Taking Our Measure
In its reaccreditation review, the University is focusing on curricula and decentralization. By Thomas H. Jackson
While the public most often hears about “rankings” of colleges and universities, we actually pay much more attention to something else—a formal process of peer review called “reaccreditation.” Our accrediting body is the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and we are now in the process of preparing for our next review in early 2004.
There are a number of reaccreditation “standards” to be met, but the focus is more on an institution’s own goals, objectives, and constructs. We will concentrate on two pertinent themes of the past decade: curricula and decentralization. Both are timely, as signature developments at the University and because they are central to our conception of ourselves and to our future.
I have written before about our extraordinary innovativeness in teaching, including:
The reaccreditation review provides a natural opportunity to develop a critical perspective for the benefit of the entire University community. In this way, we can be assured that we will continue as a leader in curricular innovation well into the 21st century.
Decentralization is a less public, but very important, issue for us to consider. (And not only for us: It is an issue of significance at many universities like ours.) The adoption in the early 1990s of what we refer to as “distributed budgeting” was not merely a change in bookkeeping; it reflected the fundamental belief in advancing the missions of the University most effectively by granting authority and responsibility to what I have described as “the lowest coherent and responsible unit.”
Almost any issue involving decentralization will have complexities and permutations, even if the basic contours are clear.
For instance, who is best equipped to decide whether to launch a new clinical operation? Need that go to the University trustees, or should the Medical Center’s own board be empowered to decide? And on the River Campus, who decides on the establishment of a new academic program? Surely, the University’s provost—as chief academic officer—will be involved in this process, but who ultimately “owns” the decision?
The decentralization concept does not apply universally to all University functions: The degree to which our resources and services are (or should be) decentralized depends on an interplay of economies of scale, logical relationships, available expertise, and control of revenues and expenditures.
For example, the schools and College logically are the entities to create their respective visions and plans for the future. They are the logical points of authority in terms of overseeing departmental budgets, authorizing faculty positions, and implementing financial targets to execute those visionary plans.
But economies of scale, in such tasks as managing the endowment or investing in Internet capabilities, span schools and campuses. Certain functions lodge more comfortably in the center.
The academic department is another basic “building block” of the University. The department is naturally responsible for its graduate education programs and its own research, as it reaps the benefits of its successes in these areas. These functions (subject to a number of caveats concerning departmental resources and interdisciplinary ventures) are appropriately under the control of the department.
On the other hand, undergraduate education (or, for that matter, medical education) cannot be “decentralized” to the department level in the same fashion. Any department’s efforts in undergraduate (or medical) education are intertwined with those of a number of other departments and programs, thus making “returns” on those investments much more diffuse than at the department level. (A department wanting to be superb at undergraduate education would still be unable to deliver a satisfactory experience to undergraduates if it lacks the cooperation of other departments!)
Decentralization is rarely a case of “all or nothing.” Departments have an important role in undergraduate education, and the school has an important role in graduate education and research. At the University level, we must make sure that all plans “cohere.” Almost any issue involving decentralization will have complexities and permutations, even if the basic contours are clear.
But the extraordinary range of endeavors at a research university demands this complexity—and, from time to time, the game plan for governance and decision making deserves careful and thorough review. Not only will the reaccreditation review allow us to gain our peers’ perspective on this topic, it is also an opportunity to provide the University community with an improved understanding of the underlying structure of the institution—a map, if you will, that will guide a continual self-examination, long after the outside reaccreditation team has handed in its report.
|©Copyright 1999 2004 University of Rochester|