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An Open Book Revolution for Higher Education

— I try to stay narrowly focused on residential college life and administration in these Collegiate Way bulletins because there are many other sources of general university news available both online and off. But every now and then an item arises that seems so important to higher education reform as a whole (and so likely to be under-reported elsewhere) that it merits special attention.

Oregon State University, a public campus with about 30,000 students, has developed a web-based accounting system (I hear you groaning already) that opens to public view every financial transaction of the entire institution. This is the most important development on the higher education “good governance” front that I’ve seen in a very long time.

I heard a presentation on this project, titled “How to engage 30,000 people in university finances,” given by Sherman Bloomer and Brad Dennis of Oregon State and Guilbert L. Brown of George Washington University at the annual SCUP/NACUBO meeting in Hawaii last July. But as far as I know, Oregon State has yet to capitalize on this project in a way that would generate much favorable publicity for the institution. There is now, however, a demonstration of the project online that I encourage everyone to view:

To actually use the system online you have to access the relevant pages from a computer in the domain (including public computers in the campus library). That’s a restriction I would like to see lifted, but in the early stages of the project it is understandable.

What does the Oregon State system mean? It means that students, parents, and the taxpaying public can finally discover (say) how much that new ornamental gate for the baseball stadium actually cost, and to whom the money was paid (a legislative crony, the coach’s brother-in-law, or an honest local business). It means the public can finally see how much money was spent redecorating the chancellor’s bedroom, or putting up the football team in a local hotel the night before a home (!) game, as is done at many big universities in the US, believe it or not. And when more than one campus operates a system like this, it means explicit comparisons can be made from one institution to another.

Public universities should be just that: public. They should be models of openness and transparency, not merely for the negative purpose of preventing corruption, but for the positive reason that “you’re always teaching.” In the way they manage their public funds, public universities should be teaching their students, and all citizens, about responsible stewardship.

Oregon State deserves high praise for this project. I hope they will publicize it and extend it, and I hope it will serve as the foundation for an “open campus” movement across the country and around the world.

Update · 13 February 2008: Gil Brown has today published his own description of Oregon State’s important project, “Making College Finances an Open Book,” on the website of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Update · 7 March 2008: Elizabeth Redden has picked up the story today at Inside Higher Ed under the title “Who Gets How Much Money and Where It Goes.”

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