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BU Seeks to Renew Accreditation

NEASC site team visits campus this month; student and faculty forums scheduled


Douglas Sears (top), the University’s associate provost and chairman of the reaccreditation committee. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky. Cassandra Nelson (CAS’05, GRS’07) (bottom).

Like the U.S. Census, every 10 years Boston University must look in the mirror and describe what it sees. That reflection forms the basis for an important stamp of approval: reaccreditation.

The designation of “accredited institution” assures prospective students that a college or university meets, and will continue to meet, clearly defined standards set by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional accrediting bodies in the United States. In other words, accreditation demonstrates confidence in the soundness of a school’s purpose and performance, as well as its resources, both human and financial.

One of the foundations of the evaluation is a 100-page self-study, comprising reports, data, and statistics, culled from all pockets and corners of the University, focusing on effectiveness, improvement, and public assurance. The report is structured around 11 standards, from financial health to student affairs to governance. After the completion of the self-study, which typically takes at least a year to research and prepare, a site team made up of senior educators from various accredited colleges and universities is dispatched to campus for a three-day visit.

For students, accreditation means eligibility for federal and state grants and loans. For universities, accreditation is required to receive federal grants, loans, or other funds, including for research. In the workplace, too, accreditation matters. Employers may ask if a school or program is accredited before providing tuition assistance and in evaluating the credentials of potential hires.

“We couldn’t do business without it,” says Douglas Sears, a University associate provost and chairman of the reaccreditation committee. “At the end of the day, we’re out of business if we’re not accredited.”

Sears and Cassandra Nelson (CAS’05, GRS’07), assistant to the provost, who prepared the self-study based on the reams of information provided by the University’s various schools, programs, centers, and administrative offices, recently sat down with BU Today to discuss the report, how the University prepares for outside scrutiny, and the ways BU has changed over the past 10 years.

BU Today: What is the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)?
NEASC is, in some ways, the parent of all accrediting bodies in the United States. It was launched earliest to accredit the likes of Harvard and Yale. It was started by distinguished colleges to ensure that the reputation of established institutions wasn’t diminished by any fly-by-night operators. There were a lot of those institutions — some of them disappeared quickly, and others didn’t. The idea of peer evaluation emerged as a way of protecting institutions from having their reputations devalued.

Does each school within the University become accredited?
Sears: Certain schools and colleges within the University necessarily have their own accreditation system, such as the School of Medicine, the School of Management, and Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. As a functional matter, it means NEASC doesn’t have to spend a significant amount of a three-day visit looking at a 30,000-student institution and worrying about the School of Medicine or the School of Law when someone has looked at those schools a year ago. Accreditation means any BU unit can say we’re part of an institution that is accredited. It means the whole university is authorized to do business.

Has reaccreditation changed over the past 10 years?
Sears: One of the big new questions that NEASC asks is, are we really providing the value we say we are? So between 1999 and 2009, a big shift for NEASC was placing a much heavier emphasis on student outcomes, how you determine what students have gained, and also tracking where they go afterward. The College of Fine Arts, for example, has had to define field-specific ways for what might constitute success and a good outcome. You could have a graduate who is a brilliant cellist, but never works as a cellist. The School of Law actually puts down on paper how many lawyers they place and how many pass the bar exam.

When did you begin work on this process?
Sears: In October of 2007. There was a workshop that NEASC hosted for member institutions to learn about the components of the self-study and how to put it together, the site visit, teaching us what the standards were and how they’ve changed. We pulled together a steering committee made up of the chairs of the University Council committees, which map pretty closely to the 11 standards. They met regularly for six months, and the different subcommittees wrote their standards. And all this raw material came in, and Cassandra turned it into one voice.

Nelson: But with any kind of self-study of a university of this size and this many departments, schools, and colleges, with so many moving pieces, it’s really a moving target. There was so much revision happening in December and January because things change — enrollment numbers, the number of undergraduates in BU housing. It’s a snapshot in time, not the definitive guide to BU. The self-study has to be 100 pages, whether you’re a small landscaping school in New Hampshire or Boston University, so ours is pretty selective.

Who is on the site team and when will they be on campus?
March 29 to April 1. They come in on a Sunday. This is very standard for NEASC. It doesn’t matter how big the school is, they come in on a Sunday afternoon, have a team meeting and dinner, and spring into a series of meetings Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. For us, it’s an 11-member team chaired by Steven Knapp, the president of George Washington University. There are two sitting presidents on the team, one former president, two sitting provosts, associate provosts, and a librarian. They try to assign team members according to their areas of interest and specialization. We expect the dean of students from Amherst College, for example, to be working on the student standard. The provost of Syracuse University will be doing the academic standard. They will be going through documents and reports, school-based strategic plans, ethics policies, the budget.

How have things changed at BU since the last reaccreditation 10 years ago?
Sears: One of the major standards is governance. People at NEASC are pretty aware that there’s been some major leadership change at BU. It’s not the best-kept secret that we had a failed presidential search and a certain amount of readjustment as a consequence. We have, for example, more stringent conflict-of-interest policies and more specific ethics guidelines. We brought in outside consultants to review the practices of the board. The board instituted term limits. We have a strategic plan, one that was agreed upon by the community, with real benchmarks and milestones built into it. The president, the provost, and the deans use the strategic plan and its goals as decision-making criteria. That’s a big change.

Nelson: Student services is another big thing — there’s been a real push to improve the student experience. The numbers on people going to sporting events are up. For the first time this fall, there won’t be any students assigned to hotels instead of BU residence halls. There was no Fitness and Recreation Center 10 years ago.

Also, I was blown away by the numbers in terms of diversity. From 2003 to 2008, Hispanic and African-American applicants were up 58 percent and 57 percent, respectively, almost twice the regular rate of applicant growth. Some numbers have stayed the same. BU still has a significant number of international students, which is something we like.

When will you hear back from NEASC?
Sears: In about three months, we’ll see paper. There’s an exit interview on the last day, and the team will present its preliminary findings to us. The site team writes a report to NEASC, and then there’s a vote at the NEASC meeting. BU is given a chance to review the report in draft stage and make sure everything’s accurate. It’s a lot of work and there’s an awful lot of detail, but we’re confident that BU is a sound institution. At the same time, we recognize that there is always something to learn from a thoughtful review conducted by outside peer accreditors.

Two public forums, one for faculty and one for students, will be held with members of the NEASC site team. The student session will be held in the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Ballroom at 4:15 p.m. on Monday, March 30. The faculty session takes place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, in the Trustees Ballroom, One Silber Way.

Click here for more information and to read the self-study report in its entirety.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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