Our Universities: Donner Party Politics

Unbridled, ill-conceived, or poorly implemented regulation often creates undesirable outcomes. Legislators refer to such results as unintended consequences. Sometimes, such consequences are the result of well-meant actions, imposed by parties unfamiliar with the underlying complexity of a situation. When assumptions that were, at best, tenuous in one environment are used as the basis for control in another, disasters can happen.

We know about the Donner Party. The mid-nineteenth century wagon train’s mission to reach the West Coast was transformed by environmental forces, geography, and a historic realignment of priorities that impacted ethical decision-making. Snow, mountain passes, and survival at all costs led to cannibalism.

“Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing.” {Sic}

Patrick Breen’s diary, late February 1847


The Illinois Board of Higher Education is working on implementing performance-based funding, like nearly every higher education governing board in the nation. University effectiveness, based on the measurement of concrete criteria, allows progress to be more easily demonstrated. Constituencies crave clarity. The devil, though, is in the details.

When performance-based funding is robotically passed down from the university to its component academic units, balkanization begins which can lead to cannibalism. Criteria such as “student credit hours taught,” or other measurements that seem perfectly reasonable at the campus-level, produce a zero-sum game scenario in budget allocation. The resulting competition for resources can ruin an organization by leading to superficially rational but often unethical decision-making.

In an environment where simple, easily calibrated measures are used to assess progress, it only makes sense for a dean to develop elective courses and to use his or her control of the degree process to “encourage” students to take as many electives within their college as possible. If scarce resources are at risk, priorities like “developing well-rounded graduates” can slip. This is a logical but short-sighted economic response. Rewards are one way organizations communicate, and if a unit is rewarded for the number of student credit hours it generates, it makes sense to respond by increasing the number of internal credit hours it requires of those students over which it has the most control. From the department’s perspective, the university has telegraphed its priorities very clearly. If other concerns were important, they would also be rewarded.

Decisions contrary to the best interests of students show an ethical deficit. Exposure to a wide range of sciences and artistic fields, along with a general level of literacy across a broad array of subjects, is the hallmark of a university education. Artificially limiting that breadth and then calling it a Baccalaureate-level education is a betrayal of both students and the university ideal.

When a student enrolls in the university, he or she rightly expects to encounter intellectually diverse perspectives, to learn about many aspects of the human condition, and to develop a pallet of useful skills. Nobody enrolls because it will contribute to the fiscal health of the university or one academic unit at the expense of another.

There are many excellent, time-tested ways to measure an academic unit’s performance. Ask faculty members. Ask alumni, or track their donations. Count endowments. Survey employers. Promote healthy competition consistent with the standards and ideals of each discipline. Any funding contraption that pits one academic unit against another will eventually have a negative impact on both student and university. Even Rube Goldberg would see it.

John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, in his February 16, 2012, online commentary, suggests that Americans are over-regulating themselves, with good intentions but lousy results. His analysis of Dodd-Frank is worthwhile and applicable to regulation or assessment efforts in higher education. He suggests that “hubris” allows lawmakers to believe that they can control every possible situation, and that “complexity” – and I would add precision – gives an appearance of thoughtful oversight, while providing cover for actions that might be difficult to justify.

Poorly planned, performance-based funding standards unwittingly create an environment where the cannibalization of educational opportunities is the result of a seemingly sincere effort to achieve a university’s mission.

Our universities, and the leaders that guide them, must adopt sustainable performance benchmarks that measure academic quality and always align the efforts of all educational units to the best interests of students.


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