Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

How Do We Know a "Continuous Planning" Academic Program When We See One?

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

How Do We Know a "Continuous Planning" Academic Program When We See One?

Article excerpt


In the early 1990s, following numerous reports criticizing colleges and universities for inadequate responsiveness, a number of higher education leaders began advocating "total quality management" (TQM) principles borrowed from business (Chaffee & Sherr, 1992; Change, 1993; Seymour, 1993; Sherr & Teeter, 1991). Feeling squeezed between declining public opinion on one side, and cuts in public funding on the other, they hoped TQM might resolve the difficult question: How can higher education continue to meet new societal demands without the ability to expand? Throughout the postwar period, public funding for higher education had increased to cover the costs of rising enrollments and new branches of learning. More often than not, dissatisfaction with the status quo had been remedied by adding new options rather than by making difficult choices among competing priorities. By the late 1980s, however, most college administrators and national leaders had become convinced that retrenchment, which had begun with the oil crisis of the early 1970s, was a permanent condition, not merely a short-term aberration. This meant that emergency belt-tightening measures, no matter how necessary or painful, would not be sufficient over time because they failed to address the more fundamental question of how to survive, let alone thrive, in a zero-growth economy.

TQM appeared promising as a strategy for improving effectiveness under steady state conditions because it focused on setting very clear priorities for investing resources and reducing waste. It advocated organizing personnel into teams committed to a mission that focused on the needs and preferences of external stakeholders, and it called on the teams to base their decisions on objective data rather than on subjective assumptions.

Many academic personnel, however, responded negatively to TQM. Among other reasons, they were put off by the application of business language to education, such as calling students "customers", and graduates "products." They believed that quality was already their goal and that more management was not needed to achieve higher levels of excellence. Furthermore, many were suspicious that in practice TQM initiatives would emphasize increased productivity and cost cutting rather than quality.

Nonetheless, a number of higher education leaders saw benefits to TQM if it could be adapted for the higher education environment. Some called this adapted approach continuous quality improvement (or initiative) (CQI) (Marchese, 1991, 1992). CQI encouraged colleges and universities to place a greater emphasis on constituent input and satisfaction, in essence, defining excellence in more service-oriented terms than it had been defined previously. The words "continuous" and "improvement" (or "initiative") fit better with academic sensibilities and expectations than did the heavy-handed sound of "total" and "management."

During a burst of CQI initiatives on various campuses in the mid1990s, my colleagues and I began to notice that few were drawing parallels between the need to continuously improve various administrative systems and the need to continuously reshape the curriculum to meet changing conditions and interests. It seemed to us there could be no function within the academy that called for more continuous vigilance and responsiveness than the college curriculum. Research by Stark and colleagues (1988) had found that the majority of faculty members constantly adjusted their individual courses to keep them up-to-date and to improve their effectiveness, but we wondered whether we could find examples of similar ongoing adaptation at the program level. That is, could we find models of department-level curriculum planning that engaged groups of faculty members in frequent reappraisal of the content, processes, resources, and outcomes of their program curricula? Previous interview studies suggested that faculty members were not accustomed to thinking about curriculum planning as a program level activity and often reverted to describing their own individual course planning when asked to discuss program planning in their departments (Stark et al. …

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