From Accountability to Action

By Robert L. Caret    //    Volume 22,  Number 2   //    March/April 2014

Performance measurement is central to President Obama’s proposals for higher education. As academic leaders govern today and plan for tomorrow, this is a natural and important place for them to come together with those who oversee current performance and help to chart the future—their boards of trustees.

While we issue easy-to-understand grades for students every semester, our institutional evaluations offer mountains of data in reports that too often are inaccessible to people who want to gauge what we do and how we do it. The idea that we can develop more-effective report cards on our own performance, easily digestible by everyone from legislators to prospective students, is taking root in college and university presidents’ offices and in our boardrooms. When we do a better job of grading ourselves, we go a long way to building public trust and demonstrating the value that our institutions provide.

Moreover, an agreed-upon performance measurement system—one that is clear, focused, and tied to key goals and priorities—can and should serve as a platform for collaboration and cooperation between boards and administrators.

The University of Massachusetts recently issued its first annual short-form performance report. UMass has been assessing its effectiveness as a major public research university system for many years, but this report is intended to be accessible and available to anyone in Massachusetts who wants to know how the state’s public research university is doing in key areas. More important, it is tied to goals and priorities and will act as a blueprint for shaping the university’s future direction.

This UMass performance report was developed in close consultation with our 22-member board of trustees and was refined at board meetings over the past two years. The result is a performance tool that allows us to turn the assessment into action items. We’ve developed priorities and goals around six central issues: student success; an educated workforce and an engaged citizenry; world-class research and development; enhanced social well-being; good stewardship of resources; and “telling and selling” the UMass story. By designing our performance ratings in this way, we can determine where progress has been made against areas of insufficient movement. From there, we will act to address any shortfall.

The report and measuring system are linked closely to the activities of a special board task force on efficiency and effectiveness that already has identified more than $200 million in savings for the five-campus UMass system. In addition, the steps we have taken have been key factors in our ability to fashion new financial arrangements with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, resulting in a base-funding increase of approximately $50 million, with potentially another $50 million in state funding during the next fiscal year.

More than a decade ago, as the president of Towson University, I introduced an institutional “report card” to enhance credibility. I learned two things in the process: A report card allows you to gauge and spur performance, and it provides public universities with a tool to demonstrate that they are making good use of public dollars.

When I became president of the University of Massachusetts system in 2011, I brought with me both the tool and the learning experiences from Towson. But this large and complicated system presented additional challenges. More than 72,000 students from diverse backgrounds attend the university’s five campuses. Last year, we conducted close to $600 million in research. The UMass system includes a medical school, a law school, and urban and rural campuses. We had to work out various logistics to ensure that we were accurately measuring the effectiveness of each campus while creating a standardized system.

Working closely with our trustees, I believe that we have created a tool to make a strong case to students, parents, donors, and legislators that we are succeeding in our mission of service to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.