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Jan 27, 2015

Cooking the books in the Academia

Quality control in general and accreditation in particular are finicky tools, which backfire as often as they do the intended job. One thing I realized – their calibration is essential, and it is not always done. It is like with any other tool, let’s say, a drill. If it spins too fast, your drill bits break. If it is too slow, it takes forever.

Let me illustrate the metaphor (although if you have to explain a metaphor it wasn’t that good to begin with). Our PhD program is going through accreditation this year. We have a more or less absurd requirement for doc students to formulate their dissertation topic within three months of entering the program. I am not even sure what the source of the requirement is. It may be our internal attempt to “speed things up,” or it may come from elsewhere. All policies should come with a short label about their origin and rationale. Alas, neither this university, nor any other I know has such a thing.

Anyway, I am asking the grad school office – can we wait for a couple of our first-year students are still thinking about it, and our internal discussion is not over. The answer I got is this: Let’s put something in, and later you can always change it. The accreditation team is likely to pull some random student files to see if the dissertation topic is approved.Here is the trick: there is very little chance that the accreditors will question the quality of the topic. They are not subject matter specialist, and won’t tell a good dissertation title from a bad one. However, they are trained bureaucrats, who can spot a missing file. In fact, because they can say nothing about the substance, the only way they can work and show their usefulness is to find formal glitches. The only rational behavior on our part is CYA. This is no joke; it is indeed the only thing one can do.

Yet it is not without consequences. I am worried about the message we’re sending to students themselves. They don’t have a research project yet, and we’re telling them – they are approved, but not quite approved… it’s confusing. We also create a parallel universe of written agreements, which have little resemblance to the reality. We therefore lose the important tool of written records, and must figure out a legitimate way of keeping the real decision straight. And this happens again and again, not just with dissertation topics. Our standards, actual programs, the content of our courses – all come as a pair of non-identical twins; one for accreditation and another for internal consumption. The formal documents suck legitimacy out of working ones. And this is not just Russian phenomenon. All programs involved in external accountability to one degree or another create the separate paperwork trail for the others, and one for themselves.

The solution is simple – we need to move from the model of accreditation to the model of audit, like in accounting. While double books in accounting are possible, they actually constitute criminal matter. And in our world the practice is widely spread. But to get rid of book-cooking, we must have auditors who are able to judge programs by their quality, not just formally.

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