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Go Beyond the Data

Examine and articulate your institution’s systems and culture to improve administrative processes, lower costs, and enhance educational outcomes.

By John R. Dew

If this sounds familiar, you may want to adopt a continuous quality improvement model to organize and implement changes in administrative and academic functions. Quality improvement models can help your institution define and examine work systems and performance indicators in a way that supports significant breakthroughs in performance and accountability.

Models of Quality Improvement

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in Education Criteria is one of the most robust frameworks in use today. Named for the secretary of commerce during the Reagan administration, the Baldrige criteria serve as a yardstick for defining and evaluating the systems used to manage a college or university. The award acknowledges the high degree of critical thinking regarding how planning is conducted, how outcomes are measured, how faculty are engaged, and how administrators are involved as leaders.

In addition to the national Baldrige program, many states have developed quality assessment and award programs that support institutions in the process of critically analyzing their management systems. Campuses such as the University of Central Oklahoma, Northwest Missouri State University, and Johnson County Community College in Kansas have received valuable feedback and recognition for quality improvement and strong accountability through their state quality award programs. The University of Wisconsin–Stout was the first higher education institution to receive the Baldrige award.

Richland College, a 2005 Baldrige award recipient and the first community college to receive the award, provides the latest example of an institution that has aggressively critiqued itself and implemented a system for managing the campus. One of seven two-year community colleges in the Dallas area, Richland operates on a budget of approximately $46 million, with 558 full-time faculty, support staff, and administrators and 811 part-time faculty and seasonal staff. Providing credit and continuing education coursework to more than 20,000 students per semester, Richland has students ranging from young adults who are preparing for further education at a four-year university to senior citizens.

Benefit by Example

While the level of an institution’s complexity may vary based on size, history, mission, and scope, you can benefit from Richland’s example as you engage in the critical assessment of how you measure, evaluate, and plan. Over the past six years, Richland concentrated on five areas for improving its strategic and operational systems in the academic and administrative fields. 

Engaging the leaders. One of the challenges with quality and accountability is engaging leaders in the critical analysis of an institution’s systems and culture. At Richland, President Stephen K. Mittelstet led the way. Mittelstet and his executive team sought to find a comprehensive, systematic way to demonstrate quality and sustain and increase performance excellence. This was critical as the institution’s state funding support decreased over three legislative sessions from 70 percent to 30 percent. “We had to become more efficient, effective, and entrepreneurial…in essence, to do more with less,” he realized. Richland’s senior leaders became students of the Baldrige approach to performance improvement. They participated in state quality award training and served as quality examiners for other facilities. They studied local Baldrige-winning companies in the Dallas area, benchmarked against award-winning institutions such as Northwest Missouri, and helped organize a network of community colleges interested in quality and accountability.

With a clear understanding of the criteria, Richland initiated a process of critical self-assessment. Mittelstet and his executive team discovered that they were not as systematic as they thought and pinpointed “pockets of excellence that could probably not be sustained over time.” The discipline of the Baldrige criteria enabled Richland to become more systematic through sequential cycles of improvement based on the opportunities for growth suggested in the college’s annual feedback reports. Mittelstet describes the value-added bottom line for Richland: “We have become more focused and strategic in our decisions through use of the Baldrige framework, and we are a more agile and flexible organization that is able to anticipate and respond more effectively to our constantly changing external environment.”

Defining strategic and operational planning. Finding a systematic approach to strategic and operational planning that is well-defined and conducted in a predictable and measurable way can be difficult. At Richland, the planning process begins in August with an update of the five-year strategic plan and the development of a one-year operational working plan.

This planning drives the budgeting process, approved by the board of trustees in September, and aligns individual and departmental plans. Throughout the fall, operational plans are modified and an official, updated one-year operational plan and end-of-year report is published in December. In January, colleges and departments update their plans based on the official operational plan. Midyear reviews are conducted in February and March. Operational and budget planning for the next year begins in April and is finalized in May. Discussions with faculty and staff on progress occur in May and June. A board of trustees budget work session takes place in July prior to the start of the next fiscal year.

What sets Richland apart from many other institutions is that leaders can articulate their planning cycle so that all stakeholders understand how strategic and operational planning operates. While some have similar planning cycles, few colleges have so clearly defined their processes in a way that leads to accountability for all invested resources. “All employees can recite from memory the college’s mission and four strategic planning priorities,” Mittelstet points out.

Ready, Set, Assess

Are you ready to re-examine the systems for managing your institution? The more deliberate your institution is in defining how it operates and in assessing the quality, cost, and effectiveness of its actions, the more likely it is to achieve significant breakthroughs in key accountability areas.

Have your executive team conduct an initial self-assessment based on Baldrige criteria. If you aren’t satisfied with the results, sign up for training on using the criteria and then start working on improving your management system. Ask questions about your approach to managing your campus, the effectiveness of your systems deployment, and what you are learning about your institution.

To access the current best practices in quality management and accountability, contact the Continuous Quality Improvement Network (www.cqin.org), which conducts an annual summer institute. The American Society for Quality (www.asq.org) has a community of educators and quality professionals and offers training, conferences, and publications to help institutions in their improvement process. For example, the new book Insights to Performance Excellence 2006, by Mark L. Blazey,features advice on analyzing your organization, achieving higher levels of performance, and applying for the Baldrige award.

NACUBO helped launch the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (www.ncci-cu.org), which now has more than 60 member institutions, hosts workshops, and conducts an annual conference in conjunction with NACUBO’s conference. The American Council on Education has also published information on quality improvement and has partnered with NCCI on quality-related programs.

Managing the institution. Richland engages faculty and staff in assessing, planning, improving, and managing campus activities. Five major councils—the Academic Council, the Student Development Council, the Community and Economic Development Council, the Council for Teaching and Learning, and the Council for Community Building—track relevant performance measures, engage in planning, and make decisions about how to manage and improve work. 

These councils function in an interlocking manner to ensure accountability for all of the institution’s functions and to ensure that all stakeholders’ voices are heard in the planning process. In addition to these governing councils, Richland supports four stakeholder associations to provide a voice in governance for faculty, adjunct faculty, professional staff, and students.

As part of the institution’s management system, employees biannually evaluate senior leaders and supervisors using an organizational climate survey. This is another method of ensuring accountability and responsiveness among leaders.

Measuring outcomes. Many institutions have difficulty focusing a critical eye on how outcomes and academic and administrative processes are measured and how these data shape strategic and operational decisions. Mittelstet compares this examination to peeling an onion and finding greater layers of specificity regarding processes and outcomes. The end result has been a more profound understanding of how Richland accomplishes its mission as well as heightened accountability.

After clarifying the process and outcome measures of academic and administrative systems, Richland’s leadership team established a set of metrics that is reviewed every month. Key metrics are identified for student learning success, meeting community educational needs, faculty and staff success, and overall institutional effectiveness. Using an agreed-upon set of measures saves time because it is readily apparent whether a process is meeting expectations or requires further attention. Richland reassesses its measures selection every year during a three-day leadership retreat.

These measures are all tracked by one of the appropriate councils or vice president areas that comprise the institution’s governing structure. Operating units regularly take time to discuss and develop actions based on the measures that relate to their area so that decision making is informed by data.

Assessing and meeting needs. Baldrige-winning institutions use a comprehensive combination of comparative surveys, longitudinal studies, focus groups, and needs assessments to evaluate processes and assess outcomes. Campus leaders do not speculate about what is happening on the campus. They know what faculty, students, staff, parents, alumni, employers, and other stakeholders think because campus leaders have data that tell them, and they use these data to achieve further improvement. “We have gained greater understanding of and responsiveness to the needs of our students and community. As a result, we have achieved increasingly successful outcomes over time,” Mittelstet notes.   

Richland uses a combination of national student surveys that provide comparative data, focus groups, graduate exit surveys, community forums, national faculty surveys, and operational measures to maintain a clear understanding of stakeholder needs and satisfaction. Richland participates in the National Community College Benchmark Project, the Noel Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, and the Campus Quality Survey, in addition to using peer colleges’ comparative information and data from the League for Innovation in the Community College and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Ensuring Accountable Stewardship

Richland College exemplifies the growing movement among institutions to integrate assessment, planning, and continuous improvement activities into the management of the higher education enterprise. This comprehensive approach helps ensure accountable stewardship of the resources and results that the public expects.

By broadening involvement among stakeholders in the decision-making and day-to-day management processes, Richland ensures the quality of its programs, contains costs, and enhances its competitive position. “We have created systems and a climate that make it safe to bring the whole self to work and to learn every day with responsible risk-taking and joy in an environment that promotes performance excellence,” Mittelstet says. “Too many organizations and their employees have been driven by data with unfortunate, if not disastrous, results. Leaders need data to inform them; then they must use all their human faculties—reason, intuition, passion, compassion, and spirit—to apply that information as one component of wise decision making.”

JOHN R. DEW is director for continuous quality improvement and planning at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and is chair of the American Society for Quality’s education division.