Making a public vow is a time-honored way to stick to one's commitments. If you tell your colleagues that you plan to stop smoking, you know that they'll smirk if they spot you lighting up six months later. In August, 40 American billionaires said they would give away at least half of their wealth. They, too, know that they'll be scorned if they fail to deliver.
Now 71 college leaders have made some vows of their own. In a venture known as the Presidents' Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability, they have promised to take specific steps to gather more evidence about student learning, to use that evidence to improve instruction, and to give the public more information about the quality of learning on their campuses.
The 71 pledges, officially announced on Friday, are essentially a dare to accreditors, parents, and the news media: Come visit in two years, and if we haven't done these things, you can zing us.
The real purpose of the pledges is to deepen an ethic of professional stewardship and self-regulation among college leaders, says David C. Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, the fledgling organization that has sponsored the project.
"One basic principle of the presidents' alliance is that it's voluntary," says Mr. Paris, who is a professor of government at Hamilton College. "You volunteer. You tell us what you need. We try to put in front of you what we think are the norms that should guide our professional community. And then we all work on them and figure out how to help each other."
'We Will Be Held Accountable'
The founding presidents represent a range of institutions: community colleges, regional and flagship public universities, large private universities, and a for-profit institution (Capella University). But a plurality are liberal-arts colleges, including Juniata, Macalester, Middlebury, Occidental, and Vassar Colleges.
"We want to keep reminding our faculty and our students that we will be held accountable for what we say we will provide," says Anne K. Temte, president of Northland Community and Technical College, in Minnesota. "That's why we were interested in being a member of this alliance."
Michael S. Bassis, president of Westminster College, in Utah, says that "creating a professional community around outcome-based improvements is profoundly important. I think this project will help us at Westminster, and I think it will help higher education in general."
His pledge includes the following: Beginning in 2011, all first-year students at Westminster will be required to create electronic portfolios that reflect their progress in terms of five campuswide learning goals. And the college will expand the number of seniors who take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, so that the test can be used to help measure the strength of each academic major.
Miami Dade College, meanwhile, is promising that, among other things, it will take new steps to link its campuswide learning goals with those of each major. (The English department, for example, recently decided to add a course on literary accounts of genocide, because the college had determined that English majors had few opportunities to "demonstrate knowledge of diverse cultures," which is one of 10 campuswide learning goals.)
"The crucial thing is that all of our learning assessments have been designed and driven by the faculty," says Pamela G. Menke, Miami Dade's associate provost for academic affairs. "The way transformation of learning truly occurs is when faculty members ask the questions, and when they're willing to use what they've found out to make change. Other assessment models might point some things out, but they won't be useful if faculty members don't believe in them."
Daniel J. Bradley, president of Indiana State University, calls the alliance "an attempt to make sure that people outside the academic community understand that those of us who have made academe our career are interested in the same kinds of problems they are. There is a commitment on the part of higher education to continue to improve, and to help our students meet their goals."
How to Compare Colleges?
How reassured will the public feel because of these promises? Some are clear and specific, but others might baffle people unversed in the language of academic administrators. ("Our CUE model provides scaffolding for the collection of artifacts and overall evaluation of e-portfolios," declares Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.)
And although all 71 institutions have promised to make public more information about learning outcomes on their campuses, not all have promised to do so in formats that would easily allow comparisons with other colleges.
Miami Dade, for example, has not adopted nationally benchmarked tests such as the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency. "We respect the institutions that have chosen to use those tests," Ms. Menke says. "But I believe very strongly that institutions should have the flexibility to design what the institutions find to be an effective assessment structure."
Mr. Paris hopes and expects that more institutions will join the alliance. "In the long term, as more people join, I hope that the Web site will provide a resource for the kinds of innovations that seem to be successful," he says. "That process might be difficult. Teaching is an art, not a science. But there is still probably a lot that we can learn from each other."
Mr. Paris's leadership group was created in 2009 with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation.
In addition to the presidents' alliance, the group plans to create a new certification for colleges with excellent standards in teaching and learning. The idea, Mr. Paris says, was inspired in part by the LEED certifications for environmentally responsible architecture. Eight institutions will soon take part in a pilot study to determine the parameters of the certification.