By Sophia Harris
Framingham State is concluding the description and appraisal phase of the self-study documentation of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) accreditation review due spring 2024.
According to the NECHE accreditation website, NECHE is a “voluntary, non-governmental membership association that serves as an institutional accreditor and promotes educational excellence and quality assurance to its member institutions.”
NECHE accreditation determines institutional quality, according to the NECHE website.
NECHE makes a determination about the effectiveness of an institution as a whole using nine standards for accreditation, according to the NECHE accreditation handbook.
The standards are “aspirational expectations” that must be at least “minimally” met, according to the handbook.
These standards include missions and purposes; planning and evaluation; organization and governance; academic programs; students; teaching, learning, and scholarship; institutional resources; educational effectiveness; and integrity, transparency, and public disclosure, according to the NECHE website.
These standards outline that a university has a “clearly defined purpose that is appropriate to a higher-learning institution, has assembled and organized those resources to achieve its purpose, is achieving its purpose, and has the ability to achieve its purpose,” according to the handbook.
The accreditation initiative for Framingham State is led by Mark Nicholas, assistant vice president for assessment, accreditation, and strategic planning, and co-chaired by English Professor Alexander Hartwiger.
Nicholas said there are 50 participants in the NECHE standard, including 18 people who are leading the writing and data teams, and who are currently concluding their work.
Over this summer, Nicholas and Hartwiger will compile the work from the nine subcommittees into one fluid 100-page document highlighting what Framingham does well and where it needs improvement.
Hartwiger said the NECHE standards committees have been “hard at work this spring to complete work on the description and appraisal sections of the self-study document.”
He said, “Each of the committees plans to finalize their draft by the end of May and hand that work over to the co-chairs for editing and revision this summer.”
Some of the themes the data and artifact teams have uncovered are declining enrollment, COVID-19 management, and the number of minors available to students at FSU.
Nicholas said, “We have evaluated ourselves through standards and then we determine whether we meet the standard or not. We may meet the standard, but we may not meet it fully.”
After the 100-page self-study is completed, Framingham State will present its findings to the “self-study team,” which will be the team that will visit campus in April 7- 10 2024.
The NECHE accreditation team will have approximately six weeks to evaluate the document and develop their own findings and questions.
The team will evaluate how Framingham State is meeting each standard, determining if FSU meets the standard completely or if the University needs to provide more evidence to support its findings.
“We could either agree with their assessment or provide them information saying no, I don't think you got that right or wrong, but eventually they'll leave us with three to four” areas of emphasis to focus on, he said.
He added, “Every school probably has three to four areas of emphasis. We will then focus on the institutional level for the next five years.”
One of the three preliminary themes that is an area of focus is Framingham State’s declining enrollment.
Nicholas said FSU is addressing this concern strategically. “I think it's clear over the last 10 years or the last five years, we've seen steep declines in enrollment. And NECHE will be interested in what we are doing to fix that.”
He added, “We have done a lot of strategic enrollment planning, and we've got a consultant that leads the team right now. We're in the process of hiring a dean for enrollment management.”
[Editor’s Note: See “Iris Godes appointed first dean of strategic enrollment management” page 5]
He said The Board of Trustees spent “a couple of million dollars on Strategic Enrollment rebranding the institution.”
Another area of focus in the NECHE self-study is FSU’s anti-racism work. “I think as a campus we've been ahead of that curve,” he said.
Nicholas said Framingham State's anti-racism work will be something that the team will “showcase as a positive area.
“The work that we've done university-wide to address some of the inequities through the curriculum. The English department is a great example of some of the work that was done in adding DEI themes into the curriculum, policies, and procedures.”
An additional focus of the NECHE self-study is “our responsiveness to student needs,” he said.
Nicholas said, “We saw through COVID-19, If you look at the undergraduate and the graduate student satisfaction, the University - and with their academic program over the last five years - it would be difficult to tell there was a pandemic, the consistency with which students are satisfied with their experience in Framingham State.”
He added this report is published on Framingham State’s webpage in the Office of Assessment.
Hartwiger said,“In the fall, the co-chairs and committee chairs plan to share a full draft version of the self-study with the FSU community.”
Nicholas said, “I am so impressed with the commitment of our faculty and staff thus far. It's been a labor of love for faculty. We had zero attrition. We started with about 50 people on the team, and all 50 are still there.”
Susan Dargan, dean of the college of education and social and behavioral sciences, and Jon Huibregtse, a history professor, are co-chairs of the standard four committee - The Academic Program.
Dargan said some of the work the standard four committee has been working on is identifying “areas for improvement - we identify what we're doing well, too.”
Dargan said one of the areas of focus for this standard is general education requirements.
She said one of the benefits of this study was hiring a chair for the gen ed program.
“We realized that the state universities, our peers, all had general education program area chairs, so they had somebody chairing the gen ed program. … So we finally got a gen ed program chair,” English Professor Patricia Lynne. “She's done a great job this year,” Dargan said.
Lynne is writing a section of the report, according to Dargan.
Another focus of standard four is how Framingham State’s academic program has been revised to respond to COVID-19.
She added the response to COVID-19 is likely something every standard will be addressing.
She said, “We're going to say how we reacted to COVID-19 - to the challenges that it presented. One thing that we did was we stopped suspending students for academic performance at one point early on in the pandemic, and then we started to bring back suspending some students.”
She added Framingham State’s Academic Standing Committee makes those decisions.
Another focus of the standard four committee is anti-racist initiatives and how they relate to academic programs.
Dargan said, “We have a lot of departments that have done a lot of work trying to look at their policies, look at their curriculum.”
One issue her committee discovered is that FSU has too many minors.
Huibregtse said, “I think another theme that's emerging is that [faculty have] created a lot of programs, a lot of minors, especially that are not very well populated.”
Dargan said, “We have 80 undergraduate minors, but many of them do not have any people in them.”
She said when uncovering this, it was clear to her standard committee that the academic program needs to “set up a process where we review our minors once a year or once every other year. Because there's no point having a minor if it's got one person in it.”
Huibregtse said, “For me, personally, it's been eye-opening. I've learned a lot about the institution.”
He added, “We all get caught up in our own roles that we lose sight of the bigger picture - whether it's the students, faculty, everybody is just so focused on their own little part of what FSU is to them. So it's nice to see these bigger themes.”
Dargan said the next phase of the accreditation process will be the projection phase, which is when FSU determines what to address and what the standards committees found in the appraisal phase.
Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego, co-chair of the Standard 5 committee focused on students, said there are two significant trends in the admissions and student support sections of their report.
She said her committee has found Framingham State has “adequate” student support services because FSU “actually had them built for larger populations, as far as the number, and I think we've been working toward student services that offer student support to different demographics.”
She added part of supporting students has been appointing a vice president for diversity, inclusion, and community engagement.
She said, “We've worked to improve the CIE [Center for Inclusive Excellence] space.”
Nowak Borrego said her committee found FSU works “to support the affinity groups through the student experience and Career Development Office and student government.”
Marc Cote, dean of the college of arts and humanities, said the Mancuso Humanities Workforce Preparation Center “works well with the career center and definitely has an action plan to work with them to make sure there's some specificity in the humanities-driven career preparation that's provided to students.”
He said the committee found the Mancuso Center is helpful in showing arts and humanities students that their skills are transferable to the job market.
Cote said the center’s “funding of internships has been really beneficial to students in providing them paid work opportunities that also can be credit-bearing.”
He added the standard 5 committee found the Mancuso center to be a part of FSU’s “extracurricular efforts to provide an opportunity for students beyond the classroom.”
Nowak Borrego said rebuilding student engagement is something her committee found the University needs to improve. “Getting students to truly engage physically and in-person continues to be something we have to work on.”
She discussed various ways the University has provided flexible resources during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said Zoom, for example, has provided a vehicle for counseling through telehealth or a way to engage with either staff or students who aren't available in person.
She added, “If a student is a commuter, they might still be able to have a counseling session without coming to campus or telecom healthcare session or even a meeting with me.”
She said, “I think that is an example of a positive.”
Nowak Borrego said FSU invested in electronic resources during the COVID-19 pandemic,
including improving the Wi-Fi, and making more loaner laptops available to students.
Cote said, “I think Mark Nicholas has done a great job of coordinating the effort, as are all the subcommittee co-chairs that are leading the charge and doing a great deal of collecting data and creating a narrative that helps to give a strong picture of Framingham State.”
President Nancy Niemi said Framingham State is “very lucky to have a dedicated, smart group of faculty and staff who are working on their standards and writing what they need to in order to get each of the standards ready.”
Niemi added, “I know we're lucky. Not every school has the depth of people who are willing to commit their time and expertise to make these reports happen.”