As I close out my first year as President of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), I wanted to share some personal reflections on the state of accreditation, on a few things that have surprised me, and some opportunities I see for the future.
First, a bit about how I came to sit in this chair which, to be honest, was a bit of a surprise even to me. After practicing law as a civil rights attorney for almost a decade, I made a sudden and unexpected shift to higher education administration. I served as chief operating officer at my alma mater, Swarthmore College, for fifteen years, and after returning to school fairly late in life to earn my doctorate, I was offered the opportunity to be President of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Oglethorpe is a liberal arts college very much like Swarthmore, in fact founded a few decades before Swarthmore. Among the differences, however, is a couple billion dollars of endowment. I was privileged to serve Oglethorpe for fifteen years, stepping down in 2020, then entered the job market in the midst of the onset of COVID.
My experience with accreditation while President of Oglethorpe was not much fun. That’s not a reflection on our regional accreditor, SACSCOC, but rather how fragile a financial position I found the university to be in. On top of our dwindling financial resources, Oglethorpe didn’t have much of a culture of self-assessment. We believed what we did was very special yet had never developed any tools for establishing learning outcomes, let alone measuring whether those outcomes had been achieved. The accreditation cycle of continuous improvement and quality assurance that I now understand very well plays a critical role in ensuring excellence through a system of peer review. At Oglethorpe, when our peers came to campus for a reaffirmation visit, they found we failed to meet two of SACSCOC’s standards: one an assessment of student learning and outcomes, and one of financial stability. I’m pleased to report that with the support (and of course severe warning) from our accreditor, Oglethorpe not only survived but subsequently has thrived. I certainly developed an appreciation for the role of accreditors through that process, although not yet a fondness for the scrutiny.
When I was approached about the opportunity at NECHE, I jumped on the phone with a number of friends who worked in higher education in New England and asked them about their perspective on the New England version of accreditation. Frankly, I was surprised at what I heard. My friends were actually quite fond of NECHE and knew virtually every staff person who worked there by first name. In fact, each and every one of them had had some contact with staff quite recently, even without an upcoming visit or report coming due. They considered NECHE and its staff as a valuable resource to make use of throughout the year. There was a back-and- forth and give-and-take that was possible with just 200+ member institutions in six states geographically and culturally connected. Having worked with our staff for a year now, I can attest that what I first heard about NECHE is exactly what I found to be true. There is a special culture here that connects NECHE to its members and, even without the ability to see people for the last year because of the pandemic, that culture has carried us through. We are not a regulator, but instead a partner to our member institutions in their quest to continuously improve outcomes for their students. That said, when those efforts are not successful or when an institution cannot discover a sustainable financial model to carry it forward, we do not hesitate to help that institution, and in some cases require that institution to make the decision to find a partner, consolidate with another institution, or even close its doors.
What has surprised me? In the face of the global pandemic, when the model of education at every one of our schools had to be altered, I was struck by how nimbly our institutions responded and how committed they have been in ensuring that the quality of their education persists. They have also understood that adherence to each one of our nine standards of accreditation continues to be required. Even in the face of this massive, unprecedented event, NECHE has not stopped, or even temporarily suspended, any of our requirements (with the exception of moving to virtual visits rather than face-to-face). Our role in assuring educational quality has remained unchanged, and we have been as nimble as the institutions we serve. To respond to the switch to remote learning (which virtually all of our institutions had to do), we created a new committee, the Distance Education Expedited Review committee (DEER), made up of top experts in the field of distance education– some who served on the Commission and others who served as faculty and administrators at our member institutions. We also developed a new form for institutions to detail their plans for providing and assessing all programs newly offered in a remote format. The DEER Committee met, reviewed each proposal, and made a recommendation on each to the Commission for its consideration. Because it was expected that many of the institutions were only seeking temporary approval during the pandemic, virtually all grants were issued for a time-limited period. At the end of that period, institutions that seek to continue teaching programs online will be required to return to the Commission with such a request and include results of their assessment of student learning in these online programs.
On the financial front, I was gratified to witness the sophistication of our monitoring tools, particularly our 12-metric financial analysis that we developed in 2019 with the Boston Consortium for Higher Education, in conjunction with the Yuba Group. This added a quantitative screening process to our qualitative financial monitoring that has been in place since the 1980s. While originally used only with private institutions in Massachusetts, it was recently extended to all the private institutions we accredit.
Finally, as witness to six Commission meetings, I have been deeply impressed by how seriously the volunteer Commissioners take their responsibility. They read literally thousands of pages of material before each meeting and come prepared to engage in complex and thoughtful conversations with college and university leaders, and among themselves, before making decisions. Some of those decisions are not difficult, but many are– and can have stark consequences in the future of institutions and in the lives of students, parents, faculty, and staff. It’s incredibly weighty work, all undertaken with the twin goals of helping institutions improve and serving the public good by being transparent about the strengths and weaknesses of those institutions.
As for opportunities ahead, NECHE was able to hold a staff and a Commission retreat this past June and the future received plenty of discussion. Among the topics were our staff work schedule, how to conduct Commission meetings & training workshops moving forward, and whether (and when) campus visits might return to face-to-face. Since last fall, staff have been coming into the office two days a week (masked and distant, until recently when everyone was fully vaccinated) and we have decided to keep this schedule for the foreseeable future. This mix gives us the opportunity to be together (one day a week everyone is present) and to provide flexibility for our staff to avoid what has once again become long commutes. The Commission will return to live meetings in September. While everyone believed we managed to do business quite well during the pandemic with virtual meetings, the strong consensus was that Commission discussions were more robust with everyone in the same room. As for our workshop schedule, for the year ahead, we will be arranging a mix, with some held virtually and others face-to-face. Finally, while virtual campus visits also seemed to work reasonably well, Commissioners felt something was lost when people were not able to be physically together. We are exploring whether some parts of the visit might be better held remotely: for example, certain open session meetings of faculty, staff or students had a much better turn-out when virtual.
We also spent a fair amount of time talking about new opportunities for the Commission to extend its reach both domestically and abroad, where there is strong interest. A dozen American-style institutions are in the pipeline towards accreditation and poised to join our 11 existing global members. As you might suspect, the New England membership has gradually declined over time due to mergers, consolidations, closures, and a change in federal regulations as of July 2020. This presents an opportunity for us to consider growing our numbers outside our traditional region; how and where we might do that led to a robust discussion at the retreat, which is a conversation to be continued.
Lastly, we talked at great length about how we as a Commission can encourage innovation in higher education. One tool which has not been used much to date is our Policy on Pilot Projects, adopted by the Commission in March 2020. This policy is designed to support innovation in a way that allows institutions to experiment with efforts which may be or appear to be inconsistent with specific aspects of our standards. Staff will use this coming year to begin conversations with interested members about their desire to use the Policy on Pilot Projects to propose imaginative innovation aimed at increasing student success.
It’s been a year of great learning for me! I look forward to being with people in person again, and spending time learning something new every day.