The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Re-accreditation helps college assess how well it is doing

By Cara Miedema DeHaan

Professor Scott Quatro leads one of his classes.Two sides of a coin. That's how Rockne McCarthy would describe the two goals that will guide much of the hubbub on campus the rest of this year.

To be an accredited postsecondary institution, Dordt College must participate every ten years in a re-accreditation process-the first side of the coin-with the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). This two-and-a-half-year process will culminate in a site visit by NCA representatives on October 29-31, 2001. Preparation for this visit has involved- and continues to involve-every administrative office on campus, as well as students and constituents in the broader Dordt community.

As an institution guided by Abraham Kuyper's expression “To be Reformed is to be reforming,” Dordt is committed to discovering new and better ways to translate a Reformed, biblically-based educational philosophy into sound educational practice. This is the second side: the college is always looking for ways to improve, to translate what is said in its foundational documents into more faithful action.

How has Dordt tied these goals together? NCA requires that an institution seeking re- accreditation prepare a self-study document in which it assesses each aspect of college life, according to five criteria (see side bar). In addition, NCA encourages institutions to structure their reports in a way that will be most beneficial for them. Dordt's steering committee, set up in February 1999, chose to explore the theme “Cultivating Lives of Service,” which summarizes the institutional mission.

Unlike the last report completed in 1991, the 2001 document takes a more analytical look at three broad areas--academic affairs, student services, and external relations--trying to determine how closely Dordt is satisfying its mission. Each chapter of the document will
identify both strengths and challenges regarding past performance and recommend areas for further attention.

“This is an opportunity to get at issues that are important to the college,” said Vice President of Academic Affairs Rockne McCarthy, who chairs the steering committee.

President Carl Zylstra, who is officially responsible to NCA for the re-accreditation process, supports the thematic perspective of the document. “This structure is going to serve us well,” he said, “because we won't get bogged down with the details. It's a creative way to keep us mission- focused as we look at our performance in the past.”

In contrast to the 1991 report, the present study puts a greater focus on assessment. McCarthy explained that rather than focusing primarily on institutional resources (such as the number of professors or library books), NCA has become more interested in effectiveness; it wants to see that institutions have policies in place to assess student learning and to examine their academic programs and activities.

“We have a nationally recognized assessment program,” said Curtis Taylor, who is director of planning and special assistant to the president, and who has been working closely with McCarthy in the NCA process. He added that professors Jasper Lesage and Ken Bussema, who head up the assessment effort, have given presentations on Dordt's assessment program at NCA conferences.

New is the NCA's fifth criterion: “The institution demonstrates integrity in its practices and relationships.” The committee has chosen to deal with this criterion in a chapter on institutional decision-making, focusing on the decision-making process followed for the Campus Center.

“We chose to do this chapter because we know decision-making is something we must do better,” said McCarthy. “We're going beyond formal statements on decision-making to evaluate how we are putting principles into practice. This depth of self-analysis is a sign of a mature institution.”

Perhaps related to this issue of decision-making, the steering committee is making an effort to include many people in the self-study process. Until this semester the committee has been doing most of its work behind the scenes. Now the self-study draft is being offered to the college community for feedback. In January staff and faculty were given an opportunity to read and respond to the document in a series of campus-wide meetings.

Carl Fictorie, who teaches in the chemistry department, read the self-study closely and attended the meetings. He found the document interesting and educational; he learned more about how the different aspects of the organizational structure work. Fictorie was encouraged by the committee's request for feedback.

“The committee was certainly receptive to our comments,” he said. “What remains to be seen is whether our comments will be incorporated into the document.”

Hubert Krygsman, history professor, also attended the meetings. Although he believes that the document represents Dordt accurately enough to outsiders, he questioned its real value on campus.

“I don't see the document doing very well at addressing live, internal issues,” he said, although he admitted that one issue did raise significant response, namely, the way the self-study defined the relationship between student services and academic affairs and the nature of education in each sphere. Taylor and McCarthy agree that this is a big issue.

“The Educational Task of Dordt College states that we all--in our different offices--are contributing as educators to the mission of Dordt College,” McCarthy explained. “The challenge of the institution is to fully embody this ideal--to make our rhetoric norm what we do.”

“We have to recognize that student learning doesn't only happen in the classroom,” echoed Taylor. “Academic affairs and student services have significant overlap. The document reflects this understanding and has catapulted us into a discussion that may be painful but is definitely healthy.”

Despite Taylor's optimism, both McCarthy and Taylor have learned that the North Central process can't carry the burden of
discussion on important issues such as this.

“I've learned that the North Central process alone can't accomplish what we want to do,” McCarthy said. Thus, the academic office will co-sponsor an August workshop with student services, a workshop that will engage both faculty and student services staff in a discussion about how they can work together toward the educational mission of Dordt College. The results of this discussion will be presented to the board of trustees in October.

Besides requesting feedback from college employees, the steering committee has invited students to comment on the self-study document. Based on nominations from faculty, staff, and Student Forum members, Taylor personally asked three sets of students to read one third of the document. This personalized format was recommended by Gerbrich Miedema and Aaron Koning, Student Forum representatives on the steering committee.    

“It was a good, structured way for the committee to get quality feedback. If it hadbeen done any other way it wouldn't have been as successful,” said Miedema, who participated in the student services discussion over dinner. “I just wish the student meetings could have been done sooner, so that students could have had an earlier influence on the document.”

Taylor said, “What I hope it will prove is that the personal contact will be effective. We're hoping that students will be glad to hear, 'We value your opinion; will you tell us what it is?'”

The last leg of community feedback requires that the public be notified through advertisements that Dordt is undergoing re-accreditation. The public will be invited to comment on the institution of Dordt College.

Some members of the Dordt community have expressed concern over whether the self- study is a report that must be agreed upon by all or a snapshot taken by various people that initiates dialogue. Taylor said that it should be considered the latter.

“This is a committee report. We don't expect everyone to agree,” McCarthy said, adding that the key to a successful process is that it be participatory, that people be given opportunity to provide feedback. The report's recommendations will not suddenly become new college policy.

On the other hand, Dordt's Institutional Planning Committee, which looks ahead to the future of the institution, will review the study as they discuss future planning needs.

Zylstra commented, “The kinds of things we're saying in this document--identifying current goals and assessing how we're doing--could serve as chapter one of a strategic plan for the future.” He continued, “Big strategic plans are not in vogue, because the environment is changing so fast, but the Institutional Planning Committee will be laying out the next steps we need to take as an institution, leading up to our Jubilee year and further, asking what we will need to accomplish our mission.”

The draft of the self-study document, currently over 200 pages, is a collaboration by many writers. Taylor will be responsible for pulling the report together into a coherent whole. One of his tasks is to make sure that the theme of “cultivating lives of service” runs through the document.

“There are some areas where the theme is most tangible, such as in academics and student services: academic programs light a fire in students, who carry it out in academic and co- curricular programs,” Taylor said. “But the theme's no less important in other areas. I'm glad there's not a real pietistic concept of service coming through in the document. On the other hand, in some cases we have to say the obvious so that it's clear to others.”

The NCA re-accreditation process has called for a huge investment in time and energy. “The process is probably as useful as you make it,” Fictorie said. “If you're doing it to get NCA off your back, it's a waste of time. But if you're using it to plan for the future or look back at past plans, it is helpful.”

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