For much of American history, there has been considerable deference to, and confidence in, our colleges and universities as providing the best higher education system in the world. The past twenty years or more the traditional deference shown to higher education has been gradually replaced by increasing questioning and criticism. Business leaders, public officials, and the public more generally are asking that higher education show more clearly the results of the large investments in colleges and universities. These concerns are especially pressing as higher education also seeks to serve a greater proportion of the population and to meet the country’s need for an increasingly well-educated, economically competitive, and socially responsible citizenry.
Discussions around the reauthorization process for the Higher Education Act (2003-2008) and the Spellings Commission Report (September 2006) raised these issues to a new level. The latter in particular was sharply critical of American higher education. After the report was issued there was considerable concern within higher education circles that the Department of Education would take a far greater role in regulating colleges and universities, perhaps including exerting stricter control over the accreditation process or imposing some requirements for standardized testing and reporting of outcomes.
In June 2007 Bob Connor, President of the Teagle Foundation, in cooperation with AAC&U and CHEA, convened a meeting in Washington, DC of some thirty individuals representing associations, accreditation agencies, researchers, and interested faculty and administrators. The purpose of the meeting was to examine whether this political climate warranted a more unified response to issues of effectiveness and assessment, transparency and accountability―turn the political pressure into an opportunity to develop more proactive, educationally valid approaches to improving student learning and reporting educational outcomes in ways that would address public concerns.
The higher education leaders present at this meeting reaffirmed recent and ongoing commitments of higher education to assessing, reporting on, and improving its work. There was also considerable consensus in the group that organizations representing and interested in higher education needed to do something in response to the Spellings report, at the very least to develop a collective statement on issues of assessment, accountability, and student learning. There was some discussion about possible historical models for such a statement, including the Flexner Report on medical education, the American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and Vannevar Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier on government support of research. What these seemingly disparate efforts had in common was the development of principles and standards for professional activity that guided systematic improvement while preserving professional self-regulation and autonomy, all in the public interest.
The meeting ended with Connor and Carol Schneider, President of the AAC&U, volunteering to draft a statement that would articulate a collective position on assessment and accountability that could be endorsed by various parties but especially by the higher education associations and accreditation agencies. David Paris, Senior Fellow at AAC&U, Senior Advisor at CIC, and former VPAA/Dean at Hamilton College, was asked to assist in the drafting.
The resulting document, New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability: A Statement of Principles, Commitments to Action, published in January 2008, described some of the challenges facing higher education, articulated some broad principles concerning setting educational goals, gathering evidence, communicating results, and the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders around these issues. Equally important, it suggested a number of broad actions that "we” would take "to address the vital issues of transparency and accountability through rigorous attention to the performance of our colleges and universities.” These included disseminating and promoting the New Leadership document, promoting greater definition and clarity with regard to educational goals, encouraging the continued development of accountability templates, promoting and publicizing the range of assessment efforts, working with a variety of constituencies (philanthropy, government, business) on these issues, to "constantly monitor the quality of student learning and development, and use the results both to improve achievement and to demonstrate the value of our work to the public,” and to "regularly report to the public on the overall progress made in achieving these actions.”
As significant as the development of this statement was, there remained the challenge of moving from a statement of principles to the collective, collaborative actions called for in the document. Namely, how do "we” create some widely shared norms for putting these principles into practice in higher education? What kind(s) of shared expectations can be created, and how, for these principles that is consistent with the institutional and professional autonomy characteristic of American higher education? How do "we” create greater unity and coherence in the enterprise of higher education in ways that can be embraced by its many internal and external stakeholders and conveyed clearly and compellingly to the public?
It was these kinds of questions that led to several further meetings, again convened by The Teagle Foundation, to consider how to follow through on the principles and actions of the New Leadership statement. Over the course of these meetings it was agreed that it would be desirable to consider the creation of a more formal structure that would ensure that the principles of the New Leadership statement became a movement for systematic assessing, reporting on, and improving student learning outcomes. It was also agreed in June 2008 that Connor and Paris would develop and present a more specific description of a new "entity” or organization to a meeting of a broader group in October in conjunction with a meeting showcasing successful Teagle-supported assessment projects.
The October meeting in Durham, North Carolina, involved a number of individuals who first met in June 2007. They and others represented associations whose members include most of the four year postsecondary institutions, public and private, in the United States, as well as the accreditation agencies, foundation representatives, and faculty and researchers. The parties present agreed on the need for and desirability of such an "Alliance” and urged that we proceed in developing it. At a closing panel of the larger conference that included Molly Broad, the new President of the American Council on Education, Peter Ewell of the National Center of Higher Education Management Systems, Paris, and Schneider, the intent to form the Alliance was announced. Paris noted:
"How do we develop a mechanism for harnessing and directing collective, sustained, strategic action to improve student learning in American colleges and universities? There was an agreement at the Steering Committee meeting about the need and desire to form an "Alliance” – we don’t have a formal name yet – but it would probably involve a committee and networks representing all the major groups involved with and supporting higher education in the effort to improve student learning. It would create a structure to coordinate existing efforts, share information about what is under way, and encourage efforts that still need to be made. . . . We will be developing the Alliance in the coming months, inviting leaders of other organizations to join in the work, and finding the necessary funding. We believe that in this way higher education will in a few years be able to say confidently to the public and public officials we have achieved systematic and even systemic improvement, and that students throughout the country are benefitting from it.”
As a result of the October meeting, The Teagle Foundation approved a grant to support Paris to work full time on the development of the Alliance from January-July 2009. In January 2009 the Carnegie Corporation of New York also indicated its willingness to consider a capacity building grant to support some of the Alliance’s projects and activities, and a grant for 6 months was approved in October 2009. A continuation grant was awarded from Carnegie Corporation in April 2010 for another 18 months.
In November 2009, the Alliance held its first event, the Moving the Needle Meeting and invited representatives from higher education to Washington DC to set forth an agenda for the community to work collaboratively and collectively on assessment and accountability issues.
The Alliance was incorporated in March 2009. It was designated a public charity and received tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code from the federal government in January 2010.