Accreditation is the process of confirming that a college or university is legitimate and that it has the resources available to fulfill what it promises students will gain from their time at the institution. Only accredited schools are able to receive federal financial aid and only graduates of accredited schools are eligible to sit for licensing exams.
“It’s really supposed to be a process that is helpful to the institution. It is not supposed to be punitive… It’s like having a peer review session with your essays in class. It’s feedback so you can do better next time or improve your draft,” said Provost and Senior Vice President Carol Long.
This process happens over seven years, and Willamette University is currently nearing the end of its current accreditation cycle. This means that a committee of faculty, administrators and staff were required to write a self-evaluation study of school, exploring if and how the University fulfills the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities’ (NWCCU) five standards of accreditation. A team of accreditors will also be visiting campus from Nov. 6 to 8.
Long said that a committee comprised of representatives of the College of Liberal Arts, College of Law and Atkinson Graduate School of Management has been working on the report for two years, with the bulk of the work happening within the last year.
“We chose a committee that tried to represent all three schools… and tried to choose people who have some expertise in student learning outcomes,” said Don Negri, professor of economics and faculty co-chair of the accreditation committee.
The result of the committee’s work is a 164-page report outlining how Willamette performs under the five standards of accreditation. The full report is available to the public on the University website’s “2019 NWCCU Accreditation” page.
The committee found four conclusions from the self-evaluation. These conclusions include that Willamette has recently restructured the communications office to focus more on marketing, allowing the University to “articulate [its] brand more precisely.”
The last conclusion discusses actions to make Willamette’s undergraduate and graduate programs part of an “integrated and larger university.” In order to achieve this, there will be further conversations about creating new programs and structures.
The self-evaluation also acknowledges in multiple places that enrollment has declined, and discusses how to handle this challenge and bolster numbers in the future.
There are five main sections of the self-evaluation, with a section for each of the five standards for accreditation. The first standard for accreditation ensures that institutions have a mission and core themes. Willamette’s mission is as follows: “Willamette University provides rigorous education in the liberal arts and selected professional fields. Teaching and learning, strengthened by scholarship and service, flourish in a vibrant campus community. A Willamette education prepares graduates to transform knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution and meaning.”
Willamette also has three core themes: “Of collaborative educators committed to rigorous education, “that cultivates an authentic engagement with place” and “that promotes transformation of knowledge into action in ways that lead to lives.”
The second standard for accreditation focuses on if the institution has the resources and capacity to fulfill its mission and core themes. The report focuses on the University’s staff and infrastructure, both physical and technological.
Section three focuses on institutional planning, ensuring that it is ongoing and works to support the school’s goals. One such measure explained in Willamette’s report is a movement called “Big W.” The Big W works in accordance with the last conclusion of the report, that there is action being taken to unite the different Willamette schools as a united, cohesive university community.
The report states: “Willamette can be much more than the sum of its constituent parts, and that our true distinctive advantage is in functioning together as a university. Leveraging our physical capacity and human capital to attract more students, the Big W can stabilize our existing programs, provide resources to hire faculty in new disciplines and generate funds for new investments.”
The report cites that two major initiatives that work towards Big W are currently underway: the “ongoing discussion of an affiliation with the Claremont School of Theology” and new programming that connects undergraduate students with graduate school classes and resources. This section also acknowledges that there is still a large amount of work to be done in order to create Big W.
The fourth section investigates if the institution has ways to collect, analyze and evaluate data. The recent changes to the general education (Gen Ed) program are used as an example in this section. The self-evaluation states that in order to “assess student learning” from the Gen Ed program, the University held three cyles of assessment. These studies “revealed variation in faculty commitment to the Gen Ed categories and goals, and in turn, spurred efforts to overhaul the entire Gen Ed curriculum.”
The fifth and final section ensures that the institution’s resources and offerings are sustainable and able to adapt.
The second important event in the seventh year of an accreditation cycle is the team visit to campus. Accreditors will be visiting from Nov. 6 to 8. There will be a meeting that all undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to attend.
“What they are trying to find there is these things that we say we are achieving, is that actually true. They will have some questions, and they will also take some open comments from people,” explained Long.
At the end of the campus visit, the University will be given a report by the visiting team. In June, a final accreditation decision will be given.