In spring semester 2013, a team from the Higher Learning Commission will visit our campus to conduct a thorough review of our institution based on a set of broad criteria. The Higher Learning Commission (or HLC) is the accrediting organization responsible for evaluating colleges and universities in the north central region of the United States. The team will carefully review our self-study report and supporting documents and they will meet with numerous individuals on a campus before deciding to recommend us for re-accreditation. It is not possible to overstate the importance and value of accreditation as both a status and a process. Although in the United States institutional accreditation is voluntary, a fact that preserves our intellectual freedom and autonomy, we would not be eligible for millions of dollars in federal support, most of that in financial aid for our students, if we did not have accredited status. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, “’Accredited status’ means that students and the public can expect that [UW Parkside] lives up to its promises. It means that a student can have confidence that a degree or credential has value. Accreditation signals that the public can have confidence in the worth of an institution.”
As a process, accreditation gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves if we are living up to the promises that we make to our students and the public that we serve as an institution of higher learning. This will be the fifth time since our founding that University of Wisconsin-Parkside will be reviewed and considered for reaccreditation. Our last review was in 2003. In less than a decade, higher education in the United States finds itself in the midst of great change, and great scrutiny. As a result, accreditation standards have changed, as accrediting agencies find themselves under significant pressure from the federal government to ensure that their evaluations are rigorous and meaningful. We will be evaluated on a different set of criteria than we were for our last accreditation in 2003.
The self-study report that will result from this process will be submitted to the Higher Learning Commission in advance of the visit in 2013 and will serve as documentation of UW-Parkside’s ability to meet the criteria for accreditation. The self-study report will also reflect both the achievements and the potential of the institution for the entire university community, as well as for its external constituencies. Moreover, the self-study report will serve as a guiding document for improvement and for establishing future directions to prepare us to engage in the next strategic planning process.
One important aspect of developing the self-study document is ensuring the recommendations of the previous visiting team, detailed in the Report of a Comprehensive Evaluation Visit, are included and expanded upon in the self-study document. Weaving in previous recommendations, and showing evidence of UW-Parkside’s progress is an important aspect of demonstrating our commitment to continuous improvement in the areas mentioned during the previous visit. Each of the five criterion committees will be responsible for ensuring the self-study provides updates on any areas mentioned in the reports of the 1993 and 2003 visits and ensure their chapter provides evidence of UW-Parkside’s continued commitment to meeting the standards.
This reaccreditation process is also the beginning of a new approach to accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission for all institutions in the north central region, including UW-Parkside. The entire accreditation process has been revised by the Higher Learning Commission and UW-Parkside will transition into the new process with the completion of this self study process. Starting in the fall of 2013, UW-Parkside will enter the new process called the “Open Pathway” provided our reaccreditation visit is successful.
The Open Pathway process requires that UW-Parkside provide yearly assurance updates for the Higher Learning Commission. Further, instead of a five year quality assurance review, the mid-point assurance review will take place at four years. In addition, there is a new element in the accreditation process, the Quality Initiative Project (QIP). UW-Parkside must file a QIP proposal between 2017 and 2020 and complete a quality initiative and file a report on the outcomes of the QIP prior to the next 10 year visit in 2023. This self study process will position UW-Parkside to engage in a continuous accreditation process that will have yearly milestones throughout the subsequent 10 year period. Therefore, identifying potential QIP projects for UW-Parkside, and developing the means to collect the quality assurance data we will need to provide on a yearly basis will be an important aspect of this self study process.
The self-study process will also be an opportunity for us all to learn more about our organization as we work together across departmental divisions. The organizational design will ensure broad involvement of the university community–faculty, staff and students–and the constituencies that we serve. We will follow an approach to the self-study process that is standard for colleges and universities seeking reaccreditation. There will be ten committees and working groups, involving nearly one hundred faculty, staff and students who will work with dozens of departments, offices, units, as well as standing administrative and governance committees. The Leadership Committee will provide direction and support for the process. The Steering Committee will manage and coordinate the self-study process. We will have a working group for each of the five criteria and three additional working groups that will provide support for the Steering Committee and Working Groups on data collection, logistics and internal communication, as document design.
In spring semester 2013, we will have produced a well-designed self-study report that produces evidence that the Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation are met. The report will reflect an evaluation of the whole organization, engaging multiple constituencies, and promising to have an impact on the university beyond the review team’s visit. It will be a report that will make us proud of the good work we do every day to help our students learn, succeed and thrive.