University works to gain reaccreditation
Jessica Guerrucci – Editor-in-Chief
To ensure a quality education, members of the university are doing a data- driven self-study in hopes to gain reaccreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education.
“The goal of accreditation is to show that we’re paying attention to the quality of the education that we’re providing,” said Theresa Marchant-Shapiro, a political science professor who is co-managing the accreditation process with Trudy Milburn, associate Vice President for Academic Affairs.
To gain accreditation, the university needs to meet the nine standards provided by NECHE every 10 years with an interim report every five years, with a goal understanding the university’s identity, where it can improve and grow, and the direction it is headed in the future.
The original report will be submitted in December; a revised version will be submitted to NECHE in July 2021, and then a site team will come evaluate the campus and interview students and faculty in the fall to determine whether the university will be reaccredited.
The nine standards include mission and purposes, planning and evaluation, organization and governance, the academic program, students, teaching, learning and scholarship, institutional resources, educational effectiveness and integrity, transparency and public disclosure.
Each standard has a team assigned to it, with a total of 80 people who have been working on it for the past year, according to Marchant-Shapiro.
Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Tyree is co-chairing the second standard, planning and evaluation, with Robert Forbus, a professor in the School of Business.
“One of the challenges is that it’s a 10-year span, and 2011, 2012, 2013 feel like they’re a long time ago, but from a NECHE lens you’re looking at the last 10 years,” said Tyree.
She said NECHE wants to see that a plan has been created and implemented and that there are mechanisms that will evaluate if those goals are accomplished or not.
“I think this is something that is often seen as administrative or a faculty staff thing,” said Tyree, “but students need to care if the university is accredited or not and it is foundational to the value of their degree.”
Tyree said the university is also not eligible for federal financial aid if it is not reaccredited.
Both Marchant-Shapiro and Milburn have been leading forums with faculty, staff, students and alumni to collect qualitative data to see their perspectives on how the university is doing.
“We heard about how some students felt very welcome and they felt like they had an instant sense of belonging when they came to Southern compared to other institutions,” said Milburn, “and then some students said even though individuals feel like that, not everyone does.”
At a student forum held at a Student Government Association meeting, Sarah Gossman, president of SGA, said they were asked about the mission statement and the university’s identity.
Some of the discussion addressed looking at students holistically, the benefit of small class sizes, and diversity of the college population.
As for what could be improved, Gossman said the university needs a set definition of what it means to be a social justice university and making sure all decisions are centered around it.
“When we say Southern is a social justice school, what exactly does that mean? Because we feel sometimes because social justice is such a wide term, and it’s such an umbrella term, and so many things can fall under social justice, there’s not really a set definition,” said Gossman.
Another area of improvement was having a more diverse faculty. Gossman said students want to see staff that have shared experiences and that can represent them in a classroom or clubs.
“There’s definitely a lack of diverse faculty and that’s something that we felt that needs to be something that Southern as a whole looks into so students can see themselves in a class and see someone they can look up to and be comfortable approaching,” said Gossman.
Tyree said the term social justice can seem rather ambiguous to some, but it is evolving as students graduate, it becomes different for each population.
“It’s something we are continuing to grow into,” said Tyree. “It’s always important to me that we talk about that we’re aspiring to be a social justice university; we are not there. We have a lot of work to do. Honestly, I’m not sure if there is a there.”
Milburn said President Joe Bertolino has done a good job letting students know about the social justice mission, but work can be done to define what it means to different groups and how to make sure it is pervasive in all areas.
The university saw to it that it hired a Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Diane Ariza, which Milburn said was a good step forward, but it’s also taken a long time to get to this point.
“As Diane Ariza spoke about, we’re always in the process of becoming, we’re never there, we can never say we’ve achieved it,” said Milburn.
To ensure change comes, Gossman said it’s important to take accountability to make sure the right steps are taken moving forward and students get involved in the process.
“At the end of the day we’re the ones sitting in the classrooms, we’re the ones that are going to these clubs and organizations,” said Gossman. “We are the student body at Southern so the more feedback students can give the better and more accurate this reaccreditation process can be.”