Why The University Chose the Topic of Assessment

For its self-study, the University of Pittsburgh chose the topic of “Using a Universitywide Culture of Assessment for Continuous Improvement.” By primarily addressing the standards of institutional assessment and assessment of student learning, this self-study provides the University with the opportunity to look in depth at a strategy to which it has been deeply committed for some time. The standards addressed in this study include Standard 7: Institutional Assessment; Standard 14: Assessment of Student Learning; portions of Standard 2: Planning, Resource Allocation, and Institutional Renewal; Standard 8: Student Admissions and Retention; Standard 9: Student Support Services; Standard 11: Educational Offerings; and Standard 12: General Education.

The foundation for developing a systematic approach to planning, setting goals, and assessing and achieving those goals was established more than 20 years ago. In 1992, the University instituted its Planning and Budgeting System (PBS) to promote transparency, cooperation, and coordination among members of the University community; to increase accountability; and to improve planning and budgeting decision making. PBS incorporates long-range planning and budgeting, operational planning and budgeting ,and ongoing assessment of all University programs and responsibility centers.

In the mid-1990s, the University set forth its new vision of becoming one of the nation’s preeminent research universities, and the formal mission statement, as adopted in 1995, articulates that aspiration.

Building on that foundation, in 1996 and again in 2000, the Board of Trustees approved resolutions that set the strategy and tone for all future goals and successes:

1996 Resolution (in part): To fulfill its institutional mission and increase its overall stature, it is essential that the University place special emphasis on undergraduate education in the months and years ahead devoted to increasing the academic standards for its undergraduate programs; ensuring that all undergraduates achieve quantitative and communicative skills and are well prepared for their chosen life path; improving the quality of student life; and attracting, retaining, and graduating a more diverse (multicultural, racial, geographic, etc.) undergraduate student body. (Appendix A1)

2000 Resolution (in part): Our overarching goal is to be among the best in all that we do. We will add—significantly, measurably, and visibly—to institutional quality and reputation through the accomplishments of our people; the strength of our programs; and the regional, national, and international impact of our work… becoming among the country’s most selective public universities in the credentials and commitment of students; striving continuously and creatively to ensure that the opportunities for learning and growth offered to undergraduates are second to none; enhancing existing strengths in graduate and professional education; [and] increasing the scope, quality, and visibility of our exceptional research programs. (Appendix A2)

In alignment with these board resolutions and the University’s mission and in consultation with the faculty and administration, the Provost developed a set of long-range academic goals:

  1. Become one of the nation’s top 25 research universities.
  2. Offer truly superb undergraduate experiences in a research university of nationally recognized stature.
  3. Nurture a world-class environment that results in increased sponsored research and scholarly and creative output.
  4. Strategically develop areas of excellence in collaborative research scholarship.
  5. Take advantage of academic opportunities available in an urban environment.
  6. Become engaged with external constituencies with whom the University has common goals and interests.
  7. Expand the University’s global focus by increasing international study and research opportunities.

Over an extended period of time, the Provost presented and discussed these strategic academic goals with many groups of faculty, administrators, and staff—both within and outside the traditional academic areas—with the aim of focusing the University community’s attention on the academic priorities of the institution. During this period of presentations and discussions, not only were the academic goals of the University extensively communicated, but the framework through which progress toward these goals would be assessed was made clear (Appendix A3).

The University also developed and refined the processes it would use to evaluate its effectiveness in achieving its mission and goals, to ensure that students and graduates achieve the appropriate learning and other outcomes, and to make efficient use of available resources. The institutionalization of these processes organized the University’s thinking about assessment into major objectives consistent with institutional goals, presented areas where critical success factors could be identified and used to gauge the success of the University’s efforts, and determined how the results of assessment could most effectively be both analyzed and used to effect change.

This combination of sustained and integrated activities—the statement of mission and strategic goals by the Board of Trustees, the institutional Planning and Budgeting System, the identification of academic goals supported by an annual planning system for academic units, and an overall system of processes for institutional assessment—constitute the framework of the comprehensive model in place at the Universityof Pittsburgh. It is a model for planning; setting goals; assessing progress toward those goals; and, ultimately, for using a University-wide culture of assessment for continuous improvement.