Q&A: Associate Provost Jeff Stanton on Why Middle States Matters
Last fall, the Syracuse University campus community began hearing frequent references to Middle States and the reaccreditation process now underway. The foundational work leading up to the 10-year reaccreditation review with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education actually had begun a year earlier, and last fall the institutional self-study required as part of the review began taking shape. The self-study looks at every aspect of University operations, focusing specifically on how well our academic, administrative and operational practices align with our stated mission.
It’s an exhaustively comprehensive exercise, but one with potentially critical ramifications for the entire University community. On April 18, the Middle States Reaccreditation Steering Committee will host a campuswide forum to share preliminary findings of the self-study and invite feedback. In advance of that, we asked Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Jeff Stanton—who is leading the reaccreditation effort along with Rochelle Ford, professor and chair of public relations at the Newhouse School, and Libby Barlow, assistant vice president for institutional research and assessment—a few questions about what Middle States accreditation is all about and why it’s important. Following are his responses.
Q: We’re hearing a lot about the Middle States reaccreditation process now underway here at Syracuse. What is it about, and why should I care?
A: In U.S. higher education, a network of six nonprofit entities, called “regional accreditors,” has primary responsibility for overseeing educational quality at our country’s colleges and universities. For New York and neighboring states down the eastern seaboard, the regional accreditor is the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The federal government depends upon the peer review processes of regional accreditors, such as Middle States, to determine whether a university and its students remain eligible for federal financial aid, grants, contracts and other sources of support. Middle States has a 125-year history of using assessment, self-studies, peer-review, site visits, and related techniques to ensure that an institution like Syracuse University is living up to its mission. In this context, our reaccreditation process provides us with the opportunity to reflect on our work over recent years and recommend possible improvements. During the culmination of the process in March 2018, a team of outside reviewers from institutions like ours will verify our efforts and make a report to the board of commissioners at Middle States (our own Chancellor Syverud serves on this board).
Q: What do you mean by “assessment”?
A: Assessment is a reflective process of looking back at what we have accomplished in order to plan for future improvements. One of the most common kinds of assessment that we discuss in the context of accreditation is student learning outcomes assessment. Given the time, effort and money that students invest in a university education, many people are interested to know what students learn from their educational experiences. Student learning outcomes assessment provides one source of information about what students learn. More generally, assessment can be used as a method of reflecting on many kinds of accomplishments, for example, in the work of librarians, accountants, groundskeepers or bus drivers. In a complex institution like Syracuse University, all of these kinds of co-curricular and functional assessment are important in ensuring that we fulfill our mission.
Q: The last full-scale assessment of Syracuse University was in 2008. How has the accreditation process changed since then and why?
A: During the intervening decade since 2008, much has changed in the regulatory and operational environment of U.S. higher education. For example, between 2008 and 2010 undergraduate enrollment in for-profit colleges and universities grew by nearly 40 percent, while enrollment in nonprofit private universities like Syracuse grew only 4.5 percent. In response to such trends, Middle States refocused its accreditation standards and shortened the accreditation cycle to eight years. One major aspect of the new accreditation standards is an intense focus on periodic, systematic educational assessment. Part of Syracuse University’s response to this new focus was the development of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment, led by Dr. Jerry Edmonds, a nationally published expert on the topic of educational assessment. This office assists schools and colleges with their assessment processes and helps to ensure that our assessment and review processes occur on a regular schedule.
Q: We have mission and vision statements; isn’t that enough?
A: No. Following an extensive, participatory process by the University community, the Board of Trustees adopted a new set of guiding statements for the University in 2015. These statements serve as lighting and scenery for our production, but we must also have a script and direction—in other words, an action plan. From 2015 to the present, the University community continued to develop the Academic Strategic Plan while individual schools and colleges, co-curricular, and functional units worked on plans of their own. Ideally, we are making all of these plans in reference to our institutional mission, because a mission by itself is just a nice collection of words. Planning and assessment go hand in hand: Planning means that we take the time to set priorities for the future, and assessment means that when we get there we look back to learn what we can do better.
Q: What’s the worst that could happen if we don’t pass our accreditation? Is it really that big a deal?
A: In June of 2016, USA Today published an article titled, “A long, hot summer: Five more small colleges could lose accreditation,” that detailed the woes of several institutions on the verge of closure. While Syracuse University does not suffer from the financial maladies experienced by these smaller colleges, we must stay alert to how changing priorities in accreditation may affect us. Some of our nearest neighbors have received “monitoring” actions from the Middle States Commission based on quality deficiencies discovered by site visit teams. Monitoring means that the institution must devote energy and resources to priorities chosen by others, not to mention the burdens of additional reporting and the possibilities for damage to our institutional reputation.
Q: Where are we in the process now, and how can the campus community get involved?
A: A group of more than 100 faculty, staff and students has spent more than seven months developing a self-study document that will serve as the heart of the Middle States accreditation process. This self-study must achieve a careful balancing act—accurately and forthrightly reporting what we do well as an institution while framing constructive opportunities for future improvements in seven areas: Mission and Goals; Ethics and Integrity; Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience; Support of the Student Experience; Educational Effectiveness Assessment; Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement; and Governance, Leadership and Administration.
The whole campus community will have the opportunity to comment on a draft of the self-study between the end of April and the end of September. Learning about the seven standards, the development of the self-study, and the goals of the site visit is essential for those who wish to provide focused, actionable feedback. On April 18, at Goldstein Auditorium in the Schine Student Center, the University’s accreditation steering committee will host an educational event open to all members of the University community. Attending this event will provide unique opportunities to learn about the broader context in which the University operates and provide feedback to the self-study findings.
(For more information on the University’s Middle States reaccreditation process, or to read the Middle States blog, go to middlestates.syr.edu.)