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College completes self-study

Megan O'Neil | Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Two years of research and self-analysis will come to a head at Saint Mary’s today as representatives of the Higher Learning Commission conclude a three-day campus visit as part of a reaccreditation process.

Led by Vice President and Dean of Faculty Pat White and Director of the Center for Academic Innovation Pat Pierce, the College compiled a 134-page self-study report that examines the progress of the institution over the last ten years and its direction in the future.

Pierce described the report, two years in the making, as a “really unique one … very different from accreditations in the past.”

In the past, the report has been more like an inventory of the College, Pierce said, and included data such as the number of students enrolled and the number of volumes in the library. This time, however, the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accrediting agency, required Saint Mary’s to conduct a self-analysis based on five criteria – missions and integrity, preparing for the future, student learning and effective teaching, acquisition, discovery and application and engagement and service.

“It’s a much better [method] than the other approach. This is a real improvement,” Pierce said. “It is [more work] but I think it makes the self-study and self-study report more valuable.”

The more in-depth nature of the study required White and Pierce to involve a broader spectrum of the College community in the project. Staff and faculty members were selected to research and prepare different sections of the self-study report, Pierce said. They conducted interviews with students, faculty, staff, alumnae and members of the Board of Trustees – “all sorts of constituents on campus and off campus,” Pierce said.

Drafts were made available to faculty and staff last spring for feedback, Pierce said, and certain themes in the report caused dissent.

Diversity at Saint Mary’s was one such point of contention. Individuals had varying perspectives on where the College stands on the issue, Pierce said, and where and how far it should progress in the future.

“I think there are differing perspectives between faculty, faculty and students, between members of the Board,” Pierce said.

Pierce said there was no effort to hide the existence of disagreements at the College and said all contributors were encouraged to be completely honest in their responses in order to give the accreditors an accurate perspective of the school.

“They are going to do that better if everyone contributed their own understanding of what is going on,” Pierce said.

The various drafts were edited and assembled over the summer by a writing team made up of White, Pierce and art professor Laurel Thomas. They continued to fine-tune the document throughout the fall, Pierce said.

“I guess the hard thing is that it’s a long process and it needs to be a long process and then we gather tons and tons of information and then it becomes a huge writing problem … what do you put in and what do you leave out?” White said.

During their three days on campus, the three Higher Learning Commission representatives met with administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumnae and community members in order to assess the effectiveness of the College in carrying out its Mission as an institution of high education.

The final meeting will take place today with College President Carol Ann Mooney. The visitors will give a general indication of how successfully the College met the requirements for accreditation, Pierce said. An official report will be issued in the following weeks.

In completing the self-study, Pierce said he and his colleagues were impressed by how thoroughly the Saint Mary’s Mission was being lived out in the various departments of the College.

“I think that is something folks found satisfying, and I think beyond that not only did we see the Mission reflected across the institution, [but also] we gained a respect for the work that is being done outside your division,” Pierce said.

White, who participated in the 1996 accreditation, said one major area of improvement he saw at Saint Mary’s was long-term planning.

“In 1995 when we did our report we were sort of looking really closely at assessment, and I think this time we were trying to look more at the issue of planning, how are we getting better at planning at Saint Mary’s. … It’s also something I think we are doing better over the last three years than we have done since I have been here,” White said.

Also included in the self-study were areas that the College identified as needing improvement. These five key areas were originally highlighted by Mooney in her August 2005 speech at the College Forum and include general education, diversity, the identity initiative, library resources and athletics.

Onei0907@saintmarys.edu