Reining in grades, reining in "the university?"

I’ve come across three kinda short-ish, unrelated, and still somehow connected articles about the “state of the university” and what that might mean in terms of where where we’re going in the short, medium, and long(ish) terms.

First, there’s this CNN article about Princeton trying to control the percentage of “As” it gives out to students. Predictably, the administration wants to give out fewer “excellent” grades.

Second, there’s this interesting discussion in Inside Higher Ed: “What Should the U.S. Commission Do?” As the first paragraph of the article says:

On Monday, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced the creation of a national Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She said the panel would help develop a “comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education,� exploring such issues as access, affordability, and higher education’s role in reversing America’s declining competitiveness in the world economy.

The rest of this article is different folks view on the whole thing, which basically seems to be “it’s too early to tell/we don’t want any more regulations/it’s never a bad idea to study our practices.”

And third, also on the Inside Higher Ed web site, comes this Q&A with the writers of a new book called Remaking the American University. Among other things, the authors are worried about universities becoming all about “the bottom line” (as in “What worries us most is that universities and colleges have become so preoccupied with succeeding in a world of markets that they too often forget the need to be places of public purpose as well.”), the problems with rankings by outfits like U.S. News and World Report, the problems with doing institutional assessment (“people don’t like assessment if it is done to them”), problems with academic publishing, and about technology in the classroom (“Not until faculty members, for their own reasons and purposes, decide that Web-based instruction offers both important and sustainable advantages will major changes in collegiate teaching actually happen — regardless of how attractive distance education becomes”).

I have a lot of different thoughts about this, but because I have a lot of other things to do right now, I’ll just list them and let you fill in the blanks at your leisure:

  • Few things are less interesting to me than grades.
  • One of these things includes institutional assessment.
  • I am sure that the ancient Greeks also complained about grade inflation at Plato’s Academy. They might have complained about institutional assessment, too.
  • I suspect that this commission to study American universities will not go far because a) “No Child Left Behind” has been a bad policy that is unlikely to be repeated easily, b) American universities pretty much have their act together in terms of assessment and competiting on an international level, and c) if this commission turns into a “political witch hunt,” then I suspect they won’t get as far as they want to get.
  • Of course, I agree that it’s a bad thing for universities to remake themselves in the model of for-profit corporations. On the other hand, if the funding for public universities is going to steadily decrease, then the money to pay the bills has to come from somewhere. And tuition increases alone ain’t going to make up the difference.
  • The only thing that is reassuring about all this is history because academia has more or less been down these paths many times before.

Update:
My colleague Bill Hart-Davidson sent me a link to this article on Economist.com, “The brain business.” It’s an excellent piece that shows the view from “across the pond” and how similar it is to here. Oh, and there is a list of the “top 20 universities in the world,” based on some dubious measures by a university in Japan. Of the 20 schools, one was Japanese, two were British, and 13 were in the U.S.

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