Accountability is a slippery term, with a range from the bland to the condemnatory. It can sound like a call for a straightforward account of what someone is trying to achieve, or it can be a demand to make numbers tell the whole story. Accountants then will be in the driver’s seat. But nowadays it’s more often a demand that those responsible for serious wrong doing be brought to justice. That’s the way that “Marie,” a rape victim in New Orleans used it; she had to wait 18 years for a proper investigation before she could see any justice. “What I’d really like so see now is some form of accountability,” the AP reported she said. That’s a powerful and appropriate use of the word.
The nice things about the term for a politician is that it is so easy to slip from one sense to another. That is especially the case when the word jumps out of the court room and flops around in higher education. That’s been happening at least since the 1980s but its big moment on the higher education stage came in 2006 when Mrs. Margaret Spellings, then Secretary of Education in George W. Bush’s administration, released the report of the commission that bears her name but is properly called The Commission on the Future of Higher Education. A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US. Higher Education had dozens of passages where “accountability” was the dominant word, and it had a whole section devoted to how to achieve it. The report often sounded as if it were calling a notorious criminal, alias higher education, before a kangaroo court.
The Report's criterion for judgment seemed to be quantitative measures of job readiness. Workforce readiness is the goal. Consider, for example, the wording“ … to create an efficient, transparent and cost-effective system needed to enhance student mobility and meet U.S. workforce needs.” (p.25). As Johann Neem pointed out in “Margaret Spellings’ Vision for Higher Education,” an incisive essay in Inside Higher Ed, words such as liberal education, or liberal arts never appear in the body of the report.
The Spellings commission was one big shoe dropping. Here in North Carolina where Mrs. Spellings has just been named president of the state’s university system, we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. She has not publicly set forth her agenda, but the obvious move for her is to put into practice across the 16 public institutions of higher education in the state the recommendations, and the tone, of her Commission’s report, along with quantifiable measures of accountability, with resources allocated to put teeth in the accountability system.
WHOA! Wait a minute! Isn’t she accountable, too? Should she not be judged by her ability to articulate a vision for the university that reaches beyond workforce readiness, that reaffirms the core values of these institutions and that provides the leadership and musters the resources to help each institution realize that vision? Should there not be a system-wide faculty committee, self-appointed if necessary, to hold the system presidential accountable to the highest standards of educational excellence? Maybe that’s the other shoe that needs to be dropped.