Our University and the Idea of Accountability

In a great university… this could probably be said for any great organization… individuals must feel responsibility for the future, that it rests on their actions and decisions. This creates a powerful kind of accountability, a deep sense of purpose in an organization develops rather than a self serving approach to the work carried out. This is not the residual accountability garnered from politically appointed boards who oversee the activities of various organizations of the state.

 That accountability has value too but it is a different kind. It is accountability about rule following rather than feeling responsible for making something great and being a part of something that is bigger than you are.

A sense of urgency and mission produces the accountability our university needs.

The Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, was a large factory built by Western Electric after the turn of the 20th century, during the adolescence of the industrial revolution, when the mechanization of production processes was new and little was tested. Our nation was at the dawn of an age of precision and productivity. During its busiest production years, the Hawthorne Works employed nearly 50 thousand people before it closed in 1983.

Experiments dubbed the “Hawthorne Experiments” were carried out to see how various changes in working conditions, including special treatment and the sense that the tasks assigned where especially important to the future of the company. The validity of the original Hawthorne Experiments has been questioned for years, with findings subject to a wide range of interpretation and criticism depending on one’s point of view. However, a common occurrence no one argues is that changes in environmental conditions will lead to changes in human behavior.
The Hawthorne effect has come to mean that people’s behavior and performance change when the person is subject to new workplace change. The earliest experiments varied lighting levels and the number of parts produced during a given interval of time. The researchers concluded that the changes were made in response to the changed environmental conditions and were little impacted by the amount of change in lighting levels.

This was confirmed when essentially the same results followed whether light levels were increased or decreased. Change produces change and change was the constant in the experiments. The results of the experiments were expressed to mean that when people are noticed or appreciated, their performance will improve.
At the Hawthorne plant, and in subsequent replications and further studies of similar types, it was found that after the subjects adjusted to the new working conditions, productivity levels returned to the levels experienced prior to the changed environment. The university, when it is successfully led, produces positive, life-long change in graduates, their thinking, and their behavior, but in order for that to happen there must be internal accountability of people to each other and the greater organization. People must be held accountable for growth and change, as agents of change. Accountability can produce that in a healthy environment. In an unhealthy environment accountability produces fear and calcification. Our university must be different.

Change and accountability are fueled in successful organizations by the belief that what I do can make a difference. This is a powerful concept to carry to work every morning. It makes work a mission, not a job.

That is the way our university should be.

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