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NCA re-evaluates University accreditation

Joe Trombello | Thursday, March 25, 2004

Sixteen representatives from the North Central Association have descended on-campus this week to re-accredit the University – a process that occurs once every 10 years – and members have been meeting with numerous on-campus constituencies at McKenna Hall to gather information and provide feedback. Any university that wishes to receive federal funding for student financial aid or faculty grants must be formally accredited. The NCA, an organization which accredits over 800 institutions in the North-Central United States, conducts the accreditation process on five criteria, including such stipulations that the university must have a “clear, appropriate institutional statement of mission and purpose” and the University must be “accomplishing its educational and other purposes.”According to associate provost Maura Ryan, the re-accreditation process serves as an excellent opportunity for Notre Dame to gain feedback from committee members, many of whom are from institutions that Notre Dame considers its peers or aspirational peers. Members this year include the president of Saint Louis University, a professor in Duke University’s Fuque School of Business and the senior associate vice provost at Stanford, among others.”We are not in danger of losing our accreditation,” Ryan said. “This visit is … really a chance for them [the committee] to help us look objectively at how we’re doing … and how we may do it [better],” she said.As part of the preparation process, the University has written a thorough self-study that provides the committee with information on its departments and programs, among other information. Because the accreditation process has traditionally occurred around the University’s own 10-year strategic plan, the plan plays a vital role in the creation of the self-study.”The strategic planning process is a good base for the self-study,” Ryan said. “The processes are distinct but not separate … [we are] not doing this in isolation.”Barbara Walvoord, coordinator of the NCA self-study and fellow of the institute for educational initiatives, said that the creation of the self-study, an over 400-page document, came about through the help of numerous people. Walvoord said 176 faculty, staff, administrators and students either directly sent text or responded with suggestions.”A number of other people provided other information and answered queries,” she said.As part of their fact-finding process, over 50 meetings have been conducted this week with various groups on-campus. Some meetings have been open and have encouraged students or faculty members to provide feedback, while others have been more specifically targeted toward groups such as department chairs or administrators. Walvoord said that meetings have gone smoothly from the point of view of both parties.”The team has been very appreciative; they are gulping in information about Notre Dame as fast as possible,” she said. “Our own people have been very cooperative in meeting … and being candid.”Of particular concern to the committee during the 1994 report was the process of the assessment of learning and teaching. “Assessment is really difficult to approach,” said Ava Preacher, assistant dean of the College of Arts & Letters. “No institution has a really good handle on it.”In order to address the concerns of the 1994 committee, Walvoord said that the University has taken a number of measures to improve. Walvoord noted that an assessment advisory committee was appointed by Provost Nathan Hatch to focus on the process of the academic reviews of departments. She said that departments were asked to more clearly articulate their goals for student learning.She also noted that the institution of programs such as the scholarship of teaching and learning program or the series of annual grants provided by the Provost have better enabled faculty to study how students learn in their classroom.”Just this year, a new Core Curriculum Committee [was formed] whose charge is to review all core courses and state the kind of student learning that we expect.”A number of faculty and administrators who attended portions of the committee meetings said they found the process helpful.Preacher said that she attended discussions on numerous topics ranging from women’s issues to the structure of faculty governance and the University’s sexual harassment policy.”For the most part, everybody in the room knows where the discontents are, but I don’t think there’s a sense that the institution is on the wrong track,” she said. She said that she believes the University has made great strides in women’s issues, such as women faculty hiring, promotion and retention, but said she also believes more work needs to be done.”We’ve gotten a whole lot better. … but we’ve still got a long way to go. The University has made a good faith effort to hire, promote and retain women, but we still have some things to do,” she said.Robert Norton, chair of the department of German and Russian languages and literatures, said he attended a discussion with selected chairs of humanity departments. He said that discussion focused primarily on issues that the University may face as it “continues its efforts to enhance its reputation as a research institution.””I found them [the two members of the committee] to be eager to listen carefully to what [we] had to say … engaged and very well-informed about the university and concerned to help us to improve,” he said.Norton said his department has taken steps to improve the quality of student education and assessment of knowledge learned. He said his department remains one among a “minority of departments” within the College of Arts & Letters to offer a senior capstone project option to its majors and is currently in the process of considering whether to administer an exit survey to graduating seniors to gauge their satisfaction with the major and their education, as well as assessing what students have learned.”The process itself [accreditation] is also part of a larger question of accountability – the University needs to be held accountable, and the process of the NCA is an example of how that works,” he said. “The very process of examining practices and asking questions … in and of itself is salutary.”The committee’s findings and recommendations will be published in the Notre Dame Review later this year.