Politicians, parents and taxpayers are demanding that universities assess the quality of education, but something is fundamentally wrong with the way educators evaluate their own institutions, according to Donald T. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System.
"We university people generally provide a few file cabinets' worth of statistics from our institutional research offices, accompanied by some soothing words to the effect that we're really doing a terrific job of teaching our students," Dr. Langenberg said last week in his role as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"And there are a few educators who take the position that institutions are really doing a lousy job of teaching," he said.
"None of us, in my opinion, can really back up our claims with credible, scientifically convincing evidence."
What's basically wrong, Dr. Langenberg told 5,000 colleagues at the AAAS annual meeting that ended last week in Washington, is this:
"There exists a significant and substantial body of scientific knowledge upon which we could build systems for assessing the effects of our educational institutions on the development of their students."
But, he added, experts in the cognitive, behavioral and social sciences who could "tell us a lot about what we can measure and what we can't measure" generally are not "involved in the assessment process."
In other words, universities do have the scientific tools to evaluate how students are educated and what they learn, but educators are not using them.
As chancellor of a system that includes 11 colleges and universities, Dr. Langenberg is being required to face the complex issue of accountability in a more formal way than any of his predecessors were.
The state's public colleges and universities are under a mandate from the 1988 Reorganization of Maryland Higher Education Act to give "report cards" to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The commission, which was given responsibility for establishing accountability guidelines for the state's public colleges and universities, has issued two directives: Each campus will provide an annual report showing evidence of productive and effective use of state resources including physical plant and funding, and will make an assessment of student learning.
On Wednesday, the University of Maryland System will present the Board of Regents with a framework for how each UM campus will base its report.
* The University of Maryland at Baltimore, home to the schools of medicine, law, and other professional schools, seeks to improve program quality and rankings, access for minorities and women, and integration of the campus' mission with the city and the state.
* The University of Maryland at College Park aims to become "one of the pre-eminent public research universities in the country."
* Bowie State University seeks to "play a major role in meeting the cultural, economic and human service and social needs of the region," including expanding its commitment to the black community.
Students, faculty and staff will together make each campus' report -- expected by late summer or early fall -- said David Sparks, UM's vice chancellor for academic affairs.
At the conclusion of the six-day AAAS meeting, Dr. Langenberg, a physicist, became chairman of the board of AAAS, the nation's largest umbrella group of scientists and engineers of many disciplines.
In his plenary address, Dr. Langenberg urged his colleagues to do their "civic duty." In an interview, he noted that civic-mindedness is also a legitimate measure of how well a university has succeeded in educating a student.
Dr. Langenberg said proper evaluation of a student's education should measure not only knowledge of subjects, but also psychological maturity, civic awareness, judgment and common sense.
"I would think they would all be part of the question: 'What did a university do with and for the students?' " he said.