By Richard Vedder
I have often stated "there is no bottom line in higher education." It is very difficult to assess performance when there are few good "metrics" that make objective evaluation possible. Therefore, when people call for the head of a university president, usually it is difficult to reach an unambiguous conclusion about the merits of the case. Did Larry Summers do a good or bad job at Harvard? I suspect some evidence can be gathered on both sides of that issue.
All of this has come home to me in a very personal way, big time recently. I have been disturbed for some time about what appears to be signs of decline at my university, Ohio University. Along with several other of the university's most senior professors (measured primarily by research accomplishment), I wrote a letter calling for changing leadership in my institution, and, at his request, sent a copy to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. The letter was then sent by the University to the press (!!), and now the school is embroiled in controversy.
In the letter, we noted that retention rates were down, that real per student endowments were faltering relative to peer institutions, and that the quality of incoming students was not rising like it was at our main competitors. All of this can be demonstrated empirically. We also made some more normative judgments about leadership style, handling of campus crises, etc. Our feelings are held by many others, and no less than 4 evaluations or non-confidence votes in the president are being held in the next 10 days, and the majority opinion is that these evaluations will be overwhelmingly negative.
Yet the President has his supporters. And, frankly, some of the critical information that would be useful in evaluating the state of the university under his leadership is simply unavailable. Do students graduate knowing more than when they entered? Are graduates of the university leading fulfilling lives five years after attending the school? Do new graduates feel their education was a good investment? And has the answers regarding any of these questions changed materially over the years the current president has run the institution? Honestly, I don't know the answers to these questions. Nor do the Trustees who hire the leaders of our institutions --they operate with far less information than is desirable. That is another reason why the Spellings Commission calls for more assessment and transparency in university operations is important.