Moving Toward Transparency in Higher Education

Moving Toward Transparency in Higher Education

Transparency has rarely been the hallmark of business and governments – just ask former Enron, Lehman Brothers, or Countrywide Financial executives; ask President Nixon or Edward Snowden. Neither, it seems, has it been a defining characteristic within higher education. Beyond the publication of faculty salaries at public institutions, most of the sacred aspects of academia remain cloaked in secrecy. Votes on promotion and tenure, selection of new leadership from within faculty ranks, and appointments at the senior administrative level are activities largely conducted in murky waters. This lack of transparency permeates student issues as well, as is evident in the current debate about how to best address campus sexual assaults – who is qualified to address the issues, and what constitutes a safe environment and for whom.

The stakes are high and the landscape is swiftly changing for university systems. Today’s college student may bear little resemblance to the students of yesteryear, and combined with increasing competition from community colleges and online programs, even universities with endowments are struggling to maintain relevancy. Public institutions in states such as Georgia are merging to save money and faculty furlough has become commonplace. Private schools like Virginia Intermont College are bowing out while schools like Sweet Briar College restructured while facing increasing challenges.

We believe that in this modern era, universities succeed or stumble in direct relationship to their transparency efforts.  In an increasingly accountable, competitive landscape, they need to be nimble—proactive in developing a mission and identity while reacting to multiple public pressures. Legislators and taxpayers are pressing for information that makes universities squirm in discomfort — how many students graduate within four years? What is the average amount of student loan debt students at this school have upon graduation? How many students obtain a job in the field from which their degree originates? How well prepared for the workforce are students after graduation?

We will also explore the critical issue of internal transparency, because in healthy organizations, it should precede and align with the indicia of external transparency. The purpose of the column is to provide a positive critique of the process and possibilities for transparency in these actions. Our hope is to use the elements of transparency shared in this column as a means to instill a sense of transparency and trust in the processes used in the organization.

We operationalize internal transparency as the ability for all individuals in an organization to exist within a system of openness, communication, and accountability operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. Put simply, “the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender” (Schnackenberg & Tomlinson, 2014).

Aspects of Transparency

Transparency in higher education is a multi-layered system; existing across multiple levels of an institution, within individuals who comprise the institution, and among the institution’s leadership. Here, we examine the following forms of transparency as they are manifested in an internally robust and healthy institution of higher education, i.e. transparency of mission, transparency of action, transparency of metrics, and transparency to stakeholders. These aspects of transparency are distilled from the book Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability, by Quint Studer.

Transparency of mission

The first aspect of transparency holds that every employee needs to know the specific mission of the organization across all levels with an understanding of how their role affects and is affected by the mission. How well does an individual instructor help achieve the mission of a program? How do the actions undertaken by individuals involved with that program affect the college? How do the actions taken within a college support the broader mission of the University? And, importantly, based on observations and perceptions can the core mission of the institution be easily discerned by those within the organization and outside of it?

Transparency of action

The second aspect of transparency suggests that behaviors and actions taken by individuals within an institution should reflect the overall mission and those undertaking said decisions and action should be identified and acknowledge responsibility. Further, beyond the explicit behavior, transparent actions must always be coupled with transparent justification for those actions–why are these actions necessary and how do they changing the mission? Answers to the why question might include information about becoming more flexible, efficient, or responding to current trends. The why of transparency is critical because it maintains a shared understanding, across the organization, of the actions being taken. For example, without the why, students, faculty, and staff could be puzzled by the seeming inconsistency when an institution finds it necessary to spend money on some initiates while cutting budgets on others. Lacking information regarding the “why” actions are taken leads all to question the mission and coherency of leadership.

Transparency of metrics

University members need to know and understand the metrics by which they are being measured. Normally, these metrics usually are financial or economic. All discussions about data points (i.e., enrollment and budgets) and metrics should lead to financial decisions that indicate the overall payoff or net gain for the organization. Administrators and all employees need to understand the ultimate cost incurred if metrics are ignored or actions are delayed. Implicit in the discussion of metrics, transparency, and finances is a commitment to inform all stakeholders and treat them like partners in the process.

Transparency to stakeholders

The final key aspect of transparency is that leaders should be trained and in place to assume roles in the institution. Most organizations rely on middle layers of management to connect with employees (i.e., department and program chairs). It is institutionally imperative that universities develop and support these mid-level leaders, not only in programmatic efforts, but also in business practices—they must be effective and accurate in answering questions about goals, metrics, and why decisions are being made. Mid-level leaders should be accountable, but not used a scapegoats. In transparent systems, they are part of the leadership team that develops and informs an institution’s process and is accountable for their role in the system.

A plea for transparency

We understand that our call for increased internal institutional transparency within institutions of higher education might run counter to business as it has been conducted. We offer this commentary so that others may consider how increased transparency can strengthen business and communications in myriad ways. Every student and employee should be confident that at the foundation of the institution’s mission is a core commitment to propagate truth and trust, not spin and propaganda.

We believe that institutions and organizations, especially in higher education, have a mandate to strive for transparency in action. Transparency affords information that is trustworthy and actionable. This atmosphere of transparency also instills a culture of participation and collaboration to breed trust and eliminate unnecessary risk taking. Sharing and collaboration eliminate redundancy in effort while building interpersonal trust among colleagues and within the organization.

As institutions of higher education proceed into a tumultuous and competitive future, they need to focus on their ability to be responsive, productive, and innovative. To most effectively make this happen, the key assets of information and human capital need to be utilized wherever they may reside. It is a waste to have faculty and staff working with blinders on, keeping them from discussions and decision making. Information, skills, and people need to be made accessible across departments, committees, and locations.

We do not ask that institutions of higher education tear down the silos already in place in the organization, rather that they become more transparent and open; to help build a fabric of trust that stretches beyond departments, programs, and committees. We ask that people be allowed to see and discover each other for the purposes of guiding the institution towards its goals.

This post is a revised version of a submission I completed with my former colleague at UNH, Amanda Bozack. We have been meaning to write this post for a number of years as we began to question initiatives, decisions, and work effort at our shared institution. As junior faculty, we tried to bring a bit of open education, digital literacies, and (yes) transparency into our daily actions and work within the organization. Yet as we questioned the lack of transparency in action, we began to understand that were struggling to define it as well. This resultant post is an attempt to provide a descriptive analysis of what transparency in action could, and should look like.

To be fully transparent, Amanda and I wrote this submission last year and intended to publish it to promote discussion with our colleagues. I decided not to publish the work as I chose not to incense, or anger leadership within my former institution. Furthermore, the document also contained a point-by-point use of examples from the organization that I removed from this version shared above.

Finally, I wanted to expand this post beyond an examination of transparency in action in higher education to focus on the work within organizations that I have noticed lately as I work and connect online. For purposes of clarity and argument, I chose not to modify this shared document beyond elements I noted above.


Cover photo by FUMIGRAPHIK-Photographist shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license


Also published on Medium.

9 Comments Moving Toward Transparency in Higher Education

    1. wiobyrne

      Thanks for the response Lea. I’ll definitely check out Massy’s book.

      In writing this post, we realized that it’s hard to define and operationalize “transparency.” That made it problematic when we would ask for transparency in action…and others would ask…”what is it?” 🙂


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