Pointing to an increasing national and University focus on self-assessment, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey announced last week a new position within the Dean’s Office to be charged with coordinating all the University’s surveys.
Judith Hackman has assumed the new position of Associate Dean of Assessment in addition to her current role as the director of the Teaching Fellows program in the graduate school, Salovey said.
The Dean’s Office created the new position in response to both the University’s increased desire for studies and surveys to serve as information about the effectiveness of its policies, and an increasing national focus on quantifying the impacts of a school’s curriculum, Salovey said.
The University’s upcoming re-accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges is fast approaching — a process that happens once every 10 years. In addition, the YCDO and the Office of Institutional Research are launching this spring a series of student surveys to assess the impacts of a new college curriculum adopted by the University after a 2003 report by the Committee on Yale College Education. The upcoming projects alerted administrators to the need for a centralized office for coordinating the projects, he said.
“We have greater aspirations than we had in the past for collecting data on ourselves,” Salovey said. “There’s a national interest coming from the Department of Education and others to be more refined in a quantifiable way about the impact of the education we offer. It also just so happened that we are coming up on the end of the accreditation cycle. That’s a lot of work.”
Hackman said the re-accreditation and self-assessment of the undergraduate curriculum will be her major focus next year, and she is not sure what her future projects will be afterwards.
“There are two or three major things,” Hackman said. “I’m still learning and talking to people.”
Hackman served as a staff member during the University’s accreditation process in 1979, coordinated the effort in 1989 and served a more limited role in 1999 — “resting,” as she put it.
Hackman has augmented her duties within the graduate school by serving as Dean of Administrative Affairs in the Dean’s Office for several years. She will give up those duties, she said, to assume her new role.
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said her experience coordinating a large “system” like the Teaching Fellows program prepares her to coordinate the University’s surveys.
“She’s excellent at what she does,” he said. “She’s managed a joint appointment within Yale College and the graduate school very well for some time, and I have no doubt she’ll continue to do so.”
In her new role, Salovey said Hackman will coordinate between the YCDO, OIR, the President’s Office and other University bodies to plan, implement and analyze University-wide surveys and studies.
Both Salovey and Hackman pointed to increasing pressure from the federal government and regional accreditation agencies on institutions of higher education to provide outcome-based self-assessment.
In 2006, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a report recommending that universities and colleges actively gauge and publish educational outcomes of their students, such as time to degree and graduation rates.
And Pat O’Brien, the deputy director of the Commission on Higher Education at NEASC, the body that will evaluate the University for re-accreditation in two years, agreed that there is a larger push for universities to publish data on the impact of their curriculum.
“There’s an increasing expectation that colleges and universities will be able to state clearly the outcomes of their education, and then provide some way of measuring student achievement of those outcomes,” O’Brien said. “The measures might be quantitative or qualitative, but the expectation would be that the university collects data about student achievement.”
O’Brien said this trend has been ongoing for at least two decades.
A more local reason for Yale’s newfound focus on relying on social-science-style data as evidence may be that two of its top administrators, University President Richard Levin and Salovey, have backgrounds in social science. Levin was trained as an economist and Salovey is a psychologist.
Salovey agreed that his and the President’s training may at least make it easier for them to evaluate the University on the basis of numbers.
“Both the President and I find it comfortable and familiar to think this way,” Salovey said.
But at least some university officials around the country have protested the increased national focus on quantification, O’Brien said, citing the fact that some of what a university does is not easily quantified, such as developing leadership skills in its students.
“I think the resistance that some colleges and universities may feel is with a concern that trying to quantify may lead to a too simplistic understanding of the complex goals that universities often have for their students,” O’Brien said. “Many of the goals our colleges and universities have for their students are indeed difficult to quantify and difficult to measure.”
For example, Hofstra University professor of fine arts Laurie Fendrich wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in June 2007 that outcomes-assessment of colleges and universities fails to account for “the holistic nature of a good college education” and represents a “wholesale abandonment of the very idea of higher education.”
But O’Brien insisted that if colleges and universities devote enough time and creativity toward assessment, they can find a way to measure abstract skills.
“[Self-assessment] is meant to be an intense endeavor that involves many members of the campus community,” O’Brien said. “The hope is that it is internally useful, that it isn’t something that is done just for the sake of the accreditation committee, but becomes an important planning document.”
Even administrators outside the social sciences agreed that increased self-evaluation is a step in the right direction. Butler, who is a history professor, said as long as survey designers choose correct methods for measuring abstract educational impacts, increased surveys can improve quality.
“We’ve begun to do a much better job of assessing teaching, first in Yale College and then in the graduate school,” Butler said. “We’re ramping up our self-assessment and that’s a very good thing to do.”
Hackman received a master’s degree in educational research from Southern Connecticut University and holds a doctoral degree in higher education.