|Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, by Gaye Tuchman (University of Chicago Press, 2009, 272 pp., $25)
Your theological school welcomes auditors to campus every year to look at the books. This is a good practice, because we want to know the financial condition of the school and to know that those in charge of the money are truthful. We want them to be accountable.
Every 10 years or so, your theological school also welcomes visiting teams from accrediting bodies. We agree that this also is a good practice, because the visitors are looking for evidence that your school meets the standards of accrediting agencies like the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
I have been part of several ATS visits, and have worked with my school's faculty and administration to prepare the extensive self-study required before reaffirmation of accreditation. I do this work because I think that having outside peers ask difficult questions serves to strengthen seminaries. I see the irony, too: We are saved by God's grace, but our institutional lives are justified by works.
Being accountable is just plain common sense. What board member would argue for less accountability from the administration? Sociologist Gaye Tuchman's Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University traces the expansion of accountability at one anonymous public university as it strived to become one of the nation's top 25 research universities. She details the changes made by the central administration to make Wan U more businesslike and rational as it measured how well its faculty taught undergraduates, its scientists garnered research grants, and its programs received ratings from U.S. News & World Report. In the process, professors and academic departments at Wan U had to become more auditable so that administrators could keep tabs on their work, literally by counting things such as publications, grant dollars, and student-to-faculty ratios.
What is troubling about her story is that what used to be called the academic mission of Wan U (the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake) seemed to count for little. Having recently been a graduate student at a major research university, I can vouch that many examples in Tuchman's book could be echoed with a similar story from my alma mater. That's part of the point: Universities attempt to set themselves apart by conforming to prevailing notions about what is valuable.
Theological schools feel the same stresses to conform to the spirit of the times as universities. Seminaries are part of what Michael Power of the London School of Economics calls "the audit society." Put positively, demands for accountability keep seminary leaders on task to improve student learning, handle money prudently, and challenge institutional inertia. At the same time, accountability can become an amoral, addictive logic that demands more and more data about never-mind-what. The faculty of your school may think that some areas of assessment have crossed this line, but they may not say so publicly. Is this a discussion that can be held in the boardroom?
Seminary administrators should count what is countable and acknowledge what we can only gesture to. My school wants to train preachers who are not boring — a laudable educational outcome. But we should all go on a day of reflection, watch the sun set, and repent if ever we report that our graduates are 3.5 percent less boring than they used to be.
Of course, it's good for a school to determine how well its graduates are faring in their vocations, and the best examples of accountability actually improve a school's outcomes and help it fulfill its mission. But it's a continuing challenge for theological school boards and other leaders to discern when the seductive logic of accountability exceeds its bounds.