlights the fact that the board exercises a public trust that is distinct in every regard from the absolute authority associated with private proprietorships.  That is, a board of trustees differs greatly in its rights, responsibilities, and limitations from those vested in a corporate board of directors.  While the board is responsible for overseeing the management and operation of the institution, it has “no moral right to bind the reason or the conscience of any professor.”  Indeed, all responsibility for maintaining academic freedom on behalf of the public trust resides in the board.  In 1907 Harvard President Charles William Eliot, during an address at Cornell University, concluded “the board of trustees is the body on whose discretion, good feelings, and experience the securing of academic freedom now depends.”  It is therefore both necessary and appropriate that the board serve as the guarantor, protector, and advocate for an intellectual environment that supports and sustains open inquiry, bold discovery, and free expression.

The Declaration goes on to consider the nature of the academic calling.  With clarity and forcefulness the AAUP states that the professorial office must possess both “dignity and independence” in order to provide college teachers and researchers with the “freedom to perform honestly and according to their own consciences the distinctive and important function which the nature of the profession lays upon them.” By stressing the unique aspects of the terms and conditions of the faculty appointment, it is the AAUP’s strongly held option that a university is not “an ordinary business venture” nor is an appointment to the faculty a form of “purely private employment” and as such faculty are entitled to the free enjoyment of the privilege of academic freedom.

The Declaration also defines a tripartite function of the academic institution “to promote the inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge; to provide general instruction to the students; and to develop experts for various branches of the public service.”  The social and economic transformation of American higher education at the turn of the 20th century significantly expanded the mission of universities to include an emphasis on the discovery of new knowledge through research and on the delivery of professional and technical instruction.  In this principle the AAUP formally recognized the expanded mission of American higher education and explicitly extended the right of individual academic freedom to members of the faculty in all three aspects of university work.

Finally, the Declaration also recognized that by accepting the autonomy and security provided by academic freedom, teachers and researchers must exercise their duties in ways that are respectful of the dignity of the institution from which that freedom flows as well as the rich history and traditions of their chosen profession.  An extraordinarily powerful, and perhaps prescient, warning was given: “If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others – by others who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities.”  Legislative mandates intended to reform higher education, undertaken in the name of efficiency and accountability have, without question, disrupted the internal order and diminished the public standing of higher education. 


It is time, indeed past time, that all members of the university community, faculty, students, administrators, and boards of trustees acknowledge and embrace the unbounded benefits as well as the solemn responsibilities of institutional and individual academic freedom.  Only in so doing will our institutions of higher learning fulfill their essential societal mission and realize a future rich in cultural, artistic, and scientific contributions.

Sapere Aude –