A Review of Institutional Accountability: The Correct Way of Preserving and Serving the Public Interest

Iqra Athar ’26

Contributing Writer

At the Hillel Solidarity Sharing Circle on Monday, October 3rd, questions were raised about the institutional accountability on part of Trinity College in response to the anti-Semitic incident on campus. As reported in the email sent out on September 23rd from Vice President for Student Success and Enrollment Management Joe DiChristiana and Reverend Marcus Halley, Campus Safety received a report on September 18th disclosing that three swastikas were carved into the door of Jewish Trinity Students living in Ogilby Hall. This act, categorized as a hate crime, was duly noted and condemned as an act antithetical to what Trinity values as a community. While we have yet to hear back from the investigation in progress under Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Compliance, Pamela Whitely, it is important for us to understand the essential role Trinity has to play as a responsible institution committed to providing quality education.

It may be useful for us to step back from the specific methodologies to examine the broader idea of institutional accountability, which has more to do with measuring and reporting visible aspects of operational performance. Institutional accountability involves the countless expectations of diverse stakeholders, including students, alumni, donors, oversight agencies, the general public, and other interest groups, in college and university operations. It extends the concept of accountability into a sphere of responsiveness to societal demands, the expectation of social needs, and compliance with personal and professional standards of conduct. Thus, it places higher education in the hub of economic, political, but also cultural systems—relating to societal ideas, customs, and social behavior—to justify its contribution and to account for its failure. Simultaneously, the perspective of institutional accountability involves not only reactive responses to the demands of diverse stakeholders but also involves efforts by administrators, trustees, and even faculty to anticipate changes in their environment in order to take dynamic steps to ensure the public trust is secured.  

The idea of accountability in higher education is a complex one. The larger paradigm which holds the institution itself is the public trust; hence, it urges us to consider the broader outcome of institutional accountability and the disputes caused by its many dimensions and definitions. Furthermore, it requires a conceptual framework for institutional accountability that will allow us to consider measurement tools within a larger setting. One of the key elements of this framework encourages institutions to acknowledge higher authority, the public trust, which is ultimately the root of their directive, their authority, and their credibility. Other key elements of accountability are defined by implicit expectations of a diverse set of stakeholders besides what is formally codified in laws and regulations; embedment of both implicit and explicit standards of accountability in institutions’ strategic environment; and, finally, the execution and continuous monitoring of institutions’ strategic management process.

Conformity with the law and reporting through a chain of authority constitutes only the most scarcely defined aspects of answerability. Kearns stated, “The most challenging task in being accountable is answering two questions: To whom are we accountable? For what are we accountable?” We cannot let go of these questions merely by the college or university restating its undertaking in instructing, research, and public service. Hence, we come back to the important issue at hand that first started this conservation of institutional accountability: Trinity College’s administration’s responsibility to not only the victims of the hate crime, people identifying as Jewish, but to the broader community that is opposed to these crimes.

Nevertheless, the question marks that surround Trinity’s delayed communication in reporting this crime to the general public, the students still hold trust in the board of administration for serving the required accountability: majorly divided among legal or discretionary accountability. While the former accountability is disputed among the decision-makers  in terms of who enforces these standards and on what legal, regulatory, and bureaucratic standards are enforced, the main framework remains to rely upon that of compliance to explicit standard of execution, operational mechanism, outcome measure, or reporting requirement. Whereas the latter accountability allows more of an opportunity for colleges and universities to define and enforce their own standard of accountability, it is not without pressure from the public to serve as standards in comparison to its peer institutions like that of industry or other comparable measures of performance. Consequently, there are also voiced opinions on swift responsiveness against these anti-hate crimes and advocacy against such hate incidents.

The notion of accountability has become a catch-all term referring to everything from cost control to professional and moral ethics. With regard to the recent event on campus, this has not only garnered support in reaching relative accountability, but it also demands that Trinity develop a greater strategic framework for accountability and transparency in terms of procedure to counter hostile environments especially when it comes to preserving and serving the public interest. 

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