University’s accreditation self-study reveals strengths, areas for improvement

September 23, 2022
By: Deborah O'Neil

Every 10 years, the university comes together for an honest and exhaustive examination of how well it is doing as an institution. These efforts culminate in a self-study report available for all to read – the achievements, the shortcomings, and the aspirations for the future. 

Among the findings in Worcester State University’s newly published self-study: Faculty feel academic quality is high, and the majority of alumni believe their education has prepared them for the workforce or graduate school; however, more work is needed to validate learning outcomes and follow through on academic program reviews. The report notes that while the university was able to successfully pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the campus safe and continue academic programs, the challenges of the pandemic continue to be felt across the university. And, across the university, there is a call to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at all levels of practice and programming for university governance, leadership, faculty, staff, and students.

The self-study is required by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) to receive continued accreditation, and all accredited universities undergo a similar process. Worcester State University’s 10-year self-study was completed in August and is now available online in advance of NECHE’s accreditation visit to campus Oct. 2–5. The visiting team is made up of peers in higher education, and they will be validating what the university has presented in the report through meetings, conversations, and open fora with the campus community.

The report includes 100 pages of narrative and more than 200 pages of data tables and appendices. It is the product of a multi-year undertaking that began in the summer of 2020 and involved dozens of faculty, administrators, and staff members from every department, initially working together via zoom in difficult pandemic conditions. Professor Emily Soltano and Director of Academic Affairs Support Noah Dion co-chaired the self-study steering committee and said they hope the campus community will take time to become familiar with the report.

“We do want people to be informed, and if you are tapped on the shoulder, you should be somewhat aware of what’s going on,” said Dion. “Beyond that, the self-study gives you so much more context about what you do day in and day out. One of the things that comes through here is that as a community and as an organization, we are doing so much with so many different talents, and we are all connected. One thing really does create a ripple effect for the next.”

Soltano, who leads the Center for Teaching and Learning, noted that everything in the self-study ultimately comes back to students. “This is our institution, and we are here to provide an experience and education for our students. It’s student first.”

The report is organized in nine chapters to mirror NECHE’s nine standards, which set criteria for academic quality. Chapters were written by self-study subcommittee chairs and then turned over to Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences Russ Pottle, who pulled the entire report together into a cohesive narrative. For each of the nine standards, the university presents a description, an appraisal of how the institution is doing in meeting the standard, and projections for the future. 

NECHE requires the university to support its claims with quantitative and qualitative data, and much of the preparation of the report involved data gathering and analysis. 

“This is not an opportunity to just praise everything about Worcester State University,” Dion said. “It has to be an honest reflection of where we are, where we hope to go, and how we can get there. One of the hurdles in orchestrating the self-study was informing people that your claims need to be supported by data, and that is central to the process.” 

Here are themes and highlights that emerge in the self-study’s nine standards:

Mission and Purpose: Surveys of students, faculty, and staff in 2021 found that most agree that the university’s mission statement and values reflect the purpose of the university. The most significant finding was that the university should include diversity, equity, and inclusion in its mission statement, and it sets a goal to do so by the end of the 2023–24 academic year. 

Planning and Evaluation: This chapter takes a closer look at the university’s strategic planning processes, data collection, and academic program reviews. “It will be important to track these data closely as the university has a perceived history of making large-scale changes and finding funding for initiatives that, on the surface, may not seem to tie in with a given strategic plan,” the report notes. In addition, the report notes that follow-through after academic program reviews is inconsistent and calls for more transparency on how funding supports academic program reviews and new initiatives. The university set a goal that by the end of academic year 2024–25, the divisions of Administration and Finance and Academic Affairs will create clear and transparent links between academic program review results and budget allocations.

“Aligning what we say we are going to do with actually doing it – that was a lot of the conversation that came up,” said Soltano. “I think with our new strategic plan, programming will be mapped a lot closer than they were in the past.”

Organization and Governance: This chapter looks at equity and opportunity for participation and inclusion by all members of the community in the university’s governance bodies. The report finds that while students have opportunities to be involved with university committees, faculty hiring, or focus groups, there is no centralized, accessible way for them to learn about these opportunities. “This dynamic leads to the student body being represented by only a small portion of the students who tend to serve on multiple committees,” according to the report. “This dynamic potentially creates an incomplete picture of student concerns and opinions and over reliance on a few students.”

“We have a good number of structures in place for individuals to have a voice on campus.For faculty, it really is fairly firm, if you will,” Dion said. “Bigger picture, it is those other auxiliary structures outside of those major governance bodies. They exist and they are functional, but we need to make sure that some of that is solid and processes are transparent enough that the entire community is aware and welcome to participate and follow along.”

Among the projections for the future: increase the diversity of the Board of Trustees membership, increase student representation in governance, and develop a graduate student governance structure by the start of academic year 2024–25.

The Academic Program: Worcester State has 38 undergraduate majors, 47 undergraduate minors, 32 graduate degrees, and eight fully online graduate programs. A faculty survey found that large majorities feel that their departments are providing students with the depth and scope of learning the programs claim to offer and that the programs are preparing students for their careers. The report raises concerns about the academic review process, with a number of programs behind in their five-year review cycle. “More importantly, there is no clear process by which the administration evaluates and acts upon reports generated by departments undergoing reviews,” according to the report. 

“The program review cycle closes the loop on what we learn when we do a department self-study,” Soltano said. “It’s a large undertaking, and in some cases, it sits on a shelf. There is room for improvement.”

The university set goals to update the academic review process and assess the impacts of MajorPlus, First-Year Seminar changes, the new general education diversity content area requirement, and early college initiatives.

Students: This chapter takes a comprehensive look at who Worcester State students are, and the student experience, including all of the university’s student service offices, the co-curricular offerings, and student life. The university set a goal to evaluate the effectiveness of services for under-represented students, including ALANA/BIPOC (Black, Latine, Asian, Native American and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color), LGBTQ+, first-generation students, low-income students, student with disabilities, veteran students, and adult learners.

Among the other takeaways was the need to focus on the experiences of graduate students and online students. “We need to make sure we are obviously aware that student body exists,” Dion said. “They truly can be invisible to us if they are coming in at night or are completely online – they haven’t been as much a part of our student body, and they will be a growing part of our population.”

Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship: This chapter examines the demographics of the university’s faculty and what the university is doing to support faculty and to provide resources for professional development, research, teaching and creativity, and scholarship. Among the findings is the need to expand the Center for Teaching and Learning and assess classroom learning environments, pedagogy, and technology. Among the other projections, the university will aim to increase faculty diversity.

Institutional Resources: In this chapter, the university looks at human resources, financial resources, technology, and facilities. Among the goals will be to continue to diversify the university’s workforce and reduce the turnover rate with career development and advancement opportunities. On the financial front, the report describes how declining enrollment has left the university with a projected $9 million deficit for the next fiscal year. The university’s Fiscal Sustainability Task Force aims to develop new revenue opportunities, efficiencies, and cost containment strategies to address the shortfall. 

Educational Effectiveness: The University has a growing culture of assessment and regularly collects data about learning outcomes. As part of the self-study, the University surveyed alumni from the classes of 2012 to 2020 to ask if their college education prepared them for careers or graduate school. Results indicated that 62.5% of alumni respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that their educational experience prepared them to succeed in the workforce, and 72.4% agreed or strongly agreed that their undergraduate education prepared them for graduate school.

The University set goals to assess the outcomes of the new MajorPlus initiative. In addition. the Office of Assessment and Planning will validate that all educational effectiveness activities are informed by the needs and experiences of non-traditional students, including first-generation, ethnically diverse, adult students, and other recognizable demographic groups.

Integrity, Transparency, and Public Disclosure: In interviews for the self-study, administrators, staff, and department chairs expressed a dedication to practices that ensure fair and equitable dealings with fellow employee students, prospective students, and the general public. The university’s website, which was redesigned and re-platformed in the summer of 2022, is a main channel for disseminating information and public disclosure. The report notes that updates are still being made to the relaunched website and some information on the site is out of date. The university has set a goal to support the further development of the website.

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