Middle States reaccreditation process reaches zenith
From March 9 to March 12, a team of external peer educators from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education will tour Rutgers' campuses and meet with key constituencies – faculty, staff, students, board members, alumni, administrators. The visit is the culmination of 18 months of intensive self-study by nearly 200 members of the Rutgers community. The results of the accreditation process are a matter of high stakes; the approval of the Middle States Commission ensures the value of a Rutgers diploma and enables the university and its students to receive federal grant and financial aid funding.
Robert Goodman, executive dean of agriculture and natural resources, has served as chair of the executive committee overseeing the Middle States reaccreditation process; Philip Furmanski, executive vice president for academic affairs at Rutgers, sits on the steering committee. Both men have given interviews to explain to the Rutgers community the importance of the reaccreditation process and to put the upcoming site visit into context.
Below is a recent Q&A with Philip Furmanski, excerpted from this interview with Ashanti M. Alvarez, associate editor of Rutgers FOCUS.
MIDDLE STATES RESOURCES
What is the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and why is its accreditation process so important?
Accreditation is vitally important for colleges and universities in this country because it makes you eligible for student and federal financial aid. It makes us eligible for grants and contracts that support our research activities as well as for all sorts of other programs that are dependent on having imprimatur – the status of being an accredited institution. It also means that students who graduate from Rutgers have a diploma that means something.
There is an ongoing dialogue in Washington, D.C., as well as in Trenton about accountability in higher education. How does the Middle States process fit into that discussion?
For a number of years there has been a conversation about how you assess higher education and its value to students. In other words, what does a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree from any college or university mean? What have students learned; what have they accomplished? When they go out into the work world, what kinds of skills do they possess? This has led to a discussion about how to set goals for education, and how to follow through as students progress through their academic careers to know whether they have accomplished those goals.
The Middle States reaccreditation process, or any reaccreditation process, has come into play because, at least at the federal level, the Department of Education has said assessment is the responsibility of the accrediting bodies. Rutgers – a member of the Association of American Universities – is obviously one of the prominent large universities in this country. That puts us in the top 1 percent of American institutions of higher education. But [reaccreditation] applies to us no less and no differently than it applies to any of the other 4,000 colleges and universities in this country. So it is very, very important.
I know there have been a lot of people at Rutgers working on this process, and they have prepared a lengthy self-study report with a very strong focus on undergraduate education. Why did the committee choose this focus?
You can do accreditation in one of two ways. You can simply do general accreditation, where the accrediting body looks at every aspect of the university. For a university like Rutgers – with 50,000 students, 2,600 faculty, 175 different degree-granting programs, three campuses, and locations in every county in this state through our experiment station and extension service – that would be impossible. So they allow institutions like Rutgers to pick a small number of subjects and use them as the basis for the evaluation. We chose undergraduate education for several reasons. It’s our historic mission: When Rutgers was founded as the eighth-oldest college in this country in 1766, it was about educating undergraduates. It is our largest mission: The large majority of Rutgers students is undergraduates. It’s the largest use of resources within the institution. And in some sense it’s the lens through which the outside world views an institution like Rutgers.
And at this moment in time, undergraduate education has been the subject of enormous discussion and transformation on all three of our campuses over the past couple of years. Undergraduate education tells a story about Rutgers. It says that this is what we’re committed to. It says that we’re willing to change. It says that we’re willing to make major decisions as long as it’s for the improvement of our education, our research, and our service activities.
How many Rutgers people were involved in the self study, and what segments of the university were represented in that process?
The self study was modeled to a large extent on the way we put together the transforming undergraduate education process. It engaged all elements of our academic community – faculty, staff, students, alumni – and it involved a very high level of open discourse from across the university. The total number of people involved in writing the self study comes close to 200. But the number of people involved in one way or another – through input, thoughts, and advice – probably numbers in the thousands.
From March 9 through March 12, a team from Middle States will be visiting Rutgers. What will take place, and how are we preparing for that visit?
Individuals of some experience and stature from other colleges and universities, mostly of the region but some from elsewhere – the University of Puerto Rico, for example – will delve a bit further into the self study and what we have proposed. In addition to the full self study, we provided them with a roadmap to about 800 supporting documents, almost everything that represents the nature of our academic programs, cocurriculuar programs, student services, student affairs, and more. The mass of material they get is both astonishing and a little bit frightening.
We have a task force that is dealing with everything from making sure the members of the Middle States team have hotel rooms and computer access, to providing them with any kind of additional information they may want. We have a very tight agenda for them.
Will the team be visiting the Camden and Newark campuses as well?
Absolutely. On Monday morning, March 10, the team splits up into three groups, and one group goes to each campus.
The group in Newark will be looking at the special characteristics of Newark as a major urban university very closely tied to its city, the urban environment, and the very special nature of what goes on in an urban situation: urban education, criminal justice, urban development – things for which our Newark Campus is world renowned. They also will be looking at other characteristics of the educational program in Newark.
In Camden, they will be looking at the relationship between that campus and its community. Camden is one of the most depressed cities in this country. Rutgers, in addition to providing educational value as the representation of the state’s public research university, also is a major factor in economic development, opportunity, and access in the city. That’s something we want them to see and understand.
The team also will be going to visit some of our collaborative relationships with other campuses in the state. We have very close relationships with Atlantic Cape Community College and Brookdale Community College, where we give courses and offer joint-degree programs.
Then they come back to New Brunswick where, for the rest of their time here, they deal with university level-issues – the broader issues that affect everything that goes on with Rutgers.
So people around Rutgers should be prepared during that time.
Absolutely. It is very important when these site visitors arrive to give them the true sense of how involved our university community has been in this process. The best way to give them assurance that we’ve done this seriously is to show how many people across the university were involved – that they are aware of what’s going on and they had input into the process.
Why is it so important for the Rutgers community to be involved in and aware of this process? How can they contribute to the work that the committee is already doing?
We’d like people to look at the self study. For those who simply wish an overview, there is an accessible, relatively short summary, which explains the different sections the major findings, and major recommendations. If somebody wants to go more in-depth, they can get into the self study, which is many hundreds of pages.
When will Rutgers receive the results of this reaccreditation process?
After the March site visit, the visitors will work on a report. That preliminary report is sent to us for our response to their findings, should anything be misconstrued. If, for example, they missed something in the self study or we weren’t clear enough, it gives us our opportunity to deal with these issues.
The preliminary report then goes back to Middle States, which puts together a final report for our review a few months later, at about the beginning of the fall semester.