By Sophia Harris
Framingham State is in the data and artifact collection stage 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, “We are looking at the mission of the institution. ‘What is our mission?’ And then we're looking at that mission through this quality framework to answer the question, ‘Are we fulfilling our mission as an institution?’”
Hartwiger said, “This accreditation process helps us reflect on whether or not we're living up to the expectations of the mission or not, but we can't just say we are - we have to provide evidence to do that.”
Meeting these standards does not necessarily guarantee the quality of individual courses or programs offered at a university. However, the review process is designed to highlight “serious weaknesses in a particular area that may threaten an institution's accreditation,” according to the NECHE handbook.
The accreditation process is completed every 10 years, with a check-in every five.
After the accreditation process is completed, a university is given “areas of emphasis” to improve on before the five-year check-in, according to Nicholas.
Framingham State’s last full accreditation was in 2014.
Nicholas set up seven subcommittees, each led by a faculty member and a member of the administration, to address the nine standards.
Standards 1, 2, and 3 are combined under one subcommittee, while the other standards are addressed by their own subcommittees.
The accreditation process starts with data collection and analysis by each of the seven subcommittees. This information is then presented in a 100-page self-study that is used to assess the University.
Then, a team of New England accreditors, faculty and administrators, from various participating institutions, as well as members of the public, will come to the institution to assess what was outlined in the self-study, according to the NECHE website.
At the Oct. 17 All University Meeting, Kristen Porter-Utley, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said NECHE accreditation is important because “it's really an opportunity for us to provide assurance to prospective students, families, and the general public that we're an institution that meets clearly stated standards for accreditation, and that there is a reasonable expectation that we will continue to do so.”
She added accreditation is also important because it is required for Framingham State to receive federal financial aid, including Pell Grants.
A Pell Grant is a government subsidy provided to students who exhibit financial need, according to the U.S. Department of Education website.
She said without NECHE accreditation, “We don't have students.”
Porter-Utley said at this stage in the accreditation process, writing teams have been selected and subcommittee chairs have volunteered to lead the reviews for the different standards.
Hartwiger said the accreditation team includes over 50 administrators and faculty and staff members.
He said, “Right now, we're building the framework to be able to dig into data and then analyze that data.”
Porter-Utley said a number of people involved with the accreditation process attended an Oct. 13 workshop held by NECHE that outlined the importance of the self study and how to “effectively and efficiently do the work it requires to produce” the 100-page report.
She said the goal is to produce a draft of the self study by the end of the spring.
Currently, the accreditation process is in the early stages.
“We are probably not even a quarter of the way into the process,” Hartwiger said.
Nicholas said the subcommittees are gathering evidence “to substantiate whether we meet the standards or not.”
From that information, “We'll determine if we need more data to substantiate that we do or if it is because the institution does not meet the standard,” he said.
Hartwiger said, “These committees are now locating evidence.”
He said the evidence can include anything from presidential updates, policies, annual reports from departments or divisions, and faculty and student surveys.
He added,“Our institution has a lot of documentation.”
In 2014, NECHE highlighted four areas of emphasis for Framingham State.
These areas included improving the office of Institutional Assessment; diversifying revenue sources to stabilize the institution's financial position; focusing on academic and student support services as well as faculty resources; and retention rates of commuter students, according to Nicholas.
He said these areas of emphasis are contextual to 2014, adding the demographics of Framingham State have changed a lot since then.
“The needs of our students have changed. The demographics of our students have changed,” he said.
Regarding the first area of emphasis - Assessment of Student Learning - Nicholas said in 2014, the Office of Institutional Assessment was “very new.”
The accreditors wanted Framingham State to build an “infrastructure” around the Office of Institutional Assessment and to start using “data and analytics to make decisions as an institution,” he said.
The second area of emphasis was diversifying revenue sources to stabilize the institution's financial position.
Nicholas said the accreditors were “concerned that if those appropriations at that point in time could be taken away or reduced or increased depending on political pressure, that the institution would be able to diversify those sources of its income.”
He said, “They were not concerned with the financial status of the University, but should those things change because they are variable, we ought to be able to keep the institution afloat through other means.”
The third area of emphasis was ensuring institutional capacity, including academic and student support services and faculty resources.
Nicholas said the accreditors wanted to ensure these areas were “sufficient to support the growth of the University.”
He said in 2013, Framingham State was growing beyond its capacity.
“We were wondering where we would house students because we couldn't house [all of] them in housing,” said Nicholas.
“I think they [the accreditors] were more concerned that we were growing at a faster rate than our support services were. We're in a completely different story right now with falling enrollment. In fact, we're wondering how we shut down residence halls or those sorts of things,” he said.
Nicholas added how the subcommittees respond to this area is going to be different than 10 years ago. “I don't think that concern of the accreditor is still valid,” he said.
The fourth area of emphasis was the enrollment and retention rates of commuter students, which were lower than the goals set by FSU.
Nicholas said the accreditors wanted Framingham State to “achieve our goals set for retention and graduation rates” regarding commuter students.
In the fifth-year interim report, commuter students were being retained and graduating at a higher rate than on-campus students, he said.
In the fifth-year interim report, FSU did not have any additional areas of emphasis, he said.
“We were just told to continue to focus on these four [areas],” he said.
Hartwiger said, “Ten years is a long time in terms of an institution's identity, and so it's an interesting process to kind of take stock of where we are right now, compared to 10 years ago.”
Nicholas said accreditation is a form of accountability and improvement.
President Nancy Niemi said, “I'm so proud of our process. We have a stellar team.
“I want to make sure that I can do everything I can to help support their process,” she said.
Niemi added, “Other people actually come to us, come to Framingham, for advice about how to run NECHE self-studies and accreditation because Mark and his team are so good.”
Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences Susan Dargon and History Professor Jon Huibregtse lead the Standard 4 Committee - the Academic Program.
Dargon said the Standard 4 Committee focuses on ensuring academic quality.
This is a committee that looks at all of FSU’s programs, all teaching modalities, at all locations, she said.
She said it includes all for-credit courses.
Additionally, this standard assesses how FSU handles transfer credit, and it looks at the integrity of awarding academic credit, she said.
The data and artifacts that this committee is collecting are syllabi from every class - through department chairs, annual department reports, accreditation reports, department learning objectives, and labor contracts, Dargon said.
Huibregtse said, “It seems like we're probably collecting pretty much every syllabus over the last year or two years that has been used.”
Dargon said the data collection phase will be completed by the end of October and the next phase in the accreditation process will be “writing the descriptive part of our chapter, which is saying, ‘This is how we do it. This is what we do,’” she said.
Huibregtse said the next step in the accreditation process will be compiling the information from the data and artifact collection stage. Then, they will “write that into a narrative that the review team will ultimately read when they're on campus.”
The deadline for the second stage is Dec. 16, according to Dargon.
In regard to the areas of emphasis that were brought up in the last 10-year accreditation review, Dargon said those concerns are at the “forefront” of their focus.
She said her team will be focusing on the retention rate of students.
Dargon said some of the areas her team is prioritizing are, “‘Can students graduate in four years easily?’ and ‘Do we have too many course requirements?’”
Her team will be focusing on a number of capacity concerns, she said.
“‘How well do we support students?’ ‘Are there enough supports in place for them to succeed?’ ‘Is it easy for them to get their classes to register for?’ Those kinds of things.”
Huibregtse said, “It's an important task that we all are undertaking and we all want to do our best because we want to put our best foot forward and want FSU to put its best foot forward in this process.”
Meg Nowak Borrego, dean of students, and Psychology Professor Kimberly Arditte Hall co-chair the Standard 5 Committee - Students.
Nowak Borrego said the types of data and artifacts her committee is obtaining are department assessment documents and surveys.
Additionally, her team is “identifying where policies or other information are currently available through links or other web-based locations,” she said.
Nowak Borrego said the Standard 5 Committee is also obtaining documents available through the Institutional Research Office.
She said her team has been “instructed to review and consider both [the five- and 10-year] reports.”
Nowak Borrego said there will not be any surveys created “explicitly” for NECHE for her committee.
She added, “As offices or the University continue to conduct surveys/assessment strategies over the next year, that information may inform this standard.”
The next steps in this process will be “continuing to collect data and working to describe what is found. Then we will move through the appraisal and outcomes sections,” she said.
Mark Powers, executive director of Student Records & Registration Services, and History Professor Stefan Papaioannou lead the Standard 9 Committee - Integrity, Transparency, and Public Disclosure.
Papaioannou said Standard 9 addresses how a University ethically presents itself through its policies and practices - especially concerning students.
“Whether that's students, the community - internally how employees deal with each other. That people are dealing transparently. That there's honesty. The academic honesty policy is wrapped up into that,” he said.
He said the data and artifacts the committee is collecting right now are concerned with how the University presents itself.
Some examples are assessing the website, various academic policies, the RAM Handbook, and the chairs/faculty handbooks, Papaioannou said.
He said the data being collected for this standard is especially “varied.”
Concerning the areas of emphasis that were raised in 2014, Papioannou said, “None of those areas of emphasis were geared toward Standard 9.”
He said the accreditation “provides an opportunity for the University to take a look at itself and see what it's doing well and what it can do better.”
He added, “Personally, and I imagine probably for some others who are working on these committees, I've learned quite a bit about things in the University that I didn't know before.”
Hartwiger said he hopes to have participation and feedback from students later in the accreditation process.
He said Nicholas has reached out to SGA President Dara Barros about soliciting student feedback for the Student Standard.
Nicholas said, “When we meet [Barros] to talk about how we might engage students … we have to find out where [students] are going to be most effective, and it's going to be meaningful for the student to participate at that close level.”
Hartwiger said, “As we work to develop our draft, we will be kind of taking the document on the road to various communities, one of which will be students. We would love student feedback to make sure that this reflects their experience at Framingham State.”