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Here’s Looking at You : Transparency, Institutional Self-Presentation, and the Public Interest, Alexander C. McCormick, associate professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington, Change : The Magazine of Higher learning, novembre-décembre 2010

dimanche 2 janvier 2011, par Wendy

Accountability figures prominently in the higher education policy discourse these days. Critics of higher education (for instance, members of the Spellings Commission) argue that colleges and universities need to be more “transparent” to justify support by taxpayers, payers of tuition, and other funders. To better inform prospective students and other stakeholders, we are being asked to go public about our programs, educational processes, and results.

The presumption is that better-informed college enrollment decisions will then reward strong institutions, while poor performers will face the stern discipline of the market and either improve or fail. Although this logic assumes students to be rational value-maximizers and neglects some fundamental realities of college choice for the vast majority of students—whose enrollment decisions are largely determined by geography and cost (Ewell, 2009)—it is nevertheless compelling to many external stakeholders.

But transparency can be about more than consumer information. It can provide an opportunity for a college or university to proclaim its successes while acknowledging that it needs to improve in some areas. Information about results can also document progress toward important goals. For internal audiences, this kind of information focuses attention and signals priorities for improvement, while for external observers it offers evidence that the academy takes its educational mission seriously and practices what it preaches regarding the use of evidence to support assertions, interpretations, conclusions, and prescriptions for action.

Such openness is risky for several reasons, though. Revealing shortcomings invites negative consequences, whether from a legislature that may be seeking ways to cut budgets or to demonstrate a hard-nosed commitment to quality, from competitors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, from alumni or other constituents on the lookout for evidence of a decline in standards, and so on.

As a result, “transparency” is sometimes a euphemism for what might be more accurately described as strategic communication or image management, in which information is carefully selected and presented so as to portray a successful and effective institution. This should come as no surprise. A persistent, paradoxical, and problematic characteristic of accountability systems in general is that they create a powerful incentive for those being held accountable “to look as good as possible, regardless of the underlying performance” (Ewell, 2009, p. 7).

In this article, I examine various forms of public reporting of student engagement information. Some are controlled by third parties and others by the institutions themselves. I look at four third-party efforts : the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), Transparency by Design (TbD), and the institutionally authorized online publication of results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) by the daily newspaper USA TODAY (USAT). (See Resources for links to these Web sites.) The Center for Community College Student Engagement (which houses CCSSE) recently introduced a new survey focused on the early experience of entering community college students ; while this review focuses on CCSSE, it applies equally to the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), which uses a comparable reporting framework.

Pour lire la suite de l’article dans le numéro de novembre-décembre 2010 de Change, the Magazine of Higher Learning.