After being placed on academic probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December 2015, UTM has the opportunity to lay this problem to rest Oct. 4-6 with a final evaluation by a visiting SACS team.
The team consists of four professionals in university leadership and institutional effectiveness from Coastal Carolina University, William and Mary College, the University of North Georgia and Morehead State University. Together they have been handpicked by SACS to evaluate whether UTM has aptly met the five accreditation standards that put the university into probationary status last year. Joining them will be the SACS regional vice president.
Should the university pass inspection, it will be taken off probation and remain a fully accredited institution. If not, the school will stay on probation for another year and undergo the same evaluation process and submission of material. After such time, if these issues are not addressed, the university would lose its accreditation.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation is the recognition that “an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice.” The status also ensures federal funding and scholarship opportunities for students.
UTM’s woes began in 2013, after its 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation process. The SACS Commission on Colleges found that 11 of 92 standards of compliance needed more thorough documentation of support. Six of these were resolved in the same year, though a warning was issued to address the remaining five.
Those five standards concerned the concept of institutional effectiveness or the documented use of data to inform decisions. This could be seen at all levels, in administration changes for student services to the changing of course curricula and textbooks used.
“We were all making good decisions, and we were all making decisions based on data, we just weren’t writing it down for future use,” said Dr. Stephanie Kolitsch, UTM’s SACSCOC coordinator.
A report was developed in 2014 concerning these standards and in December 2015, SACSCOC announced the school’s probationary status, acknowledging that while movements were made in the right direction, work still needed to be done.
Though the school was never stripped of its accreditation status, the announcement garnered the attention of those on and off campus.
Family and Consumer Science student Kayla Hargrove will graduate after this semester with a concentration in Fashion and Merchandising, and was “a little concerned” when she received a schoolwide email after the SACSCOC verdict.
“I’ve been here the past three years and would hate for something to happen,” said Hargrove.
In the spirit of transparency, the university also held a forum in January 2016, printed a monthly newsletter and developed a website to update the campus and community on the progress being made.
Since that time, faculty and staff have worked together to correct the addressed missing pieces.
Among the many actions taken to rectify the situation, assessment committees were formed, training was given on data collection and utilization, new techniques were created to monitor progress such as the student learning objectives, and an infrastructure was implemented to further solidify these measures for the future, said Kolitsch.
“We are working to centralize the assessment reporting so that everybody is required to document what it is that they’re doing and to send copies of that documentation essentially to this office so that we can have one central repository for that institutional memory that we’re trying to create,” Kolitsch said.
In an email sent to faculty and staff by UTM’s interim chancellor, Dr. Robert Smith, the result of the process is a 196-page, 50,088-word document with 1,364 electronic links to other documents of importance and 7,165 pages of additional supporting documents. It underwent over 100 hours of editing by four external consultants and 78 members of UTM faculty and staff. It was submitted to SACSCOC on Aug. 24.
“We’re very happy with the report we have,” said Patty Flowers, assessment coordinator. “ … We’ve done everything we know to do to be prepared for the visit. I can’t think of anything that we could have done that we haven’t done.”
Along with Kolitsch, Flowers has worked with academic departments and nonacademic units to answer any questions and collect and organize reports. She also helped to design and enforce the infrastructure for documentation deadlines and requirements.
Once on campus, the visiting SACS team will meet with the deans of the colleges, the Faculty Senate Committee on Instruction, a group of faculty who teach general education courses, and other faculty groups to discuss things such as program outcomes and research activity. Students are advised that this could potentially affect their classes should their professors be called to speak with the evaluators.
At the end of the visit, the team will write a recommendation to SACSCOC to be reviewed and decided upon at the commission’s annual meeting, Dec. 4-7. In keeping with the 10-year cycle, the next accreditation review will be in 2023.
“I am proud of the work and commitment of our people,” Smith said. “Once they were given the opportunity to demonstrate we were not the institution portrayed by our past reports, they responded with exceptional and often inspired work. We are where we are supposed to be.”