Emerson reaccreditation soon to reach conclusion

by Angelica LaVine / Beacon Correspondent • November 7, 2013

Emerson’s reaccreditation process will come to a conclusion after more than two years of work, once the college receives its final letter of affirmation within the next few weeks. Moving forward, the college will work to fix two main problems identified by the accreditation body — a lack of culture of assessment through college-wide standards and difficulty in incorporating the liberal arts curriculum across the college — according to Donna Heiland, vice president and special assistant to the president.

Every 10 years, colleges across the nation are required to be reaccredited, a process in which peer institutions assess and ensure each others’ academic quality. For Emerson, the New England Association of School and Colleges, or NEASC, is responsible for performing the evaluation. A team of academics visited the college in April and compiled a 41-page report that examines how Emerson complies with NEASC’s academic and institutional standards.

 This group was concerned about what it saw as Emerson’s tendency to assess students’ learning on an individual basis, rather than having department- or school-wide standards, according to its review. Heiland said that Emerson, like many other institutions of higher education, strives to foster a culture that values such assessments and is working on ways to improve.

According to Heiland, the college will bolster practices that it doesn’t currently emphasize, like making student learning goals clearer, gauging whether these goals are being met more regularly, and using this information for improvements. She said increasing the use and analysis of those assessments will give the college more data to make decisions and support its academic practices. Staff and administrators will start making these changes at the departmental level, she said, and they will eventually become a campus-wide endeavor.

 Heiland said the college is taking two immediate steps in this area. Lori Beth Way, senior advisor of academic affairs, will organize regular discussions with groups of faculty to discuss the way they measure student learning and to formulate plans for successful assessment, she said. A faculty council will also create new course evaluation forms to collect better data from students about their learning, said Heiland.

 The second major weakness identified by the report is that Emerson has not been able to fully reach its goal of integrating liberal arts curricula across all of the departments. Heiland said this issue is being addressed by the newly-formed Liberal Arts Council, which is headed by Amy Ansell, the dean of liberal arts, and comprised of liberal arts department faculty. Heiland said this council will work on increasing connections between departments and creating a sequence of liberal arts classes that flows coherently throughout each year of students’ undergraduate study.

The reaccreditation process involves a self-study, a visiting team report, and a review by NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, which makes the final determination for reaccreditation. The self-study is a report composed by the college that gauges how well it follows NEASC’s 11 standards. According to Heiland, Emerson created committees of faculty to report on each NEASC guideline in September 2011. The self-study was completed this February, she said.

The visiting team — composed of administrators from other colleges — wrote in its report that it prepared the document not only to assist the NEASC commission in making a decision about Emerson’s accreditation status, but also as an educational service to the college. During its three-day visit in April, the team met with President M. Lee Pelton and other Emerson administrators, faculty, and students to discuss how the college has been following the NEASC standards. Heiland said that during the visit, students generally responded with enthusiasm, acting as campus guides for the visiting team, showing them around and escorting them among buildings.

Carlye Gordon, a senior visual and media arts major, said she valued the NEASC team’s visit. She said she enjoyed helping the school showcase its strengths, and said she was happy the visiting team was open to discussion, rather than just coming to judge the school.

“Reaccreditation is really important,” said Gordon, “so I felt lucky to be able to help out with the process.”

Heiland said she, Pelton, and Michaele Whelan, the recently hired vice president for academic affairs, met with the NEASC commission in September to discuss both the self-study and the visiting team report. According to Heiland, this meeting allowed Emerson’s administrators to explain to the commissioners how the college plans to improve.

 Having completed all the steps of the reaccreditation process, Emerson is waiting for its final letter of verification from NEASC. Heiland said the college was informed in September that the letter would be coming in a few weeks, and that she expects the community to be notified once it arrives.