Accountability report tracks progress by UT

By Patrick Mcgee, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
March 12, 2004

AUSTIN - The University of Texas System is hoping to set a model for other higher-education institutions by taking new steps in tracking the progress of its campuses.

The system's accountability report tracks the progress of about 130 variables at the system's nine academic and six health campuses. Retention and graduation rates are expected to be of greatest interest to the legislature and public. Research will also be of interest for the economic benefits it brings.

"It looks at what we do with the money and how well we're doing with the money," Chancellor Mark Yudof said. "The public needs to know that."

The system is expected to publish and post on its Web site the more than 360-page report next week.

The report shows many campuses ahead of the state's enrollment goals, but system officials said they were surprised by low graduation rates.

"Only UT-Austin and UT-Dallas are above the national average six-year graduation rate of 50.7 percent," the report said.

UT-Arlington's six-year graduation rate is 36.4 percent.

The report found encouraging news on research, however, calculating that the system had $1.45 billion in research expenditures for 2003. Most of it was in the system's health campuses, such as UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The figure was a 57 percent increase over 1999.

"Apart from the University of California System, the UT System probably has the greatest research clout right now in the country," said Geri Malandra, associate vice chancellor for accountability and institutional improvement.

Regents hailed Malandra's report as a national model as Congress considers accountability measures and a state legislative committee prepares to meet March 22 to talk about a statewide higher-education accountability system that Gov. Rick Perry ordered to be formed by December.

The UT System's accountability report is not an effort to get ahead of the curve but an effort to take a leadership role.

"I think of it as a gold-standard example, setting the national standard," said board Chairman Charles Miller, who testified before a congressional committee about accountability in May.

Creating a system

Yudof created an accountability system for the University of Minnesota when he was president there from 1997 to 2002. Malandra helped as Yudof's vice provost for academic affairs. She followed him to Texas and has been working on accountability for the past 15 months.

Minnesota state legislators said Yudof effectively used the accountability system of 80 or so performance measures to win lawmakers' support for his programs.

"In areas where he was trying to build up a department, monies would be shifted from less populated or less critical programs into those areas," said Peggy Leppik, former chairwoman of the Minnesota House Higher Education Finance Committee. "He had this all mapped out. Anybody could ask, and he would tell what are the areas important for the university."

Deanna Wiener, former chairwoman of the Minnesota Senate higher-education budget committee, said Yudof appeared to have a clear idea where he wanted to go when he used the accountability system to report to her committee.

"I think it gave the legislators more confidence on filling the budget request," she said. "It helped us, as legislators, trust what they're doing."

Yudof said his accountability system for the UT System won't hide the warts but put the spotlight on things that need improvement.

"This is probably the most complete report that I know of nationally," he said. "I want it all out there."

Nationwide attention

Experts say accountability, an issue long on higher-education chiefs' radar screens, is starting to catch the attention of elected officials. Legislators are looking for ways to measure progress as the cost of higher education skyrockets and policymakers realize college graduation rates must increase for a more competitive work force.

"By the late 1990s, there really was a general recognition that higher education was really the key to state success in a competitive global economy, and without a four-year college degree citizens couldn't really expect to have much of a middle-class life," said Joseph Burke, director of the Higher Education Program at the Albany, N.Y.-based Rockefeller Institute of Government.

"Everybody recognizes that educational achievement is more important," said Paul Lingenfelter, executive director of State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Last month, the Denver-based organization formed a commission to review accountability systems being formed in different states and find the best approaches.

The commission's co-chairmen are former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and Richard Riley, the former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. secretary of education. Texas has a voice on the commission, too, with Kenneth Ashworth, the state's former higher-education commissioner who now holds joint appointments in government studies at UT-Austin and Texas A&M University.

Ashworth said he believes accountability is becoming more popular because legislators want more "bang for the buck" and want to be able to show their constituents that tuition and state contributions are invested wisely.

Ashworth said he worries, however, that new accountability systems might put too much emphasis on specific goals, such as graduation rates.

"My personal philosophy is education is sort of like research. When you put money into research projects, you can't identify which individual project is going to pay off," he said. "We don't know what it is that we need to get out of education, just like we don't know what it is we want to get out of research. ... You don't want to pay just for successful students because then you might skew the whole enterprise of education."

Lingenfelter said the commission will hope to share the best ideas about accountability and let officials know what not to try.

He said South Carolina created an accountability system that awarded progress in areas that legislators identified as important. It turned out, however, to be an example of what not to do, Lingenfelter said.

"South Carolina did this and then found out they achieved little but paperwork," he said. "If you try to do things like this by formula, what you usually end up doing is getting a lot of unintended consequences."

When the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board talked about accountability at its October meeting, board members talked of creating an accountability system to track the state's three-year-old effort to boost college enrollments.

Board members said any new accountability system would have to be simple, with few goals, and not include the creation of a new bureaucracy.

But UT System's new accountability system includes more than 130 variables.

Burke said an accountability system can only work if it has a few clear goals agreed upon by representatives of the public along with higher-education officials.

"People outside higher education will want to have everything done, and then they won't want to pay for it," Burke said. "You've got to get all those people sitting down together and talking and say, 'OK, what does Texas need most?' "

Malandra said she hopes the report will be a step toward meeting with "stake holders" and using the variables as a foundation to set goals.


ONLINE: To view the UT System report online, go to www.utsystem.edu
Patrick McGee, (817) 548-5476 pmcgee@star-telegram.com