BY LINDLEY ESTES
After the work of this semester is done and the last exam is graded and entered into the system, each office and department at the University of Mary Washington will begin a concerted effort to prepare for the 2013 accreditation.
Every 10 years UMW is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The school was most recently reaffirmed in 2003 with minimal recommendations for change by SACS. Since UMW had recently changed from a college to a university, one of the main recommendations at the time was to make sure all publications had the appropriate designation of ‘university’ printed.
Another concern was the separation between the Fredericksburg and Stafford campuses. SACS was interested in seeing a real university community between the two.
All criteria were met by the end of 2004. SACS informed the university in January 2005 that they were satisfied and the customary additional reports detailing steps taken were not necessary.
Provost Jay Harper, who is in charge of the whole operation, is optimistic that this accreditation will go as smoothly as the last.
“There is no alarm for negativity,” Harper said.
The first order of business is the SACS compliance report. Submitted at least 15 months in advance, the compliance report demonstrates that the institution meets Core Requirements, Comprehensive Standards and Federal Requirements as required by SACS. Timothy O’Donnell, communications professor and director of debate, was appointed self-study director for the compliance report.
The self study is an intensive look at the university’s operations. Each department will report on their operations. The whole institution will participate in the accreditation and every operation will be scrutinized by SACS.
A steering committee composed of sub-committee chairs, to be appointed in May, will work during the following academic year to judge institutional effectiveness for the self study. They will also be partially responsible for creating the compliance report between January and August 2012.
“A self-reflection review is valuable,” Harper said. “You learn things about yourself. It’s hard to put a price on what you learn from introspection.”
In 2004, SACS added a new criterion, the Quality Enhancement Plan, which now makes up the other half of the university’s responsibilities for the reaffirmation. The QEP was not required for schools reaffirmed in 2003 and is a new procedure for the university. The QEP affects students more than other areas of the accreditation. It is a report that details new programs that the faculty would like to see implemented for the advancement of student learning. It includes newer programs introduced to the university and measures their success. Such programs would include freshman seminars and changes to general education requirements.
The UMW community can expect to know what the committees are doing every step of the way.
“This is an open and transparent process,” O’Donnell said. “It does not work if people do not know what is happening.
Dr. Teresa Kennedy, chair of the English department, was the editor of the 2003 compliance report for which the university received a commendation from SACS. She finds that the QEP will help the university with planning processes since it evaluates what students need the most.
“Thirty years ago, academics would have turned up their noses at the idea of a professional education,” Kennedy said. “But students will have an edge because of experience in their fields. Newer hires like Professor McCarthy…he is great because he understands journalism in a professional way. Students need that in today’s universities.”
Recent QEP reports by other colleges have addressed critical thinking abilities for graduates and revisions of general education requirements. Duke University’s recent plan focused on global awareness and found ways to improve education by how students interact with other cultures.
Student involvement in the accreditation will be limited to review. Some students will serve on subcommittees especially for divisions of UMW such as student affairs. The surveys given to seniors just before graduation about their opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of UMW will be considered when compiling the QEP.
Junior Katie Flench thinks UMW is running smoothly and has no cause for alarm during the reaffirmation.
“I am no professional when it comes to the matter, but I have been immensely impressed with my experience here at Mary Washington,” Flench said. “The professors are highly qualified, and I am encouraged to work hard and bring my best to class each day. Even when the workload feels a bit overwhelming, it’s well worth it and I couldn’t be happier with the school I have chosen to be a part of.”
After the compliance report and the QEP are submitted to SACS, an off-site peer review of the compliance report will be conducted by SACS in November 2012. The focused report, a reply to the off-site peer review report, will happen by Jan. 31, 2013. Finally, the on-site peer review by the SACS team will occur in March 2013.
Failure to be accredited is extremely rare. Schools are usually put on probation and asked to fix the problems preventing them from accreditation. An institution can fail to be accredited if its finances are not in adequate shape or if there was a failure to document that the school is meeting accreditation criteria.
Once stripped of accreditation, the school in question will most likely go out of business since they are no longer reputable and the government does not give financial aid to students attending a non-accredited school.
Southeastern University in Washington D.C. lost its accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in 2009 after operating for 130 years. The institution was financially unstable and losing enrollment and faculty. The Washington Post reported that only 14 percent of first-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees graduated within six years. Also, the number of faculty members had dwindled to 10 for an institution with more than 30 academic programs.
“This is a serious process,” O’Donnell said, “but it is not a scary process. It is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our strengths as well as do our due diligence in finding areas where we can improve our strength. It is a challenge I am looking forward to.”