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College to go through Middle State’s accreditation process again

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Every eight years, Swarthmore must evaluate their quality of education to be approved by Middle States, a Philadelphia-based accreditation organization. The school’s most recent cycle of reaccreditation began last year and will continue into 2019, during which time the college reports on aspects of its work, ranging from the effectiveness of the curriculum and the college’s mission to the student experience and institutional integrity.

Accreditation ensures that institutions of higher learning are meeting expectations put in place by a private organization. Although the mandatory process is tedious and labor-intensive, the parties involved see it as an opportunity for the college to reflect on its institutional goals and constant improvement.

The process is overseen by co-chairs political science professor Carol Nackenoff and director of institutional research and assessment Robin Shores and a Core Committee, comprised of Provost Tom Stephenson, Dean of Students Liz Braun, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, General Counsel Assistant Secretary of the college Sharmaine Bradham LaMar.  

Middle States recently condensed the number of standards an institution must create and adhere to from 14 to seven. These standards include “Mission and Goals,” “Ethics and Integrity,”  “Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience,” “Support of the Student Experience,” “Educational Effectiveness Assessment,” “Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement,” and “Governance, Leadership, and Administration.” To tackle this, the process leaders assigned a working group, comprised of several students, faculty, staff, and sometimes board members, to each standard.

The college must also prove that they meet the 15 requirements of affiliation imposed by Middle States. Most of these fit under a standard, the co-chairs reported, but to handle the unmapped requirements of affiliation, an eighth working group was created.

According to the college’s website, last year, Middle States approved a Self Study that outlined the college’s standards and set up for the completed report. This year, the Core Committee is aiding the working groups in finalizing their respective reports up for review next year. This includes reviewing materials, gathering input, analyzing findings, and writing a final report.

Nackenoff and Shores agreed that even after decades of grappling with the accreditation process, it still requires a tremendous amount of work. The co-chairs reported that they spend a quarter to half of their time every day working on the process, averaging 10 hours a week, including summers, because of the ever-changing process and ever-changing college.

We do self-reflection and self-assessment periodically because we want to always be improving,” Shores said. “The institution evolves, and we should be continuing to reflect on how we are doing.”

Nackenoff called the process a catalyst for valuable self-evaluation that might not normally have been be prioritized.

“It’s a great opportunity for members of the community to reflect on where we are in terms of meeting our goals and aspirations and to think about areas where improvement might be appropriate,” she said. “You take what you learn and feed back into discussions on how you can do better in these different domains. This process of using feedback to improve is the point of assessment, and it is ongoing.”

Nackenoff said that although she doesn’t believe the college’s accreditation is in jeopardy, it’s important to take the process seriously. She added that scheduling meetings is the hardest part of the process.

“The timetable is pretty ruthless,” she said, referring to the three years allotted to complete the process. “It made us pretty nervous. There is not much room for slippage.”

Braun mentioned a different difficulty.

“I think the most challenging part is managing just the sheer volume of information that needs to be collected, analyzed, and digested into a coherent report,” she said.

Despite the difficult work that still remains, Shore said that a great part of the process is watching different community members learn and engage together.

“For students, faculty, staff, and board members to work together and learn about the college has been a really great opportunity,” she said.

Changes to Pass/Fail Under Consideration

in Around Campus/News by

The Curriculum Committee is considering changes to pass/fail policies in an attempt to reform the credit/no credit system. On Feb. 17th, Provost Tom Stephenson sent out descriptions of the proposals and a survey on students’ policy preferences to the student body via email. The changes to the policy include making a D- a passing grade for first-year students, making the threshold for passing a course taken as CR/NC consistent among all class years, and making a C- or better appear as credit.  A D+, D or D- in a class taken as CR/NC would have the letter grade appear on the transcript but still earn credit. Another proposal is to change the deadline for electing to take a course CR/NC no later than the 13th week of the semester rather than the 9th, and reduce the number of classes a student can opt for CR/NC after the first semester from four to three. These changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and beyond.

Students generally supported the proposals with the exception of the measure decreasing the number of CR/NC selections. Of the 420 students who responded to the survey, 53.5 percent of students supported allowing first year students to earn credit for a D-, with 19.6 percent opposing and 27 percent selecting the neutral option. For the potential change in the appearance of CR/NC grades below a C-, 63.8 percent were in favor, 22.7 percent opposed, and 14.6 percent were neutral. 88.5 percent of students agreed with changing the deadline to elect CR/NC to the 13th week, 6.9 percent opposed, and 4.5 percent of students answered “neutral.” Only 24.6 percent of students who took the survey indicated that they supported the reduction of CR/NC selections to three, 50.8 percent indicated that they opposed, and 24.6 percent were neutral to the idea.

SGO’s discussion of the proposal during its Feb. 26 meeting focused on the impact of the potential implementation of the changes for current students, but the provost stressed that it would not be feasible to apply changes in CR/NC policies to current students. Additionally, SGO was interested in helping advocate for the proposals students supported, but they were informed that the decision is in the hands of the Curriculum Committee.

The wide support for changing the deadline to elect to take a class CR/NC is indicative of the current issues with the pass/fail system. Students often feel that they do not have enough information by the ninth week of classes to make right decision. Because students inevitably gain more insight into how they are doing in a class as the semester progresses, extending the deadline would help students make more informed decisions.

Such a situation happened to Ana Curtis ’19, who experienced this situation when she took a class CR/NC but ended up doing better in the course than she expected.

“I was taking a class that I didn’t think I would do well in and got a C on the first test. It was pretty close to the pass/fail deadline, so I decided to take the class pass/fail. However, I ended up doing very well on the second midterm and presumably did well on the final, and so when I checked my grade over break, it turned out my shadow grade was an A. If I had the option to wait to declare pass/fail, I would have had that A on my GPA instead of ‘Credit’,” Curtis said.

However, there are concerns that students will use the extended deadline to hide grades. Students could presumably use the deadline to hide their worst grade in a particular semester, while the intent of pass fail is for students to take classes that they would not normally take. Stephenson expressed that there were faculty concerns with that aspect of the proposal.

To the degree that the proposal will result in conversion of grades that fall below the current college average to CR, then that will result in the inflation of the average graduation GPA […] There are faculty who worry as a matter of principle about the ability of students to pick-and-choose which grades appear on their transcripts. Some of that is a matter of principle, some is concern about ‘GPA protection.’ It is hard for me to predict how widely shared these views might be and how they are balanced against the other positive benefits of the proposals,” he said.

Economics Professor John Caskey also expressed his thoughts on the proposal and provided his perspective on the CR/NC deadline proposal.

“I don’t strongly favor or oppose the proposal. Clearly students would take more classes for a grade and use the credit/no credit option after getting their final grades to ‘hide’ grades that they think hurt their overall academic record. On net, I suspect the proposal would slightly contribute to grade inflation since many unexpected low grades could be removed from transcripts. But, offsetting this, some faculty members might be more inclined to give low grades, just assuming that students could convert them into [credits],” he said.

The potential changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and not any current students. Student opinion ultimately does not bind the faculty to make a particular decision, but student opinion is considered. Additionally, the individual proposals can be enacted independently of one another. Stephenson commented on how the decision will be made.

“Curricular decisions are, in the final analysis, made by the faculty. But I think that student input is welcome and sought whenever we are are making decisions that are motivated in whole or in part by what is perceived to be in the best interests of students. I think that student input can also sway undecided faculty […And] I believe that [the proposals] can be adopted independently of one another,” he said.
Credit/No Credit policies seem likely to change in the future as the results of the survey indicated clear results and the Curriculum Committee seems interested in improving the current CR/NC policies. It is yet to be seen whether the policy changes will effectively address the current challenges of the pass/fail policy and improve the academic experience for future Swatties.

College promotes Sakomura to Assistant Academic Affairs Dean

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After eight years in the position, Associate Professor of Educational Studies and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson will be leaving her position in the Dean’s Office. Chair of the art history department Tomoka Sakomura will succeed Anderson in the role. The decision was announced in an email sent out to students on Jan. 10. A committee of six individuals, including two professors, two deans, and two students completed the search process that ended with the hiring of Sakomura.

Sakomura was selected for both her experience and energy. A professor at the college since 2005, she has served on the Committee on Faculty Procedures, the Council on Educational Policy, the Committee on Academic Requirements, and the Committee on Fellowships and Prizes.

The primary responsibilities of the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs are to help to foster relationships between faculty and administrative colleagues in order to support the academics of the college.

The Associate Dean works directly with students, and through a team of colleagues in the Dean’s division, to provide advising on both academic and personal issues, and provides leadership on initiatives that advance the college’s academic mission,” said Dean of Students Liz Braun.

Braun said that she is excited to have Sakomura in the Dean’s Office.

I am really looking forward to working with Professor Sakomura in this role. She brings tremendous strengths and expertise to the position,” said Braun.

Blake Oetting ’18, a student in the art history department and an advisee of Sakomura, is excited to see her in the Dean’s Office.

“Tomoko has the rare ability of providing academic guidance while making you feel absolutely confident in your ability to carry out her advice. She will excel as a dean, and I’m thrilled that students outside of the art history program will get to experience her mentoring,” said Oetting.

Sakomura is excited for the opportunity to help support students, particularly in times of transition. She remembered the support she received as an undergrad, grad student, and a new faculty member on campus. Sakomura hopes she can help support others as they are transitioning.

“As a graduate student, my first semester was peachy, but the second semester, I had really a mightily struggle that semester, and I just remember the great support I received at the time, and when I thought about the possibility that I would be able to play that role, it really attracted me to this position,” said Sakomura.

Anderson noted that problem-solving with students was one of her favorite parts of the job. She has enjoyed asking questions and listening, and working with others to find a solution to a problem that felt overwhelming.

“Another favorite part was being on a team. If you work in student affairs, it’s teamwork. There’s almost nothing that you do by yourself …  Working on a team collaborating for the good of students, and faculty, and the institution, and the values of the institution — it just feels like a gift to be able to do that kind of work, to have been able to do that for eight years. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had,” said Anderson.

She hopes to learn more about how students find balance in their life. One of her greatest goals is to help students balance their life.

“I’m very curious to learn about the student experience here. On the faculty side, we talk about the work-life balance, but I am very curious to know how that looks on the student side. I’m really interested in learning about the programs that are in place for students now. I am especially curious about this new movement of reflection or meditation, so I’m very curious to explore ways that we can bring a greater sense of balance [to campus],” said Sakomura.

Sakomura also expressed an interest in facilitating dialogue and building bridges between different parts of the college. She hopes to find a way to promote different programs on campus and collaborate with faculty both in and out of the Dean’s Office. Anderson echoed the importance of communication with faculty across the college. Anderson said she believes Sakomura will do a good job balancing the needs of different people across the campus.

“I think she’s going to be very good at that kind of big picture thinking, she understands that the college is a complex system, but she also understands that we have an educational mission here, that we’re a diverse and inclusive community. She’s going to be very good at keeping all of those things in play in her brain at the same time while she’s working with students, and faculty, and other deans,” said Anderson.

When asked what advice she would give Sakomura as she entered the Dean’s Office, Anderson stressed the importance of the office space. Saying that it is important to create an environment in which people feel comfortable, especially when dealing with difficult decisions. She joked that she would be taking her Easter Island head tissue box and artwork out of the office, so Sakomura will have to bring her own style to the office.

After Sakomura officially takes over the position on Aug. 1, she will continue to have a presence in the art and art history department by teaching one class a year.

Anderson will take a sabbatical next year, taking time to write articles on topics such as Learning for Life, persuasive writing in elementary school, and other topics in education. She will return to teaching in the educational studies department in the 2018-2019 academic year.

Anderson said she was thrilled and relieved when she heard Sakomura was going to be taking over her position, because she knew everything would be left in good hands.

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