“Reaccreditation.” it’s not quite so long a word as “septaquintaquinquecentennial,” the tongue- twister we adopted four years ago to describe Denison’s 175th anniversary. But you’re not likely to find either in a standard dictionary. It is, however, a word describing a process that has been central to Denison’s life for the last couple of years.
Every ten years, Denison University has to be reaccredited by the Higher Education Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of our nation’s six regional accrediting agencies. Colleges and universities must hold accreditation in order to allow their students to receive certain kinds of financial aid, but it also represents a pact of mutual recognition between institutions of higher education–accreditation allows the transfer of completed coursework from one institution to another and signals graduate and professional schools, as well as prospective employers, that graduates’ degrees have substance. Accreditation is also required to be in good standing with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
But, more importantly to students and their families, accreditation signifies that a college undergoes a regular process of self-examination and review by others in the higher education community. Accreditation means that an institution has the vision, the will, the people, the curriculum, the resources, and the facilities to fulfill the mandates of its mission.
To prepare for our reaccreditation, we conducted an institutional self-study, led by a committee made up of administrators and faculty members. Over 15 months, they assembled information about the current state of the college and of liberal arts undergraduate education. They also sought input from college leadership, including trustees and alumni, and from students, faculty, and staff. In autumn 2009, a 200-page report on the college, its prospects, and its challenges was delivered to the North Central Association, along with hundreds of additional pages of financial and statistical information about Denison.
That self-study taught us that we had much to feel good about when we surveyed Denison’s last decade, but we also acknowledged the challenges ahead and asked ourselves some important questions. How do we better articulate the particular learning and living experience that Denison has to offer in comparison with other leading national liberal arts colleges? How do we make sure that we are sustaining community and broad common purpose among a more diverse campus of men and women? How, through a combination of operating efficiencies and appropriate investments in student financial aid, do we remain affordable to the kind of outstanding student body that we want to admit and enroll? How can we help students connect their liberal arts education with productive and fulfilling opportunities as educated adults?
Last fall, a visitation team of senior leaders from other national liberal arts colleges spent several days on our campus. They inter- viewed various groupings of students, faculty, staff, trustees, and local community leaders. Ultimately, they prepared a report that had to stand muster with an additional panel of higher education professionals and ultimately the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association itself. Denison received its final report just before Commencement in May.
Was the college reaccredited? Of course. As the report noted, that was never really in question. Was Denison reaccredited with a mandate to address certain matters before the next ten years is up? Not a thing arose– and they frequently do in accreditation reviews. In fact, the report praised just those things that we–and you–know. Denison has an outstanding faculty; it has attracted a truly able student body; it receives wonderful financial support from its alumni, parents, staff members, and friends; it has remarkable physical facilities that continue to be enhanced; and it enjoys the support and affection of the community it inhabits. The accreditation report also praised the effectiveness of the strategic plan that the college developed early in the last decade and carefully followed to make measurable progress. Did the report make any suggestions? Well, yes it did. In its own language, it identified almost exactly the issues that we had highlighted in our self-study as warranting our institutional attention. It’s good to be on the same page!
After all of this effort, are we heaving a sigh of relief at Denison, knowing that we’re good to go for ten years? Afraid not. This year, the Higher Learning Commission announced a new accreditation process that will ask colleges to formally assess their performance more often. For us, the new process will begin in just five years. But we’re ready, because we know that in a dynamic world that places new demands upon our graduates, we can never ask often enough whether we are serving them well. The accreditors told us this year that we are. We aim for that to be true in the years ahead again and again.