volume 39, number 3
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald
Where Assessment Should Begin (and Be Sustained)
Frank Friedman, Professor of Computer Science, Chairperson of the Editorial Board of The TU Faculty Herald

Frank Friedman,

Professor of Computer Science, Chairperson of the Editorial Board of The TU Faculty Herald

In the December, 2008, issue of the Herald, Phil Yanella sounded a refrain I have heard repeatedly, especially in recent years. Phil’s concern focused on efforts that students devote to learning:

I wrote this letter to raise the issue of student effort, or lack of effort, as a predicate for learning, or lack of learning, whatever the instructional “delivery” format and teaching skills of the instructor. I think we have a big problem at Temple. I think our industry has a big problem.

I recall agreeing with Phil that we had a problem, and I recall beginning to think about its causes, when I read Steve Zelnick’s letter in the same issue of the Herald. In his letter, Steve outlined his concerns for the academic quality at Temple. The letter concluded with the following sentence.

In a recent radio ad, I heard Temple boast itself as an entrepreneurial university. I expect we are and have been doing well. I do wonder whether we are, at the same time, doing much good.

This is, in my mind, one of the most pertinent questions I have heard voiced in three and-a-half decades at Temple. It addresses Phil’s concerns, and many issues we tend not to think about as we go about our daily tasks.

It is easy for any organization, no matter how well intentioned, to lose sight of whether it is doing much good. It is easy for us to become immersed in the daily and often mundane aspects of our jobs and forget about our mission. But for universities, which should exist to “do good,” this is an especially sad state of affairs. If we are allowed to go too long without revisiting our mission, and verifying that we are largely in tune with this mission, we invite many problems and failures.

I am concerned that Temple may be headed down this path. And in the larger scheme of higher education in America, I fear we are not alone. Words and statistics are nice, as are clever strategies and ambitious long term plans. But after a while, they ring hollow, if our daily actions cease to reflect our mission. Unfortunately, I think Temple's leaders, perhaps overwhelmed by daily activities and crises and the need to generate new and thoughtful initiatives (even those supposedly consistent with our mission), have already begun to lose sight of the question of whether we are doing much good in the important area of preparing our undergraduate students for life after Temple.

One can stay on mission in the large, with wondrous, sometimes overly expensive and extensive plans to “do good.” But to stay on mission in the small, or "in the trenches," takes daily attention to detail and to the needs of faculty and students. I am not sure how we are doing here, and frankly, I think this issue needs more attention, and on a regular basis. It cannot simply be addressed every 5, 7, or 10 years.

I am not now a department chair. But when I was, I viewed the job as a position of service to my faculty colleagues and to our students. To properly do the job required enormous effort from me and the rest of my colleagues. It was they who did the work. It was they who kept the department afloat and worked to ensure that we paid proper attention to all our students, and to our educational programs and services, and not just our research, RAs and grants.

Let me be clear -- research is, and must remain, an important part of the mission of Temple University. It brings in money, generates new knowledge, and advances our reputation as a fine university. But when we collectively fail to do the rest of our daily jobs as teachers, leaders, and advisors, and when we fail to demand more from and give more to our students, then we are truly failing to do much good as an institution that serves the people of the city of Philadelphia and its suburbs or the state. Sorry to say, but neither the faculty reward structure, nor our student grading mechanisms, nor our over-zealous reliance on assessment graphs and numbers, nor our management attitudes are helping much in this regard. We do not do enough to create real value from teaching and service.

In a December 22, 2008 Newsweek article (“What Obama Needs to Know”, p. 37), Charles Peters addressed the issue of how institutional leaders can stay abreast of what is really happening on the home front, albeit from an entirely different perspective. Peters wrote that the top leaders of an institution (in this case, the government of the United States) must understand (1) the need for everyone in an organization to be “clear about their assignments, not just the brass,” and (2) that “making sure a policy is implemented properly is just as important as making sure the policy is right.”

Peters quoted Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), who said that a leader must “reach down – and outside – the chain of command to learn the facts on the ground.” Peters went on to discuss the need for a leader to be curious and be able to ask the right questions of the right people. And he made it clear that the right people were not always top level staffers and managers, who often tell the leader what s/he wants to hear and often have a vested interest in protecting their own domains.

This is no less an issue for university leaders, as it is in government and the corporate world. Getting the right picture of whether an institution is doing any good is extremely demanding, exhausting work that is not often rewarded. It is work that produces few headlines, yet can do more to ensure that an organization holds true to its mission and is achieving its goals. It is work that requires every day probing and regular reviews of effort – not just one-to-one performance reviews in the abstract, but group performance assessments related to what Temple, as an institution, should be doing for its employees and its students. It seems to me that many of our leaders, from committee and department chairs on up, do not have the time nor the inclination to become involved in such an ongoing effort.

For example, do we really know if we are appropriately preparing our students, professionally and educationally (knowledge and skills), or are we accepting shoddy work from them, giving passing grades for failing work, and being too polite or laissez-faire about attendance and other behavioral and professional issues? Are we being too sympathetic to the hardships (some clearly real, others perhaps imposed by student self-indulgence) that keep our students from doing their work? On the other side, are we properly monitoring our teaching performance and insisting on the use of educational models that get students more involved in their own education and that of their peers? Are we hiring TAs and faculty who cannot communicate effectively and are not in academia to teach? Are we effectively managing our curricula as a sensible progression from one level of knowledge and skill to the next, and insisting on high quality instructional and student performance at all levels of non-majors as well as majors courses? Are we taking advantage of the strengths of our faculty or trying to force all of them into the same primary mode of operation? Are we taking advantage of internal (interaction with students) and external assessment mechanisms (post-graduate qualification exams and job performance assessments) as well as we might? Demanding more of our students requires more of ourselves. Assessing our performance demands more. Will Temple’s leaders do more to recognize those who do more, and provide the resources needed for those who manage and assess curriculum and its instruction?

As we head into the new year, with the Middle States assessment bearing down on us, it is important that we begin now to establish whether we are appropriately demanding and compassionate, and taking care of our own as our founders would have wanted. Middle States assessment may indeed be all about massive printed reports, tables, graphs, and statistics. But our own self evaluations must be more personal and become a recognized part of our mission and a standard part of our daily routine. Issuing commands from on high is not enough if no one is asking if we are doing much good.