University of Massachusetts president Robert L. Caret, setting aside widespread qualms on individual campuses, has developed a list of performance goals that will be used to essentially grade the system, an effort to show that public money is being well spent and to spur healthier graduation rates and economic activity.
For years, UMass has churned out statistic-laden reports that, at 100 or even 250 pages, few people read. Caret, who calls himself “a data guy,” said it is time for a more user-friendly report card of sorts, a short brochure that not only tells the public where the institution is but where it should be.
“We can’t just accept the fact that we have a, let’s say, 54 percent graduation rate or even 66 percent,” Caret said. “We want to say, what should our graduation rate be . . . and how do we get there.’’
When the first performance report is released next spring, the printed pamphlet will include only a systemwide evaluation for each of 21 broad goals, such as improving student success and managing financial resources efficiently. But each campus will be rated internally in order to come up with an average; Caret said those ratings would be available upon request even if they are not promoted.
Caret arrived at UMass two years ago eager to replicate what worked at Towson University in Maryland, where he served as president for eight years. There, his accountability project was simply called a report card. It handed down letter grades, including one that involved tracking alumni success that stubbornly remained a C for several years.
Doing the same thing for the UMass system turned out to be a bit more delicate. The five campuses are very distinct, with wide variation in selectivity, research ambitions, and other measures. Some officials were concerned about being pitted against one another.
Beyond that, the idea of a report card touched a nerve still raw from the early 1990s, when then-UMass president Michael Hooker gave the system an overall grade of C-plus in an interview with the Globe. Uproar ensued, with professors from several campuses castigating Hooker for damaging the institution and protesters in Amherst giving him an F in return.
So developing the new system took “a year of negotiation,” the plain-spoken Caret said. “We sold it hard for a while.”
In the end, the term “report card” has been replaced by the dry title, “UMass Performance: Accountable and on the Move.” And letter grades are off the table, to be replaced by yet-to-be-determined imagery — perhaps arrows pointing up and down, or green, yellow, and red lights.
Despite the softer approach, Caret and other UMass officials say the goals are tough for the system of 68,000 students and five campuses — the flagship in Amherst and others in Dartmouth, Boston, Lowell, and Worcester.
Caret just persuaded the Legislature to allocate an extra $39 million to the university system to preserve the quality of the campuses and give students a break after years of increases in tuition or fees – a major victory after years of declining state funding.
Transparency is part of “proving that we are doing the right thing” with the state’s money, he said.
Caret’s effort is also in line with a national accountability movement — many other states have made performance data more accessible to the public in recent years. Yet while the principle of accountability has been widely accepted, some educators are nervous that the full mission of a university may be overlooked when a few data points become the focus.
Last fall, Virginia began publishing the salaries of recent graduates by their school and major. US Senators Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, are proposing a bill that would make similar income data available nationally. Critics wonder whether these measures will hurt programs for teacher training or other types of public service.
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Higher Education released a report last fall that bluntly pointed out areas in which Massachusetts does not compare well with the most successful states, including graduation rates and racial disparities. UMass Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan started a report card on his campus several years ago.
“We’re into an era where prospective students and prospective parents are deciding about a college education the way they would purchase a home or purchase a car; they are being much more careful about it,” Meehan said. “If you don’t improve, it will be very difficult to survive in a competitive world.”
Yet there are challenges in setting goals so publicly. For example, said UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, admitting more competitive students is one priority, measured in part by SAT scores. But another goal is improving diversity. On average minority students have lower test scores.
“How far do you go on one scale without affecting the other scale?” he asked. “Because they are all equally important.”
Ernest May, a music professor at UMass Amherst, said he fears that problems might be blamed on the campuses rather than inadequate funding.
“If we are candid, do we get credit for being candid?” said May, chief of the intercampus faculty council. “Probably not. If we give ourselves an A, then we are regarded as self-serving. Who would believe us?”
The 21 main goals have been broken down into as many as 70 different metrics, from improving freshman retention to streamlining tech services to boosting UMass’s image with more comments about the university on social media.
When the Globe requested the specific targets, UMass provided a spreadsheet labeled “internal working draft – for discussion purposes only” that listed first-year goals for each campus for 2013.
But a number of those goals were about the same as 2012 results that have been reported by UMass in other documents. For the percentage of students who graduate within six years, Amherst’s 2013 target is listed as 70 percent to 73 percent, but it was 70.4 percent last year. Lowell’s 2013 target is “at least 51 percent” It reported a 54 percent graduation rate last year.
Officials said they are still determining the targets.
“Retention and graduation rates are nowhere where they need to be,” Caret said. “They should all be moving up.”