Perspectives from the president: Niehoff responds to Higher Learning Commission notice

March 12th, 2015

The president of John Carroll University said today the news that the University has been placed on notice by the Higher Learning Commission was a surprise to most of the JCU community.


“It’s a shock to us,” said the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., in an interview with The Carroll News. “It’s a shock to [students], it’s a shock to our faculty and we have all kinds of questions that make us anxious. Some of those questions, we have good answers to, and some of them, we don’t. How is this going to impact us? We don’t know. Does it change the good things that are going on here? Not at all. Will it help us get better? We need to make it help us [in order] to get better.”


Niehoff stressed that the University remains accredited, and will work towards making improvements in data compilation and presentation, emphasizing learning goals and other areas the Higher Learning Commission suggested JCU should refine.


Implications for students


Since information was first released about the HLC’s report on John Carroll, students have asked, ‘What does this mean for me?’


In short, the University will seek more student input and gather specific data on student learning through survey methods.


“Students are going to be asked more often for their opinions,” Niehoff said. “At the simplest level, there will be a little more learning goal focus on the course evaluations, on the major evaluation and on the post-graduate degree.”


In particular, the University will encourage increased participation from graduating seniors in exit surveys.


“As students will be leaving us [in May], we’ll be saying, ‘You need to complete the surveys. We need this. This matters.’ You’re busy, you’re graduating, it’s life. Well, people in the past thought, ‘Gee, my opinion doesn’t matter.’ Well, it does,” Niehoff said. “Just showing that we don’t have the 50 percent we normally get, but the 70 percent that gives you a higher level of confidence.”


Niehoff does not foresee any negative consequences for students as a result of the HLC’s ruling.


“They’re going to get more input, about everything,” Niehoff said of students. “And we’re going to be evaluating how we can do everything, relative to how we can get better. As I ended yesterday, how could that be bad? That will help us.”


The HLC approach


As Niehoff noted yesterday in his address to JCU faculty, staff and administration, higher education is facing more and more scrutiny. Niehoff believes the HLC’s actions are, in part, a result of this changing view of higher education and the resulting change in the accreditation process.


“The move to accountability is impacting all of higher ed. Every organization, every regional accreditor, every special accreditor has the federal government and the public attitude about accountability on their mind,” Niehoff said. “Everything is being ratcheted up. And so, campuses go through regional accreditation typically on a 10 year cycle. Over the next 10 years, all 1,000 HLC schools will go through this process. Now, how many of them will have some of the issues we’ve had? I don’t know. We can’t predict that.


“But what I can predict is that the public is concerned about accountability and this will play itself out,” he continued. “But I go back to my discussions with members of congress and others who’ve talked about JCU’s success. That matters. And that’s our most important outcome.”


Niehoff briefly touched on the noted errors in the HLC’s report. The initial draft posted by the HLC included areas of concern that were inaccurate. The HLC later deleted this piece of information.


“The HLC, like every other organization, says nothing is official until the board acts. The board acted in February. The only thing that mattered from the HLC were those two documents,” Niehoff said. “We don’t know yet whether either of them is accurate on the web. It’s changed twice. We just don’t know. It will be.”


Effects for non-academic departments


While some JCU departments, such as Student Affairs, have been proactive in gathering and using longitudinal data in decision making, the use of data has not been uniform.


“It isn’t that we weren’t doing assessment, there were pockets. It wasn’t consistent, it wasn’t routinized, it wasn’t integrated across the University,” Niehoff said. “What you’re hearing is about the places HLC didn’t find the assessment that they expected or hoped for.”


New ideas and increased communication will be two steps the University will take to integrate data usage in every department.


“[Students] will hear, ‘They’re going to do this. We’re going to change, and we’re going to do this now,” Niehoff said. “Whenever you hear, ‘we’re going to do this now,’ that’s probably one of the new initiatives that, a couple of years later, will be evaluated to see if its impact is positive and whether it continues or not or gets adjusted. HLC wants to see the whole cycle, and wants it documented.


“Everybody will hear more about that and have a sense of what evaluation is going on and what it might look like,” Niehoff said.


Next steps


The University will focus on collecting longitudinal data.


A primary component of this step is discovering how to use the data to prove that JCU is achieving its specific goals as an institution.


“We need more evidence. We need better measures. And, the more challenging piece, which I’ve said yesterday, is we have specific goals about a John Carroll education,” Niehoff said. “In many cases, we’ve talked about it being life changing. Well, tell me the data we can collect to show that? And that’s the challenge we have on campus. Our goals are not that we can get you from A to B. Though, we need to do that, too. We have massive goals. And, we have to think about how do we demonstrate that.”

Another important step for the University is to prepare the faculty for the HLC’s return visit in 2016.


“The next time we invite faculty to an HLC meeting, the turnout is going to be significant,” Niehoff said. “That’s true of staff, that’s true of our students. We had a town hall [meeting] last year, two relative to HLC: one to look at the draft, one to look at the final submittal of our self-study. Some people were involved in that, some were not. I suspect that the ‘not involved’ group is going to be very low going forward, and that will be good for us.”


As Niehoff said, the University is already on the right path to being removed from notice in 2016.


“We’re already progressing [and the] HLC says we’re already progressing,” Niehoff said. “We need to work together and get that done. In response to all of the anxiety, all I have is that answer. John Carroll is strong, it has a good tradition and we will get through this because of our faculty and staff and our leadership.”