What is the place of graduate studies in higher education's current culture of accountability? At some level, at least, the question itself is moot, since there is no argumentative ground from which we could claim that anything is outside our current "culture of accountability." Culture, education, and the university have become commodities and purveyors of commodities; they must answer to the logic of accountability—and there is no space outside that logic. There is no particular location inhabited by graduate education, because commodification now extends its reach into every aspect of our social reality. There was a time when the social understanding of the university and of the work performed therein was defined precisely in opposition to the logic of accountability and instrumentality, but that situation no longer obtains.
Triumphant global capitalism no longer needs the space seemingly outside itself and its logic in which the university, the humanities, the arts, and even a socially redemptive conception of science used to reside—a space that the system needed to make a claim of humanistic superiority to its historical alternatives. The culture of accountability—which is a shibboleth for the market and its commodification of everything—is the horizon within which we will necessarily have to work henceforth. Challenging this state of affairs could lead us to the two distinct yet related dangers of dejection and nostalgia, because what we are facing is neither more nor less than the demystification of the rhetoric of the university, which once placed it outside the social and the economic.
The current crisis of the university is a crisis of social legitimation, meaning that the conventional arguments and strategies that were used by the institution to justify its existence and social currency have collapsed. Since no social construct can exist without a legitimizing narrative, the university is trying at present to articulate a narrative that will work successfully in the current culture of universal commodification. The problem is, of course, that our former narrative of social legitimation for the university is written in a language that is untranslatable to the current circumstance. We cannot even picture ourselves as "in transition," because there is no common ground on which a transition from unaccountability to hyper-marketability could be conceptualized.
Consider the logic of the accountability movement and its defensibility. The movement's founding assumption is that by importing the rationality, criteria, and procedures of the market into our disciplines, we will place ourselves in a position to make claims for our métier that will be understandable by the market, therefore giving us a viable platform from which to argue for the resources that we increasingly see either being withheld or, worse, taken away from us. Showing that we can set quantifiable and therefore measurable standards for a program's performance does indeed make possible the instauration of market dynamics with respect to outcomes for our students and for society at large.
After all, the point of accountability is precisely to have our specific performance held up to scrutiny in the context created by the outcomes of other actors offering their own version of that same performance. In this sense it is hard to disagree with William Pannapacker when he argued recently and quite bitingly that "sunlight is surely the best disinfectant for graduate education" while demanding that graduate programs be required to post their placement records online for the benefit of the unsuspecting prospective customer. But while this "disinfecting" may allow us to identify and realize our optimal productivity, I would argue that its underlying assumptions make the project of accountability a questionable strategy for the specific crisis of social legitimation with which the university is contending.
Let us assume that we can achieve universal consensus on the desirability of instituting outcomes assessment among graduate programs, and that we can devise the most effective instruments for measuring, recording, and publicizing the results so that customers can "buy" with a degree of confidence, and so that we can make effective claims for the resources we need to either sustain current successful efforts or enhance those deemed in need of improvement. Such an apparatus would undoubtedly vouch for the fact that learning is taking place, that skills are being taught and effectively transmitted, and that students are therefore being placed by their programs in a position to vie for the best jobs in a given field.
But what this utopian perspective has left unaccounted for (and I call it utopian because the achievement of the consensus it assumes is far from certain) is that the crisis of legitimation of the university is predicated not on a program's inability to show empirically and convincingly that it is delivering what it says it is delivering, but on the market's challenge to the kind of knowledge it is producing. The challenge itself is empirically based on our students' enrollment patterns and preferences.
How would it have profited the undergraduate and graduate faculty in foreign languages at the State University of New York at Albany to be able to demonstrate with the most sophisticated outcomes-assessment instruments that their pedagogical and programmatic goals were being met at the highest levels? This instance would seem to suggest that the accountability initiative may arise from a misconstruing of the specific challenge that universal commodification is thrusting on the university in general and on undergraduate and graduate education in particular.
In other words, the crisis of legitimation we are confronting today is related more to the product that we are selling than to our inability to make that product worth buying. Accountability presumes that if we are able to show the effective transmission of knowledge and skills to our students, we will satisfy the market's requirement for verifiable results. But what if the market has already devalued from the start the knowledge on which the entire operation of outcomes and accountability is based, as well as the institution where it is produced?
Facing the implications of these questions will be no simple task, but face them we must. I have no doubt that the accountability movement in graduate education is unstoppable, and that it might even introduce some welcome changes in our current practices. Yet it will not lead to the transformation of the university that, as we have all intuited in our hearts and minds by now, is still to come.