Students may notice their professors are not as available as they were in previous years, they are frequently in meetings with other faculty members and grading is taking longer than usual. Part of this may be caused by program reviews mandated by the Higher Learning Commission.
After being placed “on notice” by the HLC in March, John Carroll University was expected to undertake a series of steps to improve the University’s standing with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
According to the official letter sent to the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., from the HLC last spring, the University is at risk of not complying with six components of the HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation. These primarily center on lack of specified learning outcomes, incomplete program reviews, “limited evidence of functional assessment” and lack of communication between the faculty and the administration, as well as between faculty and the HLC Board of Trustees.
As a result of the HLC’s findings, the University must file a “Notice Report” during the summer of 2016 and must undergo a number of steps to be taken to improve its accreditation status. These steps include evidence that the University has “implemented a student outcomes assessment plan showing how data are being used consistently across all programs and courses in all departments.” In addition, the HLC requires all academic programs within John Carroll to “complete a program review for all programs by fall 2016,” according to the University’s website.
Provost and Academic Vice President Jeanne Colleran said, “As soon as we received the news, the faculty rolled up its collective sleeves and began working on improving our assessment practices.”
“Almost every academic program has completed or will soon complete a thorough review,” Colleran continued. “There has been full commitment. We took the opportunity to build better processes and resources within the University.”
However, she added the program reviews have “place[d] additional pressure on faculty.”
Carrie Buchanan, assistant professor in the Tim Russert department of communication and theatre arts, echoed this sentiment.
“We [are] already short staffed, so to be spending all this time working on these reports is very challenging,” she said. “I’m behind on my grading. I thought, having achieved tenure, I was going to be up to speed and up to date with all of my grading, and it turns out this is just as tough of a semester as it was last year when I produced my final tenure dossier, which was a humongous amount of work.”
Buchanan stated the communication department had an assessment plan in the early 2000s and were told by unnamed administration officials not to implement it.
“I honestly don’t know who it was,” Buchanan said. “We did have these assessment plans and I think it was determined that it wasn’t a top priority. Maybe it wasn’t worth the investment of all that time. I don’t know. We didn’t go ahead with them.”
Unable to use those plans, the communication department has since had to work to implement a new plan.
“We have to prove that we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” Buchanan said. “If we say we’re teaching students to write competently for a variety of media, we have to show that they’re both writing competently and in a variety of media, and that this is true for all or most of our students. We have to figure out if we’re achieving that goal and to what degree.”
“It’s not a matter if students got A’s, B’s or C’s on courses,” she continued. “It’s a matter of if they’re actually demonstrating the capacity to do the work.”
Associate Dean, associate professor of English and integrative core curriculum director Peter Kvidera said the HLC program review process has not greatly impacted the implementation of the new core curriculum, which began this semester.
“The new integrative core curriculum, in many ways, anticipated the recommendations of the HLC program review,” Kvidera stated. “The HLC review is asking the University to enhance its assessment of academic programs based on university and department or program learning goals…because the integrative curriculum was designed according to the University academic learning goals, by completing the core, each student will have done the work that addresses each of these goals.”
Kvidera added that the program review process has not changed the way he teaches his courses. He said that the “HLC’s requirement for more effective and transparent assessment measures have…been a benefit to [his] teaching.”
“I see this process, ultimately, as a way to make the John Carroll experience for our students even better. So while [it is] tough now, it’s good in the long run,” he concluded.
Tom Pace, professor of English, agreed that the HLC review has not changed how he teaches his courses, although he said that it “may change” as the department learns about its teaching through the review process. He also stated it has been neither a positive nor negative experience for him. “It is what it is,” he remarked.
However, Pace added that the program review has taken time away from working with students outside of class. “My attention to issues of assessment and the new core—which are wrapped up in the HLC review—have taken time I might normally spend working individually with students during office hours and in other contexts.”
Cecile Brennan, assistant professor in the department of counseling, agreed with Kvidera and Pace, saying the HLC program reviews have not changed how she teaches her courses, but added that it makes her “much more mindful of the importance of explicitly stating to students” what learning outcomes are being emphasized for each course.
“In essence, at the class level, the process helps me to validate not only that students are learning, but what exactly they are learning,” she stated.
Brennan also remarked that the program review process has been “time-consuming,” and in the future, the process should “occur continuously, not as a relatively sudden process.”
Despite this, she said that she sees “a good deal of value in the entire process.”
“Undergoing a review requires faculty and administrators to take an in-depth look at student learning and where the department or the program needs to go in the next three to five years,” she said.
Buchanan voiced a similar response to the review process, saying it is “quite a good process.”
“It is holding us accountable for what we’ve been saying,” she said. “People have come up with new ways to measure how accountable [we’re] being. We didn’t realize how helpful those ways would actually be, and that it was worth devoting the time to it.”
Following the report to be filed in July 2016, a team from the HLC will return to JCU in September 2016 to review its accreditation status, according to Colleran, and will notify the University administration of their decision in February 2017.
“Everything we are doing will make JCU a stronger institution,” Colleran said. “I have confidence that we will have a successful HLC visit.”