(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)
In many universities the Spring term signals the start of assessment season, that time when administrative superiors review and assess their faculty inferiors (from the point of view of administrative chains of command). That assessment, increasingly has come to be understood as necessarily based on objective measures. That move has given comfort to both assessor and assessed, though for quite distinct reasons.
The objectification of the assessable individual is itself an inevitable product of the embrace by universities worldwide of a self conception increasingly described in terms of production, of learning factories (see here, here, here and here). Universities produce "things" (tangible and intangible) that can be measured, the production of which can be assigned with a fair degree of specification to various factors deployed in the production of these "things." These production lines can be structured for identification and assessment at the macro level (producing graduates for successful insertion in wage labor markets; alumni for post graduation giving; successful participants in government for access to centers of political and societal power, etc.). Yet they are also useful at the micro level (creating structured objectives to assess both instruction (maximizing content for achieving macro objective goals)), and the success in implanting those objectives into their recipients (the student)).
This post considers some of the elements and consequences of this move toward a bifurcation fo assessment along the lines of a factory model and its effects on the shape of productivity within the university.
1. Assessment inverts the relationship between the measure and the object of measurement. That is, assessment, the measure of the person, serves as the means by which that object of assessment is herself reduced to the aggregation of the measures applied to her in the service of the objectives of those who developed the measures and those who would apply them. Universities are moving from the ancient insight of Protagoras that "Man is the measure of all things), to its inversion--the sum of the measure becomes the individual. This transformation is not internal, but external. It provides the means through which third persons, usually institutional third persons, can reconstitute individuals into sets of characteristics that are standardized, comparable, and valued against each other (and the ideal standard that is sometimes enmeshed in these measure systems). The faculty member is not the measure of all things. She is the "thing" measured against the objectives and needs f the university and reconstituted for that purpose into a set of corporeal contributions to those objectives (and to that extent only -- valued as such might be calculated within markets for those aggregated "positives" she brings to the institution). Assessment of the sort embraced by our learning factories, then, both dehumanizes its object, and advances the techniques through which the individual is further transformed into a tool directed to the production of a set of intended actions. Assessment provides the means of making tangible the more abstract legal notion of the servant.
2. Objectives based assessment, at its extreme, abstracts the individual, who disappears into the data through which she is reconstituted. An individual faculty member, bound within the web of objectives based measures, is necessarily transformed from an individual, autonomous and unique, to the aggregation of her measure against those objectives. She disappears within the aggregated measures that together define her individuality in the construct "faculty member." Thus intangibly reconstituted as a sum of assessable measures she is capable of placement within that greater intangible manifestation of order and productive capacities--the university learning factory. Her value, and her measure, is reduced to her value in contributing to those factors that are deemed of value to the role of universities in knowledge and labor value chains. She disappears to re-emerge transformed, and useful in accordance to the meaning of that ideal within a greater abstraction, the university. To a large extent, then, assessment is not a means of engaging with the individual faculty member. It is instead a means of re-imagining that individual as a collection of useful characteristics valued fr their marginal contribution to the production of value for the institution. Collectively, the faculty became the statistic from within which its component parts may be measured against each other (even as all are measured against an ideal measure).
3. The objectification of value measures creates value hierarchies in faculty work reflecting the tastes of the institutional master over that of the servant. At many universities the differences in valuation strategies among faculties and the institutional masters they serve (at least to the extent of their legal relationship; it being assumed that faculty are not deemed comprehensively under the control of their institutions with respect to the sum of their lives and creative activities) are evident in a number of ways. Most universities measure the value of scholarly production in a number of ways that tend to skew the result in ways that advance quite particular and arbitrary institutional interests. Consider the popularity of measuring research effectiveness principally by the amount of funds secured through grants and other sources of outside funding. Those measures tend to increase the value of faculty in fields where such outside source ecologies are well established as against faculty in fields where outside funding is either irrelevant to production or within which lower aggregate funds are available. But the measure does more than produce uneven spaces for measurement of effectiveness across fields, it also signals the sort of behaviors that are valued as against alternatives. A faculty member is measured against and becomes the sum of her ability to generate (and spread) outside funding. At the extreme, that is what she becomes, the aggregate present value of outside funding. In other fields counting has become an obsessive focus of reconstituting individuals. One is transformed into the aggregate of statistics of actions or occurrences that might manifest value as understood institutionally. Everything is valued and counted--the number of publications, the value of the venue in which publication occurs, the rate of citation, the measure of the value of the sources of citations, etc. One is worried less about qualitative issues and more about quantifiable measures into which quality is subsumed. Yet form the institutional perspective this makes perfect sense--the institution ought to care less about what is written than how that writing can be translated into an enhancement of the institutional productive capacity.
4. The assessment exercise for faculty consequently can become ritualized and empty. In small departments where the traditional close and more horizontal relationship among faculty and their front line administrators remains intact, the consequences of statistical abstraction can be resisted through the survival of earlier patterns of interaction and assessment. But even here, the power of the statistical ideal has a powerful effect on shaping assessment and self assessment. This ought to be understood as perverse in a field of production (knowledge production and dissemination) which might be understood as at its most powerful when it is least constrained by the discipline of factory production cultures). But individuals, even as reconstructed abstractions, need to eat. At the micro level they will conform to those value systems that produce larger rewards that can be banked outside the institution for other personal purposes. In many places, however, that produces a trend toward the ritualization of review. One receives a set of assessments grounded in a data driven quantified set of measures. One accepts these and seeks guidance on better conforming one's behavior to the attainment of statistically based improvement. To question either the form of data generation or its analysis is to show bad attitude--the ritual does not expect individual engagement with the statistic, but rather is based on an expectation submission to the statistic. That, after all, is the only possible way open for the abstracted individual confronted with the value hierarchies against which her statistical self is measured. For an individual to assert her individuality within these ritual engagement is to engage in system threatening rebellion--which will be suppressed on grounds of aberration, bad attitude, and disruptive deviaiton.
5. Objectification widens the distance between cultures of assessing faculty those those of assessing administrators. This sort of quantification reductionism at the heart of trends in faculty assessment are nowhere present in the assessment of administrators. These are the individuals who retain a wider ambit of utility--they are the representatives, the manifestations in corporeal form, of the institutional master. For these manifestations there is another regime of assessment at many institutions. These are regimes of qualitative and individualized assessment. This is assessment grounded in the particularities of the office that the individual serves as measured against more intangible objectives--stability, enhancement of objectifiable measures among institutional servants, and political effectiveness. The administrator stands in a wholly different relationship to the university than the faculty member. And those differences are increasingly manifested in this distinct approaches to assessment and measurement. While the individuality of faculty shrinks and is transformed into clusters of statistics against which this statistical aggregation can be measured, the individuality of the administrator grows, the Shepard is permitted a personality and the space for heroic action (the ultimate mark of individual discretion) increasingly denied his servants.
6. That Assessment differentiation hardens the "class" differences between administrators and faculty making shared governance more unequal. But it also serves to increase power hierarchies between workers (faculty) whose assessment is quantified and objectified, and supervisors (administrators) whose assessment remains far more qualitative and subjective. The effect on shared governance is easy to discern as a necessary consequence of these distinctions increasingly hard wired into the cultural expectations of behavior assessment of these different classes. Administrators are trained for and assessed by the exercise of discretion, of assessment, of politics and policy. They are assessed on the strength of their ability to engage in these practices to the aggregate benefit of the institution as it has come to understand this. The quantifiable mass that is the faculty member is socially trained, the expectations pointed away from those traits that are enhanced in administrative culture and expectations. A university stakeholder assessed away from the exercise of power would be deemed incapable of that exercise. We move, culturally speaking, from an expectation of policy politics among equals serving distinct functions within a university (active faculty and former faculty now serving administrative roles) to a hierarchically arranged institutional structures in which administrators acquire class distinctions (measured and assessed as such) quite distinct from that of faculty. It is in this sense that I have written before about the changing nature of the faculty role in shared governance (On the Importance of Transparency and the Relentless Pursuit of Knowledge in the Sandusky Affair--Governance in a New Era; see also here, here, here and here).
7. What is to be done? This brief assessment of the state of assessment on the cultures of the realities of power within the university ought not to be understood as necessarily critical. Part of what must be done is to accept the realities of deep cultural, societal, and industrial trends, and of the difficulty of resistance against actions and movements set in motion a generation or more ago. But acceptance comes in many flavors. I would resist passivity in the face of societal movements such as this where engagement can be effective. And engagement can be effective here. Even as the faculty is changed by its recasting as statistic, it has a great power to affect the nature of those statistics and the manner in which they are deployed. It is not just the university and its administrators that, quite correctly serving their own interests build statistical measures to suit their needs. Faculty can do the same, and likely as effectively. That requires concerted faculty action--conversation, the development of measures and the instance that they be used. It requires the willingness to assess the assessment techniques deployed now and to move for change. It is here that shared governance can be at its most effective--over time. At the same time, faculty can also engage in the manner and form of administrative assessment. There is no reason that the university's servants be divided into faculty and administrative classes. Equalizing assessment measures, contextually relevant of course, would further a policy of deeper engagement and more effective production and dissemination, the principal product of the university. This means, in the first instance, that faculty assessment recapture its qualitative element, and conversely, that administrative review, transparent, include objective measures. It also requires that the collective institutional representatives of the senate work collectively to serve as a monitoring and accountability center for the actions of the other sectors of the university. It is in shared governance, and in faculty assessment of objective measures deployed to discipline administration and university, that a fair balance of disciplinary assessment and reward might be developed--and all in the service of the university and its mission.