Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Using Professional Development Funds Wisely

Posted on November 9, 2016 at 5:45 AM


I recently suggested to a college that it invest its professional development funds in helping faculty learn more about how to teach and assess. The response? We already do plenty—we give every faculty member funds to use however they like on professional development.


The problem with this approach is that there can be a difference between what people want to do and what they should do. If you gave me funds for my own personal growth and development, I’d probably use it to visit some fine restaurants instead of the gym membership that I really should get. If you gave me funds for professional development, I’d probably use it to go to a research conference in a nice location rather than organize a visit with a team of my colleagues a college that’s doing a great job teaching and assessing writing in our discipline.


One of the themes of my book Five Dimensions of Quality is “put your money where your mouth is.” Does your college really do this when it comes to professional development?


  • Does your college focus its professional development resources on the things your college says it’s focusing on? For example, if one of your college’s strategic goals is to be student-centered, do you focus professional development funds on helping faculty and staff learn what it means to be student-centered and how to incorporate student-centered practices into their teaching and other responsibilities?
  • Does your college give priority to funding sabbatical leave requests that, again, address your college’s top priorities? If your college’s mission or strategic goals include teaching excellence, for example, do you give high priority to sabbatical leaves that address the scholarship of teaching?
  • Does your college prioritize travel funding conferences and events that will help faculty and staff develop the knowledge and skills to address your college’s top priorities, such as student success?
  • Does your college prioritize sabbatical and travel funding for requests that include plans to disseminate that’s been learned to colleagues across your college?
  • Does your teaching-learning center use systematic evidence of what faculty and student development staff most need to learn when it plans its professional development offerings? For example, if assessments show that students across a variety of disciplines struggle to cite sources, does the TLC collaborate with librarians to offer programming on how to teach students to cite sources?
  • Does your assessment committee periodically review department assessment reports to identify what faculty and staff are doing well with assessment and what remains a struggle? Does it publicize successes, such as useful rubrics and prompts, to help others learn what good practices look like? Does it sponsor or recommend professional development to help faculty and staff with whatever aspects of assessment are most challenging?

What does your website say about your institution?

Posted on May 27, 2016 at 12:40 AM

Part of my preparation for working with or visiting any college is visiting its website. I’m looking for basic “get acquainted” info to help me understand the college and therefore do a better job helping it. The information I’m looking for often includes things like the following:

  • How big is the institution? This helps me because large institutions may need different assessment or accreditation support structures than small ones.
  • What are its mission, vision, and strategic goals? This helps me because assessment and accreditation work should focus on institutional achievement of its mission, vision, and strategic goals.
  • Who “owns” the institution? Is it public, private non-profit, or private for-profit? Who founded it, and how long ago? This gives me insight into possible unstated values of the institution. For example, an institution founded by a religious denomination may still abide by some of the denomination’s tenets, even if it is now independent. A public institution is typically under pressure to be all things to all people and may therefore be stretched too thin.
  • Who accredits the institution? Helpful for obvious reasons!
  • What kinds of programs does it offer? This helps me because professional/career programs often need different assessment approaches or support than liberal arts programs.
  • How are the institution’s academic programs organized? Sometimes there are several schools within a college or several colleges within a university.
  • How many programs does it offer? An institution offering 250 programs needs a different assessment structure than one offering 25.
  • What is its gen ed curriculum, and what are its gen ed learning outcomes? This can be helpful because I often work with colleges on identifying and assessing gen ed learning outcomes.


(Ironically, I never look for any assessment information on the college’s website. I know it’s not there. Yes, there may be a home page for the assessment office, usually full of guidelines on how to fill out report templates, and perhaps with links to some assessment reports. But I haven’t yet found a college website that tells me and others clearly, “What are the most important things we want students to learn here, and how well are they learning it?” So I don’t bother looking anymore.)


Yes, I could ask my contacts at the institution for all this information (and if I can’t find it on the website, I do), but poking around the website gives me additional insight:

  • Does the institution have a clear sense of its identity and priorities? I worry about colleges with incredibly cluttered home pages, full of announcements about recent and upcoming events, maybe some research, registration reminders, and links to intranet portals. It’s the throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-see-what-works approach, and I worry if that’s the approach they take to everything else they do.
  • Most colleges publish their mission, but a remarkable number don’t publish their strategic plan. This gives me the impression that they don’t want public stakeholders (community members, businesses, government policymakers) to get on board and support their plans.
  • Some university websites list their programs by school or college—in order to find the Visual Communications program, you have to first somehow discern if it’s offered in the College of Business, the College of Art, or the College of Liberal Arts. Most prospective students are interested in particular programs and don’t care which college they’re housed in, so this raises a concern that the institution may be more faculty-centered than student-centered.
  • Sometimes the colleges/schools and the programs within them are just plain odd. I remember one institution that had a visual communication program in the business college and a graphic design program in the art college—and of course they offered completely separate curricula and didn’t talk to each other! These oddities often suggest silos and turf wars.
  • Sometimes a college offers, say, 150 programs for 2500 students. This is a college that’s stretching its resources too far—probably some of those programs are too small to be effective.
  • I sometimes need Indiana Jones to track down gen ed requirements. Here’s one (sadly typical) example: from the home page, I clicked on Academics, then Academic Catalogs, then 2015-2016 Undergraduate Catalog, then Colleges and Schools, then College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, then (finally) General Education Requirements. The only conclusion I can draw is that colleges and universities are embarrassed of their gen ed requirements, which doesn’t say much about the real value we place on the liberal arts.


Now, I know I’m not a typical visitor to your college’s website, but I’m sure I’m not the only stakeholder interested in these kinds of information…and perhaps drawing these kinds of conclusions about your college. At a minimum, your accreditation reviewers will probably visit your website looking for things very similar to what I look for.


For more ideas on common flaws in college websites, visit

What should boards be monitoring?

Posted on March 14, 2016 at 8:35 AM

On April 17, 2016, I’m doing a pre-conference workshop at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship on “Creating and Using Dashboards to Monitor and Improve Institutional Performance.”


The most important question about dashboards is what your board should be tracking. I see two broad categories. The first is your institution’s health and well-being. Boards should be tracking answers to the following questions:

• Is your college community safe and healthy?

• Do you have enough resources: financial, human, capital, and technological?

• Do you have the right resources: financial, human, capital, and technological?

• Are your revenue sources sufficiently diverse?

• Is your college financially healthy?


The second broad category is how well your institution is keeping its promises—implicit as well as explicit—to its students and their families, your region, and taxpayers and others who support it. Boards should be tracking answers to the following questions:

• Are your students learning what your promise?

• Do your students succeed?

• How well does your college help students learn, develop, and succeed?

• Does your college contribute to economic development and to the public good?

• Is your college achieving what you promise in your mission and goals?

• Do you put your money where your mouth is—investing in keeping your promises?

• How efficiently do you deploy your resources?


I hope you or someone else from your institution will join me at this workshop!

Five strategies for successful implementation of your strategic plan

Posted on September 26, 2015 at 9:40 AM

Earlier this year the Harvard Business Review published an article by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull on Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. The findings from their research into hundreds of companies confirm the issues that I’ve seen at dozens of colleges and many of the recommendations I offer in my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability.


1. Focus, focus, focus. A successful institution has just a few clear priorities. Many colleges spread themselves too thin, pursuing “more initiatives than resources can support” and ending up doing a mediocre job of many things rather than an excellent job on a few top priorities.


2. Communicate. A successful institution has just a few clear priorities that everyone understands. Sull and his colleagues concluded that, often because there are too many priorities and strategic initiatives, most people don’t understand their institution’s strategic goals, how they relate to each other, and how they connect to strategies (the things people do to achieve the strategic goals). The proportions of people who say they understand how major priorities and initiatives fit together drops from just over half of top leaders to less than a third of their direct reports to 16% of people like department chairs.


3. Be flexible and innovative. A successful institution must be agile enough to adapt to changing circumstances and new opportunities. A good strategic plan is flexible; the overall strategic goals are relatively constant, but the strategies to achieve them continually evolve. But Sull and his colleagues found that “after investing enormous amounts of time and energy formulating a plan and its budget,” many institutions are reluctant to deviate from them. Sull and his colleagues also note that “agility requires a willingness to experiment, and many managers avoid experimentation because they fear the consequences of failure. Half the managers we have surveyed believe that their careers would suffer if they pursued but failed at novel opportunities or innovations.”


4. Coordinate. Sull and his colleagues found that 30% of managers said the single greatest challenge to executing institutional strategy was failure to coordinate across units. Only 9% of managers said they can rely on colleagues in other functions and units all the time, and just half said they can rely on them most of the time. Sull and his colleagues suggest that institutional leaders “could help by adding structured processes to facilitate coordination” and “do a better job of modeling teamwork.”

5. Put your money where your mouth is. A successful institution aligns its resources with its top priorities. Resources include how people spend their time; successful institutions recognize and reward not only accomplishments but agility, teamwork, and collaboration. But Sull and his colleagues concluded that resources are often “trapped” in unproductive or peripheral uses. They found that institutional leaders “devote a disproportionate amount of time and attention” to programs and initiatives “with limited upside” and fail to move resources from tangential programs to ones that strongly support institutional priorities.

Putting our money where our mouth is

Posted on March 10, 2015 at 12:40 AM

Thank you, SCUP, for pointing out a great article in this month’s Harvard Business Review: “Why strategy execution unravels—and what to do about it” by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull. It reports the results of a survey of nearly 8000 managers in more than 250 companies plus the results of more than 40 experiments on company change.


The misery-loves-company crowd can take some satisfaction that many of the challenges facing higher education are facing businesses as well. One challenge discussed by Sull, Homkes, and Sull is that “resources are often trapped in unproductive uses.” In my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, I call this failing to put your money where your mouth is.


Consider, for example, a goal of many colleges and universities today: Providing a learning-centered environment. If this is one of your college’s key goals, how much money and time does it devote to:

• Professional development to help faculty and staff understand what a learning-centered environment is and how they can contribute to a learning centered environment?

• Faculty research and scholarship that can contribute to developing an institution-wide learning-centered environment?

• Helping faculty and staff make whatever changes are needed to provide a learning-centered environment in their classrooms and activities?

• Broad rather than isolated, piecemeal efforts to foster a learning-centered environment?


Furthermore, does your college

• Give hiring priority to applicants with successful experience in providing a learning-centered environment?

• Place emphasis in faculty and staff evaluation and promotion criteria and procedures on active contributions toward a learning-centered environment?

• Evaluate administrative leaders in part on their promotion of practices in their units that help nurture a learning-centered environment, such as collaboration and a willingness to experiment?

• Set budgets that reallocate funds from tangential activities to those that contribute meaningfully toward a learning-centered environment?


Change is always hard! The key to making tangible progress is to really devote time and resources to whatever your biggest priorities are.

Announcing my new book on accreditation and accountability!

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 3:25 PM


 I have a new book coming out this fall! Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, with a marvelous foreword by Stan Ikenberry, will be released by Jossey-Bass in October.


The book offers straightforward guidance on understanding and meeting calls for ensuring and advancing quality, including responding to calls from accreditors and from others asking for greater accountability, by answering questions such as:

• What is a quality education? What is a quality college? What is an effective college?

• How can colleges ensure that their students are receiving the best possible education?

• How can colleges demonstrate their quality and effectiveness to accreditors, government policymakers, students, and others?


The book takes all the things that U.S. accreditors, government policymakers, and other stakeholders are expecting of colleges and universities today and organizes them into a simple of model of five dimensions of quality that will help you understand not only what your accreditor expects but why.


The five dimensions of quality are:

I. A culture of relevance

II. A culture of community

III. A culture of focus and aspiration

IV. A culture of evidence

V. A culture of betterment


As you might expect from me, the book offers plenty of practical tips. And there’s so much jargon today that I’ve populated the book with “Jargon Alerts!”—sidebars that explain jargon in everyday terms.


For more information, including the table of contents, and to pre-order a copy, visit

What is institutional effectiveness?

Posted on February 7, 2014 at 6:50 AM

Institutional effectiveness is, at its heart, about quality. So what is quality? I think a lot of people define it as excellence: a quality college does an excellent job at whatever it does. Easy, right? Too easy. Under this simplistic definition, a quality college might be one that is doing things excellently, but not the right things: offering courses that no one wants to take, constructing beautiful, energy-efficient buildings that are not designed in ways that help students learn, graduating students but without the skills and competencies that employers need.

Quality, then, is not just a matter of doing things excellently but doing the right things excellently. A quality college is not just excellent per se but excellent in fulfilling its responsibilities:

1. Meet stakeholder needs, especially its students’ needs.

2. Keep its promises by achieving its mission and goals.

3. Ensure its college’s health and well-being, and deploy resources effectively, prudently, and efficiently. (This is stewardship.)

4. Serve the public good.

5. Demonstrate the college’s quality and effectiveness in fulfilling these responsibilities. (This is accountability.)

Many people—and some accreditors—think of institutional effectiveness as a college’s effectiveness in achieving its mission and goals (#2 on my list). I think that is too narrow; it ignores a college’s other fundamental responsibilities. I therefore define institutional effectiveness as a college’s effectiveness in meeting these five responsibilities.