John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Self Study: It Ain’t Like It Used to Be!

The audience for this blog may well be primarily the older set in the academy, my colleagues who were introduced to and made to endure the kind of self-studies that were inflicted upon us by our curious American system of nongovernmental quality assurance known as regional accreditation. These self studies were laborious exercises in data collection which led to the writing of voluminous tomes read by absolutely no one other than institutional historians and the members of the visiting accrediting teams. This punishment was inflicted on us every ten years. We produced a magnum opus which then sat on a shelf for the next ten years the minute after the visiting team left town. These largely useless exercises were a great deal of work, no doubt. One of the reasons I took “early” retirement from the University of South Carolina was that I knew if I didn’t I would be dragooned, as a good University citizen, into my fourth such exercise.

Well, an interesting thing has happened for me since. I voluntarily got involved in my University’s decanal self study, but this time under the entirely new structure and process for reaccreditation known as the “QEP”, short for “quality enhancement plan”, offered by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which accredits the University of South Carolina. I have had the privilege and actual “pleasure” of serving on a fifteen person team charged with the designing of the Quality Enhancement Plan.

I have been so pleasantly surprised. We really are creating something new for the University, a major new initiative that I am already persuaded will improve student engagement and learning. We are doing a number of things that many of us have wanted to do for a long time but before we did not have the imprimatur, the urgency, the pressure of the regional accreditor as justification. Even in these dire times financially new resources will be found to launch this continuous quality improvement initiative.

We have spent time in highly collegial dialogue and brainstorming in a group that consists of faculty, academic and student affairs administrators, IR and assessment professionals, and students. We have been examining such basic questions as:
1. How do our students learn?
2. How could/should our students learn?
3. How do we introduce them to the learning opportunities of a great university?
4. What are the overall objectives of a university education, particularly for improving the social good?
5. How can we measure these outcomes?
6. How can we use new technologies to maximize students taking opportunities and helping them make good choices, while increasing our efficiencies?
7. How can we focus on improving undergraduate student learning both inside and outside the classroom in an historic research university culture that often tends to favor research over the teaching of undergraduates?

And the above are just getting us rolling.

I think the accreditors have done a good thing by giving us this opportunity to be rewarded with something we have to have, accreditation, for doing something we have wanted to do: a major institutional innovation to improve student success.

So my message to my senior colleagues is that if you haven’t gotten involved with these new forms of accreditation, you should consider doing so. These are available not just in the SACS region but in others as well. These are processes to make “assessment” truly meaningful and intellectually stimulating. That’s a good thing because while few things are any longer a sure thing in higher education, one of the sure things is that the emphasis on “assessment” isn’t going away. And such reaccreditation exercises now linked with quality assurance and improvement processes are a way to make this inevitability more than bearable. Try it. You might like it.

-John N. Gardner

One Comment

  1. LauraDecember 28, 2010 at 4:20 pmReply

    How exciting! In the HLC (formerly North Central), it's called AQIP (I believe academic quality improvement plan). I've not yet been involved in one but I'd relish the opportunity.

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