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People use quality loosely, with many different meanings. Sometimes they use it to refer an unspoken neo-Platonic ideal, and base their judgments of various real things on how what they perceive and experience differs from their idealized conception.

It is unlikely that the mental models of two people who argue about a higher education institution's quality will ever match. Since we cannot easily enter Plato's cave and compare these mental ideals directly, nor can we force everyone to adopt a single ideal, discussions about quality carried on in this framework are generally unrevealing. Arguments like these do not lead to consensus among those with different judgments, nor do they provide strong foundations for talking about improvement.

The "quality movement" takes a different approach, defining a quality or a high-performance organization as one that succeeds in satisfying its stakeholders' expectations by meeting or exceeding their needs.

By this thinking, there exists no ideal organization against which to measure real ones, nor is it possible for an organization to reach perfection, since that would imply that an ideal did exist. Instead, quality becomes a journey, a search for better ways to understand the changing needs of an organization's stakeholders and for better ways to meet their needs.

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Since we can measure the performance of the various processes an organization uses to gauge and meet its stakeholders' needs, improvements are measurable -- although quality it is not.

The size and regularity of those improvements testify to an organization's quality culture. Used this way, quality ought always to be an adjective, never a noun. Quality describes an organization that behaves in certain ways -- it focuses upon processes, bases decisions on facts and measurements, looks at itself as an integrated system designed to achieve its ultimate mission and purposes, and so on.

Closely related to this word usage is the often-quoted definition (of Juran, Deming, and others) that quality means fitness for use. Perception of the quality of a product or service depends on what a user wants it for.

In effect, quality judgments make sense only in light of the specific purpose a product or service performs for a particular person. Education also serves different purposes for students, parents, employers, and many others.

These differences inevitably inform and shape each qualitative judgment of an institution. Generally, individual students seek higher education to satisfy multiple purposes.

And most institutions serve disparate groups with dissimilar goals. Thus an institution's educators must work hard to understand their stakeholders' diverse purposes, to decide which ones are essential and which are merely desirable, and to evaluate carefully how to best fulfill each need. Typically an institution will be perceived as high quality for satisfying one purpose, low for another.

Ranking one institution as having higher overall quality than another is what makes cumulative rankings, like those in USA News and World Reports, so offensive.

Global, abstract talk about quality is neither logical nor useful. If thinking about quality is to lead to improvement, it's critical we remember for whom and for what purpose we do what we do.

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