American Sociological Association

Departmental Performance Metrics and the University Audit Culture

July 10, 2017

by Rhys Williams, Loyola University Chicago

In recent discussions with sociological colleagues who work in universities across the United States, in both research- and teaching-oriented institutions, two related topics come up. One is the rise of “performance metrics” that are used to assess faculty performance, and the other involves questions about tenure processes and standards, and whether those are equitable. These topics have intersected in the recent past at my university, and I describe here how we responded.

Daniel Kleinman, among other scholars, has written about the “audit culture” that has come to dominate higher education. Pushes for greater “efficiency” and “accountability” from colleges and universities, along with a trend in administrative circles to talk about “data-driven” decision-making have made performance metrics increasingly popular. I have no particular quarrel with the idea that higher education should be accountable, and I applaud the notion that administrators want to make decisions based on data. I suspect, however, that the attraction to quantitative metrics is driven by the seduction of objectivity that numbers can provide, abetted by the drive for standardization and efficiency that marks the neoliberal university.

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