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March 15, 2011 9:08 am

Northwest College earns seven-year accreditation

Written by Ilene Olson

Reaccreditation report sends mixed messages

Ater nearly four months, Northwest College officials are thankful their wait for a written accreditation report is over.

The draft report, received by NWC President Paul Prestwich on March 8, recommends a seven-year accreditation. That is shorter than the 10-year accreditation the commission granted in 2000.

The report, from a Higher Learning Commission team that visited the NWC campus in November, said Northwest College met all five criteria for accreditation. Those are: mission and integrity; preparing for the future; student learning and effective teaching; acquisition, discovery and applications of knowledge; and engagement and service.

While focusing on areas where the team said improvement is needed at the college, such as shared governance, planning and student assessment, the report also lists numerous strengths.

Those include Hinckley Library, classroom technology, well-credentialed faculty, diversity awareness and multiculturalism, online resources for students, dual and concurrent enrollment programs at area high schools, articulation agreements with other colleges, workforce training and professional development opportunities.

The report also cited strong local support through the Northwest College Foundation, especially evidenced in the Trapper Scholarship Program and the Toward New Vistas fundraising campaign.

Prestwich said he is pleased that much of the report is a positive reflection of the college.

To address issues where improvement is needed, the report calls for a monitoring report on the college’s institutional assessment program by Aug. 15, 2012, and a focus monitoring visit regarding shared governance in spring 2013.

Shared governance is the system through which opinions and input from constituent groups are solicited and considered in decision making at the college.

Prestwich said it was no surprise that the team cited concerns about shared governance at the college.

“We know that,” he said, adding that the college already is working to correct those deficiencies and has made progress since the team’s visit.

The team noted previous concerns over shared governance also were found during accreditation visits in in 1990 and 2000.

The report states, “The team considers the response of the organization to previously identified challenges to be adequate ... but due to turnovers in personnel, the team found much progress in planning and shared governance to have eroded in recent years.”

The report also stated, “It was clear during the visit that not all members of the campus community have embraced change. Senior faculty shared ... resentment toward the new and preceding president. Perhaps this attitude is a natural result of change in leadership, but it has proven quite disruptive to the institutional collegiality ...

“The team concurs that, given time under the continued leadership of the president ... the institution will continue to move forward in the areas of governance, assessment and strategic planning.”

Prestwich said he and other college officials are concerned about contradictions and inaccuracies in areas of the report.

“We’re recognizing that there are numerous factual errors and contradictions that have led to erroneous conclusions,” Prestwich said Monday. “Given how long they took, I would have expected a more professionally-reasoned report to us. It is poorly written, and that is disappointing.”

For instance, the team cited inadequacies with student learning assessment, but Prestwich said that actually is a strength at Northwest College.

“We have a comprehensive program, defined a number of ways and in various documents,” he said. “It looks as though they confused various aspects of our assessment program with others.”

NWC Board President Mark Westerhold said in an e-mail, “While we are pleased that the HLC team has indicated that NWC has met all criteria for continued accreditation, the draft report we received has a number of factual errors, contradictory statements, and in general, appears to have been hastily prepared. There are portions of the report that lead me to believe that the visiting accreditation team has a misunderstanding of some particular aspects of the college, and that they may have gone beyond the boundaries of their mission in some areas of the report.

“We will be responding to the HLC regarding the draft report to address all of these issues and discuss any necessary revisions before the final report is issued.”

NWC professor and Communications Division Chairman Duane Fish, who helped compile the college’s self assessment study required for reaccreditation, said he thinks the team confused institutional assessment with academic assessment.

“They talked at one point about how we need to develop program-specific outcomes, then they talk about that’s one of the documents they examined,” he said.

After working for years to compile and write a high-quality, accurate self-study document, Fish said he expected a better-quality report from the team in return.

“I am fairly disappointed in the (report),” Fish said. “I don’t think it is well written; I don’t think it accurately reflects what’s going on at the college.”

Jim Vogt, who was president of the NWC Board of Trustees when the team made its visit last fall, said he was pleased that the quality of education offered at Northwest meets the commission’s standards.

But he disagreed with portions of the report as well.

“One thing I take exception to: There was a statement in there that decisions in the board, through the administration, are made in secret, or that decisions reflect personal vendettas or causes,” he said. “I would totally disagree.”

Fish pointed out that, after criticizing the board for micromanaging, the report later instructs the board to be more directly involved.

Vogt also referred to a section of the report that noted only four NWC faculty members represent minority groups, and the team called for increased diversity among the faculty.

“To me, it sounds like they’re promoting a quota system,” he said. “If you’ve got a pool of 20, 30 or 40 candidates, I think you go for the best person, whether they’re black, white or brown.”

Vogt agreed with other findings in the report, however. For instance, the team expressed concern over the number of experienced faculty members who have, or will soon retire, often to be replaced by faculty members with much less experience.

Prestwich said the bottom line is that the college qualified for reaccreditation, and that efforts to address inadequacies continue.

Those efforts include a committee working to resolve how shared governance at the college should work and implementing other recommendations developed last fall by the TRUST (Trust, Respect and Understanding Support Team) group with the help of a mediator.

“This will add emphasis to what the college is doing now,” he said. “When we make corrections, we will make sure we’re documenting that — not just doing it, but demonstrating that it is indeed happening.”

1 Comment

  • Comment Link March 16, 2011 8:20 am posted by Scott Feyhl

    Referring to Vogt's comment on diversity; what statement, if any, would he find acceptable from the Higher Learning Commission? To make the leap of presumption that the HLC is advocating quotas seems a bit extreme. That he throws out the tired example of skin color is telling. To me it seems like they simply noted a lack of diversity.

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