An investigation of benchmarking as an accountability practice in higher education
Achtemeier, Sue D
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This research comprised in-depth interviews with twelve leaders in higher education to gain their understandings of benchmarking and its relationship to accountability held by various constituencies within a large research university and its related governing system. Three representatives were chosen from each of four groups: the Corporation, the Collegium, and the Community, as characterized by Downey’s model, within State University, and the external Governing Board. Transcripts of the taped interviews, analyzed by the constant comparison method, revealed three major themes. These were concerns for communication, concentration, and calibration of any benchmarking effort. Analysis of the data revealing these concerns led the researcher to make the following three recommendations: 1. When initiating a suggestion that benchmarking be employed for any purpose, clearly communicate with all stakeholders and participants in order to agree which definition of the term will apply, while acknowledging its limitations, what the payoff will be, and how gaps will be addressed. 2. Concentrate any benchmarking effort to address the greatest perceived needs thus utilizing resources most efficiently and assuring accountability for a few important indicators throughout a sustainable longitudinal effort. 3. Carefully calibrate benchmarking indicators and interpret them within the context of clearly stated objectives to overcome inherent data difficulties. Three other themes emerged from the research. First, the interviewees understood many different definitions of benchmarking revealing the inherent and often unacknowledged confusion that arises when using the term. Second, regardless of different definitions, participants considered benchmarking useful for informing planning activities and resource allocation and for providing a reality-check on ones perceptions of ones own progress toward excellence. Third, interviewees expressed fear of benchmarking possibly leading to loss of local control by campus decision makers or being used in an inappropriate manner. Finally the researcher addresses inherent differences between academic and business cultures and urges caution and communication before applying business success-models of evaluation, like benchmarking, uncritically to the higher education environment.