JITE v34n2 - Under Review - Once Upon a Campus: Lessons for Improving Quality and Productivity in Higher Education

Volume 34, Number 2
Winter 1997

Seymour, D. (1995). Once upon a campus: Lessons for improving quality and productivity in higher education . Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education and Oryx Press. 184 pp. (ISBN 0-897-74965-0).

Teresa Hall
University of Northern Iowa

Daniel Seymour brings extensive experience in industry complemented with a stint in higher education as professor and administrator to this work, Once upon a campus: Lessons for improving quality and productivity in higher education . Among his writings are 12 books on a variety of topics including marketing, quality in higher education, and program development. Representative titles include: On Q: Causing quality in higher education (1992), Total quality management in higher education (1991), Developing academic programs: The climate for innovation (1988), and Successful academic programs: Their development and maintenance (1989).

Service organizations, manufacturing corporations, government agencies, and postsecondary educational institutions are among the groups currently seeking techniques to make daily routines more productive, cut costs, develop strategies to improve service or reliability, and design methods to assure continued existence. Seymour observes that quality precepts often fail to transition smoothly from industry to academia. This work extends his quality crusade for higher education one step further. This timely book was written to challenge higher education to rethink the way it defines and approaches the issue of productivity. Seymour's contention is that, in education, quality is too often viewed in a concrete and absolute sense, rather than stepping back and looking at the big picture.

Taking the stance that the problem of organizational change through new ideas or methods is either one of undesirability or that it is not fully operationalized for implementation, Seymour offers a customized model for higher education. He acknowledges that the separate entities in academia (faculty, students, administration, staff) have different perceptions of what represents improved performance, but he notes that to persons outside academia (parents, legislators, governing boards), these differences are often quite confusing.

Through his "performance improvement framework" model, Seymour interprets the relationship between the five main components of his framework as a systematized "how to" for academia. Using paradigms from industry and higher education, he gives lessons on how to change and improve productivity in educational institutions. He argues that the path for change lies in determining who our customers are, making responsible parties the owners of the process, taking a holistic view, and leaving behind our assumptions when trying to solve problems. These views are not unlike the concepts of TQM or continuous improvement initiatives.

Seymour opens the discussion by comparing students in higher education to parts on a manufacturing assembly line. Some of the parts are of top quality and are used as demonstrators for salespersons. Others are of acceptable quality and sold to the public for general use. The last group of parts are defective and sent to the scrap heap or are reworked until they meet quality standards. Manufacturing company goals of top quality parts with no rejects are possible only when communication links are established among all areas of the company. With joint input, changes in the process are made to facilitate high quality parts and reduce rejects. The parallel with higher education is in discovering what factors contribute to ensuring the success of all students-not rejecting the students who do not fit into the current system.

Using his performance improvement framework, Seymour outlines five quality components: (a) direction setting, (b) process design and management, (c) feedback, (d) enablers, and (e) personal involvement. The first three components comprise the core of his quality system with the last two functioning as facilitators to the process. Within this framework, he emphasizes that the system cannot be a closed one since feedback from sources external to the situation are essential (e.g., the conference attendance patterns of academics frequently serve to maintain isolation from a broader academic context). Most educators attend the same conferences from year to year and thus tend to concentrate on and view problems and solutions from a restricted perspective. By taking a fresh perspective and obtaining new ideas from different sources, educators stand a better chance of finding better and more creative solutions.

Using a series of lessons to illustrate how each part of the framework fits with the others, improving productivity appears less daunting to achieve. Each lesson begins with a short story illustrating a problem typically encountered in higher education. Each story is designed to focus the discussion of the framework's components and to make a case for reflection and change. To be successful, all components of the framework must be explored and utilized. There may be a temptation to select the most desirable or easiest elements to implement. However, Seymour cautions that the framework is a holistic approach and must be addressed in that fashion. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

The first component, direction setting, illustrates how manufacturing has achieved higher goals in quality by making changes to the fundamental process. By breaking out of the thinking that some students will not succeed as a natural occurrence in higher education, setting new goals to have all students succeed without compromising standards is his proposed new aim for academia. Although admirable and justified, there will always be students who cannot or will not rise to the challenge of post-secondary education. Improving educational services is perhaps more realistic, since students have human failings and are not "parts" that can have their environment controlled as in a factory.

The second component, process design and management, examines the typical problems that any large bureaucratic organization encounters in daily operations. Ownership of rules, bottlenecks in authorizations, handoffs to the next level of authority, and the general complexity of academic administration are separate chapters that are allotted attention. He is correct in observing that academia has an organizational focus toward goals, but the process focus he offers as a repair may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve for many institutions. As we are well aware, changing politically-motivated systems requires risk-taking, public consensus, and sacrifice by players within the system. A gradual evolution of the academic culture might be more realistic.

The third component, feedback, incorporates parts of Demings' plan (do, check, and act [PDCA] cycle for assessment and change). The concept of measurement without providing meaningful feedback to the person being measured is attacked by Seymour as a cardinal sin of faculty. He contends that mid-term and final exams generate grades that are frequently utilized as sorting devices for students rather than enabling the learning process. This may be true for the quintessential crusty professor more interested in his/her research, rather than those faculty who truly care enough to take the time to accommodate and support their students. He also takes issue with faculty complaints regarding student deficiencies in communication, mathematics or science skills, stating that it only serves to mask the problem of failure to provide adequate feedback to students. There may be a grain of truth in this observation. Many of us are prone to bemoan students' shortcomings rather than proactively addressing the situation. However, this issue encompasses our entire education system, not just higher education.

The fourth component, enablers, links leadership issues, problem-solving, and taking a systems view to change. Obviously, leadership and vision are critical components to how well institutions adapt and change within their sphere of influence. Problem-solving is explored under the setting of the tenure process. Seymour challenges the tenure system as a "quality-by-threshold" process rather than a "quality-by-improvement" system. By not making tenure, higher education utilizes a punish-and-eliminate methodology that wastes precious time and resources of the faculty and the organization. He proposes a "learning cycle…that can improve the quality of (faculty), not a methodology that is fixated on exposing the few bad apples" (p. 117). By determining if the problem is people-related or process-related, resources would not be wasted.

The last component, personal involvement, is centered around motivating people by giving them hope and support in their efforts to improve. "Building a belief system in which improvement is not only possible, but expected, begins with a behavior … sharing of power" (p. 161). This may be the hardest change to set into motion in academic organizations. The backbone of a bureaucracy is the power that is afforded to the position, and power flows upward in a traditional system. Power for faculty is lab space, committee appointments, and graduate assistants. These are things that are hard won and not easily disbursed. Seymour has an interesting idea, but major systemic change must occur before members of academic organizations will relinquish their power.

In the final analysis, Seymour has constructed a model that attempts to be sensitive to the academic need for productivity, autonomy, and quality. The current climate in state governments across the country is placing great emphasis on quality and documented outcomes. Higher education must respond quickly and efficiently if it is to remain credible and maintain public support. The performance improvement framework is a possible tool to use in addressing those concerns and meet our changing needs. Time, effort, and money are precious resources for colleges and universities. By approaching the quality initiative from the productivity perspective, it may be possible to maximize all three of these assets while making positive change for the future.

Technology programs are increasingly being asked to justify high-dollar equipment purchases, adapt curriculum to meet the rapid changes in technology, and meet administrative expectations with regard to student outcomes. This book, with its lessons from industry and academia, may have a ring of truth for industrial educators well-versed in current industrial management practice. Rather than force a management theory model onto higher education, Seymour adapts lessons learned in industry to fit higher education. His understanding of academia's penchant for models and charts is sagacious.

Seymour has an engaging style that moves the reader quickly from one concept to the next and the book can be read in a single sitting. This book might have use as an idea starter for persons in higher education desiring change in the status quo but lacking the strategy to initiate the first moves. Seymour has proposed an approach for enhancing productivity in higher education that is stimulating. He challenges many traditional beliefs regarding grades, tenure, student retention, and decision-making. Because much of Seymour's framework incorporates industrial management concepts espoused by Goldratt, Deming, Crosby, and Juran, industrial education and technology departments will find this work to be particularly useful and engaging.

Reference Citation: Hall, T (1996). Review of Once Upon a Campus: Lessons for Improving Quality and Productivity in Higher Education. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 34(2), 106-110.