Middle States Commission Standards Revision – Albany Town Hall Meeting, April 1, 2014

The Commission on Higher Education (CHE) for the Middle States Association (MSA) held the last of its town hall meetings in Albany, New York on April 1, 2014 to discuss the proposed revisions to the standards document, Characteristics of Excellence.

Library Concerns

Librarians became particularly interested in the revisions when it was learned shortly after the December 2013 conference of the Commission that the words “information literacy” and “library” no longer appeared anywhere in the standards.

Librarians quickly organized, posting blogs and urging colleagues to send comments to a CHE web site form and then through email or postal mail. CUNY librarians contacted professional library associations in the Middle States region and notified administration and faculty on their own campuses to review the proposed standards and to show their support for the work of librarians and their place in the Characteristics of Excellence.

It is reported that there was a strong library presence at the second-to-last town hall meetings on March 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Libraries were also well represented at the April 1 meeting in Albany.


Meeting Program

The official program lasted two hours and included an update on the work of the CHE, the specifics about writing the new draft of the Characteristics of Excellence and comments from the audience.

Update on the Work of the CHE

The president of the CHE, Elizabeth Sibolski noted that the Commission has recently become a separate corporation from the corporation that is the Middle States Association. The CHE used to be a sub-association of the MSA. The separation was necessary in order to protect the assets of the members. The commissions on elementary and secondary schools are still a part of MSA.

Dr. Sibolski spoke about her work in Washington as a lobbyist for higher education and of the many regulations that have come as a result of Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. For example, clock-to-credit hours are being brought into alignment. Additionally, accrediting agencies are seen as not being aligned with each other. There are too many differences. All the accrediting bodies have come together to come up with a common vocabulary, especially related to sanctions, so that they will resemble each other more closely.

Dr. Sibolski noted that there is now a U. S. Senate-formed task force looking at higher education. They are focused on 12 major issues, including accreditation. Dr. Sweeny cautioned that the CHE and other commissions have faced some criticism as being irrelevant. CHE has insisted on the validity of the current accreditation process and how it reflects the importance of peer review.

Standards Revisions

The genesis of the standards revisions was then discussed. Sweeny noted that the Commission felt from the start that more than anything the standards should reflect that students and society are being well-served by their academic institutions. The new document is about continuity but not intended to include all the original standards. This document was built from scratch. Sweeny commented that because the range of educational institutions in the region is very diverse, it is hoped that accreditation does not interfere with the individuality of the mission of each institution.

The writing was shaped by four guiding principles. It was agreed that in the old standards, the student learning experience comes too far into the document. The revision makes this central. Additionally, it was agreed that the new standards need to be flexible enough to be supportive of innovation.

The current revision draft as available today is a result of five town hall meetings intended to “get down the big ideas.” Four thousand surveys had been sent to major stakeholders prior to crafting the revisions. Since the draft revisions were made public, CHE has gotten several hundred comments, more feedback than ever before on any document that have ever put forward.

Sweeny spoke about the themes that have emerged in the feedback to the revisions. In the early meetings prior to the writing of the draft, many had asked for a simplifying of standards. The CHE looked hard to see what were the fundamental elements and the historical context for the standards, but they kept returning to the centrality of the student learning experience. This is what drives the document. In reviewing an institution, questions to ask are, “how is the student learning experience supported? What are the expectations?” Sibolski added that there is more interest now than there was in the past on how you assess and use the outcomes of a review.

The final section on compliance is out of the control of the CHE. It was thought that including it as a separate part made the most sense. Nobody has asked for more standards. There have been, however, many comments on the precision of the language. Some have asked why faculty are not described in a separate section in the document. The CHE has worked to describe the role of faculty throughout the document. It will be a challenge to say more about the roles and responsibility of faculty as the document exists now.

Sweeny made a point of noting that the absence of a mention of information literacy was “an embarrassing omission.”

Governance is covered as one standard. The document honors the principle of shared governance within institutions and on multiple levels. The document strives to find the locus of decision making and speak to it. Many are concerned about what the document says about to assure quality. Some are looking for a checklist; others want room for unique institutional approaches. How specific should the standards be? There have also been issues about language. Should the document have a glossary? Accreditation will involve subjective judgment. Sweeny says that this is a good thing, and a glossary or a checklist might be too restrictive.

A vote from the membership on the new standards will come in the summer/early fall of 2014. There will be a three year roll out. The new standards will not apply to those in the midst of an evaluation the first year. In the second year, unless the institution chooses to use new standards, it can be evaluated according to the old standards. All institutions must comply with the new standards in the third year.

Audience Comments and Concerns – General

Attendees expressed concern about a number of issues. Among them:
• The eroding of the role of faculty and vagueness about qualifications; in response, Sweeny commented that some member institutions state that they have no faculty.
• The idea that accreditation examines non-degree offerings; the answer from CHE, if the institution offers them CHE has to review them.
• The resistance to including any sort of a check-list. Including a rubric was offered by an attendee as a reasonable alternative.
• The new S.2.7.B, a call for institutions to assure that students understand the cost of a college education. Who will judge institutional success in this area? Sweeny remarked that this is an issue that is totally new to the standards and one that may require some testing of appropriate application.
• The mission-appropriateness of some requirements. For example, S.4.1.d refers to the need for having a system in place to prepare students for transfer. Some schools would argue that very few of their students transfer out so why give it so much attention?
• Language choice in general. There is a lot of concern for phrases such as “as appropriate.” This is a term that can allow for perhaps too much bending and not enough regulation.

Audience Comments and Concerns – Library-specific

Library issues dominated the comments from the audience. Seven library advocates got up to speak, including Trudi Jacobson, Head of the Information Literacy department at the University Libraries, SUNY Albany, who reminded the CHE that MSA has been supportive of the ideas of information literacy for the past 20 years and should reinstate it as part of S.3.5.b covering general education. Beth Evans, Brooklyn College, CUNY, spoke about the need to use specific language in the document referring to libraries and information literacy, particularly at a time when many assume you can find any information you need on the internet. Anne Larsen, interim director of SUNY Sullivan County Community College Library (formerly of CUNY) noted from her long time experience working at the Board of Library Standards in Massachusetts that the standards need to employ strong language with teeth. Jeannie Galvin, Chief Librarian, Queensborough Community College, CUNY, noted that as important as it is to include information literacy in the document, the library as a physical and virtual space is essential to student learning; librarians and libraries are not just a resource. They are part of the academic discourse. Michelle Young, library director at Clarkson University and incoming President of the Board at NYSHEI spoke about how integral the library is to student learning. Jason Kramer, the executive director of NYSHEI cautioned that divorcing library resources from information literacy gives government the opportunity to see no reason to provide funds for buying needed resources. Steve Call, a history professor at Broome Community College, commented that there is a tendency to stampede to the latest way of doing things. Libraries, he feels, represent a trusted way of getting to information that should not be overlooked. The information superhighway has not replaced the brick and mortar library.

In response to the comments from librarians and library supporters, Dr. Sweeny remarked that there is no argument against including information literacy in the document; the challenge will be with the specific mention of libraries and resources. How do you fit these into a discussion of the student learning experience? Dr. Sobalski pointed out that there is a desire among accreditors to move away from the counting of things. In particular, the example of counting books in the library is often cited when finding fault with an accrediting system that focuses on counting.

The Albany town hall meeting was a partial victory for libraries and librarians serving the Middle States region. The CHE was contrite about omitting information literacy from the revised standards document and has given assurance that the concept will be integrated back into the document. Nonetheless, a pronounced resistance, in fact a refusal, on the part of the Commission to include identifiably specific, countable objects (some as small as a library book and some as large as a library building) in the new Characteristics of Excellence leaves us with a document that is ripe for misuse. Some institutions that fail to provide the very real, concrete pedagogical infrastructure that is needed to educate (everything from libraries to laboratories, from teaching faculty to advisors) might see in what is missing from the documents an avenue for claiming to be an institution of higher education without offering students any of the tools critical to achieving such an education.

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