Developing an Accountability System for Public Universities: Some Lessons Learned

Article excerpt

growing public concern over the escalating cost and a perception of declining quality of undergraduate education has caused many state legislatures to focus attention on university performance and productivity Once seemingly immune from public scrutiny, because they compete directly for scarce public funding with other state agencies, public universities are being called upon to demonstrate that they are sound fiscal investments. Increasingly, states are promulgating policies linking university funding levels to institutional productivity. As each state seeks to establish performance standards for institutional accountability, the Florida experience points to the complexity in the planning and implementing process. University accountability is a many-sided issue which, if not carefully planned and implemented, can negatively affect institutional funding and frustrate or impede proper evaluation and fiscal assessment. The lessons learned from attempting to develop an accountability system for public universities will be of interest to governmental accountants and auditors.

In 1991, the Florida Legislature enacted Section 240.214, Florida Statutes, which required the State University System (SUS) to develop and implement an accountability process that would provide for the systematic, ongoing evaluation of the quality and effectiveness of the system. The intent was to establish an accountability process that would enable the monitoring and evaluation of universities' performance in the areas of instruction, research and service, while taking into consideration the differing missions of each of the state's nine public universities.2 While the statute does not define accountability, the inference can be drawn from the statutory requirements that accountability refers to the systematic evaluation of universities to determine whether they are producing the results for which they are funded, and whether they are doing so in an efficient and effective manner. As a guide to the accountability planning process, the statute directed the SUS to address a minimum of nine prescribed performance standards (see Table 1).

As a first step toward establishing a system of accountability, the SUS administrators, directed by statute, formed an accountability committee to assist with the development of an accountability plan Constituting the committee were representatives from the SUS, the Florida Legislature, the Postsecondary Education Planning Commission (PEPC), the public universities, the Governor's Office and the Office of the Auditor General.

Although the statute stipulated the accountability performance measures to be addressed, these measures did not immediately foster consensus among committee members. In the initial stages of the planning process, committee members' divergent perceptions of educational accountability and its interrelated issues began to unfold. At times, disparate perceptions of accountability in general and the statutory requirements in particular led to circular discussions that minimized consensus and slowed the planning process. After five years of planning, implementing, monitoring and assessing accountability, several important lessons were learned. This article attempts to recapitulate some of these lessons.

Before we turn to the lessons learned, it may be pertinent to point out that planning and implementing a system of accountability for public universities is a challenging process. The Florida case has shown that while the SUS was able to develop a systemwide accountability plan within one year, implementation of planned policies had to be phased in over a five-year period. Phased implementation was done so as to minimize disruptions in institutional functions and reduce undue financial strain that could have resulted from drastic operational changes.

Overall, the reporting of institutional productivity data proved to be the most difficult part of the implementation process. …