A team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges will visit Cal Poly to report on the university’s capacity to educate students and achieve the goals of its self-study on Feb. 12. The visit is part of the accreditation process done every 10 years and necessary to receive federal funding and value of the school’s degrees.
A six-member group made up of peer university administrators and faculty will spend two days meeting with the president, provost, deans, faculty and students to determine if the school has the capability to meet its mission objectives. The visiting team will be led by Samuel Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University. Other members include professors from University of Redlands, University of California, Davis, CSU Sacramento and the chief financial officer from CSU Los Angeles.
David Conn is co-chair of Cal Poly’s WASC steering committee and previously served as part of an accreditation team for University of California, Riverside and CSU Fresno. He said the accrediting team is looking at buildings, the library, faculty, staff and funding.
“They look at Cal Poly’s resources and make a recommendation to WASC from their findings,” Conn said.
They have also been instructed to consider the current budget crisis in the CSU system and the impact on the school, he added. The visit is part of the association’s three-phase process for universities to receive accreditation.
The organization’s visits are used to collect evidence that students are learning at Cal Poly, Conn said. Accreditation is voluntary, but Conn and his fellow co-chair Bruno Giberti of the steering committee said it is required to receive federal funding, including financial aid, and gives credibility to the institution’s degrees and credits.
“It’s a big stick the federal government wields,” Giberti said, adding that students wouldn’t be eligible for Pell grants without accreditation. Conn said it doesn’t make sense for a large institution like Cal Poly to not be accredited through the association because of the financial consequences.
WASC is one of six non-government, regional organizations recognized by the Department of Education to confirm that schools provide an education worth something to their students. The association was formed in 1949 and endorses schools in California, Hawaii and Pacific U.S. territories. It is broken into three commissions serving elementary schools, community colleges and universities.
The organization’s Web site said the commission for senior colleges and universities is in charge of the process for schools offering a bachelors and post-graduate degrees. Every 10 years, the university is evaluated for “educational effectiveness.” Conn said it’s a multi-year improvement review and not just a checklist.
Schools propose a plan for approval and host two site assessments. The self-study is used to see what the university needs to do to enhance the education and experience for students. Giberti said the university also has to meet benchmarks related to its purpose, integrity, compilation of student body and educational standards for accreditation. The process started for Cal Poly in spring 2007 when a committee of administrators, faculty and students was formed to create a proposal and carry out the study.
Giberti and Conn head the WASC steering committee, working with members such as Linda Halisky, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Anna Gold, associate dean for public services at Kennedy Library. The committee focused on defining what it means to be a comprehensive polytechnic university and the “learn by doing” philosophy, Halisky said. They also looked at continued education for instructors and how to be a part of the entire learning experience students get while at college, Conn said.
“The aim now is that all Cal Poly students are polytechnic and to accomplish the goals of the University Learning Objectives (ULO),” Halisky said. The ULO were formed from the last accreditation review in 2000. She said the committee’s vision is for the university to be the premiere comprehensive polytechnic school.
Halisky said it will likely lead to a more balanced mix of units in sciences and technology for humanities and art programs and vice versa for science, engineering and architecture majors. Part of that goal is to find a more concrete definition of what learn-by-doing means for each college, Conn said.
A survey by the committee showed students think learn-by-doing is associated with the major and not general education courses, Giberti said. One of the goals for the outcome of this process is to change the perception students have about what it means to “learn by doing.”
Gold said the opportunities for this type of learning are amazing and include “problem solving, research, hands-on design, leadership, service and creative work.” The committee also considered the balance needed between teaching and research time for faculty.
“To be a great teacher, it’s important to be involved in scholarship or the faculty member may become obsolete,” Conn said.
The study calls for further support and education of the importance of research so instructors can provide the highest quality education. Giberti said the WASC team will observe and report to the commission about Cal Poly’s ability to achieve these objectives.
Three reviewers will host a forum Thursday during UU hour in University Union building room 208. Halisky, Giberti and Conn said the team members may approach students around campus to ask about their experiences and how the budget is affecting the level of education.
Conn said students can also expect to be asked their opinions about the CSU chancellor’s freeze of student-approved college-based fee increases last year. The team will do a presentation of its findings Feb. 12 at 8:15 a.m. Gold said the committee will receive a report from the group before starting the next phase of the process.
The report findings will determine if the university is ready to move forward to the third phase of demonstrating students are learning by using indicators like six-year graduation rates Giberti said. Conn said Cal Poly has a 73 percent graduation rate the best in the CSU system. A second visit from the accreditation association will happen in October 2011 for the education effectiveness review.
“It’s ultimately about student learning. That’s the most important thing,” Giberti said.