Every 10 years, colleges and universities face a period of accreditation evaluation by the Higher Learning Commission. 2014 was John Carroll University’s year to be visited by the task force.
The Commission evaluated JCU from Feb. 9 to Feb. 12 and met with faculty, staff, JCU’s President Rev. Robert Niehoff S.J. and diverse groups of students involved in everything from athletics to ministry. Along with the scheduled meetings, members from the HLC interacted with students and other members of the JCU community informally in between classes and in the Lombardo Student Center, asking a variety of questions about the JCU experience.
The HLC visiting team will deliver a preliminary report in six weeks and Niehoff will have a chance to respond to and correct any fact discrepancies.
Niehoff’s response and the preliminary report will go to HLC in Chicago and, during the summer, a committee will review the report and make a decision regarding the accreditation of JCU.
“We won’t know formally where we stand or what we need to work on until August,” said Matthew Berg, history professor and co-chair of the HLC 2014 Steering Committee and Criteria Committee along with Kathleen Dean, vice president for assessment and planning in Student Affairs.
The goal of an accreditation process is to ensure that an academic institution is providing a quality education to its students. Beyond marking a school with the quality level of its academic standards, accreditation affects an institution’s ability to benefit from government funding like Title IV, and to properly transfer credits from one institution to another.
Dean and Berg created the schedule for the HLC visiting team while it was on campus.
“They came here under a certain framework,” said Dean. “They don’t just come here and look at whatever they want to look at and evaluate however they want to. There are set criteria set by HLC and that is the framework. They have very specific statements that they need to evaluate by, but as it was explained to us, they do not know our institution as well as we do, which is why we write the self study.”
To meet with the students and get the perspective of the student government, one of the members of the HLC task force visited the Student Union meeting last Tuesday, Feb. 11 and challenged the assembly to reflect on the best and worst attributes the University.
Tammy Adleston, representative from the HLC, said that the commission was interested in the judicial aspect of the Student Union as well as meeting a range of student leaders on campus.
Adleston asked members of Student Union to speak candidly about what they liked and disliked about JCU and asked questions about what it was at JCU as well as why they chose the University.
The senators responded with a variety of reasons as to why they came to JCU, citing everything from the emphasis on service and small class sizes to the welcoming atmosphere and sense of community.
When the topic of the new core curriculum came up in conversation, Adleston asked if people felt that they were involved in the process and was curious to see how students felt about the changes.
Brianna Lazarchik, former vice president of communications and head of the academics committee in 2012, explained the survey process and how the opinions of the greater student population were factored into the changes in the core for the class of 2018 and beyond.
Other senators confirmed that they felt involved and said that the decrease in the total credits required to graduate was one of the changes they liked the most in the new core.
Upon hearing this, Adleston asked how many people felt that they could graduate on time. When the majority of students raised their hands, Adleston said, “That is really unique.”
Adleston asked what people felt could be improved on campus, noting that she thought that campus was still pretty dark.
Senior senator Deidre Byrne said that she felt that there was a limited number of study spots on campus.
“There really aren’t a lot of quiet, academic-focused type places on campus. Also, the library closes at 6:30 Fridays and Saturdays, and midnight the rest of the days,” said Byrne.
Other problems that were brought up were the cost of parking and the limited number of spots, maintenance of sidewalks and streets around campus, the lack of a 24-hour study space on campus and the sometimes poor status of the recreation facilities, especially when considering the high usage of places like the Corbo Fitness Center.
Many students also introduced the idea of offering a larger assortment of majors and minors to the campus, which could potentially bring a wider range of students to JCU.
After Adleston listened to all of the students, one student asked what she thought needed to be changed.
“When we see your graduation rates and job rates, it’s really hard to criticize,” said Adleston. “We are mostly looking at very specific things. I will give some suggestions regarding surveys, maybe deeper assessments of courses after you take them. Also, encouraging technology. There are some faculty here that are pushing for technology, and some that are not. I want to make sure that all the faculty realize the importance of it. We want to make sure they are investing in technology.”
The class and professor evaluation process was something that Adleston spoke at length about when asked by junior senator Chris Razek how other universities look at the evaluations.
“We look closely at professor’s evaluations,” said Adleston. “It definitely has an effect. We focus on research and teaching. Most institutions really care about the evaluations. Sometimes with a new professor, they get looked at for the first few years and get looked at very closely, and then it becomes more of a cycle. There aren’t very many good schools that don’t care about the evaluations.”
After the visit, Niehoff sent an email to the JCU community noting that while the team indicated they had a productive visit, there were three areas that the University needed to improve on: assessment, campus communication and strategic planning.
“Those are no surprise to anyone on campus, which is reassuring,” said Berg. “We had our finger on the issue collectively. That was as close as they could come to saying this is where we are going to take you to task. We think even with those we are confident that we are going to achieve accreditation. At the very least, we meet the criteria for accreditation with reservations.”
The visiting team allows the University to get an outside perspective on what they are doing and helps them create a vision for the future.
“These are intended to be our peers from other institutions who understand and can think from a more objective perspective as to who we are as an institution, where we are and how we can move forward,” said Dean. “As we grapple with things internally, you can lose sight of what the other options are; it is valuable to have that external presence there on campus.”
“One of the misconceptions is that we are only doing this to get the creditors off our backs,” said Berg. “Some people may actually think that way. But the success of an institution is about how it looks at the challenges it faces and find meaningful ways to launch itself forward with a real strategy, a real sense of purpose consistent with its mission and its care for students.”