UI walks narrow line during crisis

BY TESSA McLEAN | MARCH 23, 2009 7:30 AM

The UI continues to spend money to maintain its national reputation as an accredited university, despite campuswide budget cuts.

Across campus, some class sizes could expand, programs could be eliminated, and the UI has already adopted a “porous hiring freeze.”

But many UI departments still must meet the requirements of various national accrediting agencies.
UI Associate Provost Beth Ingram said it is rare for an institution to lose its accreditation. But if there are problems, she said, officials may receive suggestions on how to improve.

The accreditation process is especially important to the UI because it encourages officials to re-evaluate their areas, she said.

“They give us a chance to step back and think about what we do and what we can do better,” Ingram said. “It’s more than meeting a minimum standard; it is also striving to be something better.”

The UI is evaluated every 10 years by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
The university — which first received accreditation in 1913 — underwent its last comprehensive evaluation in April 2008, and it is scheduled for the next assessment in the 2018-19 academic year.

Paul Hassen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said he believes accreditation is invaluable to universities across the country.

“It is very, very important to the universities,” he said. “It is the key that opens the door to federal aid programs.”

Schools using federal student-aid programs must be accredited, and most state agencies’ aid programs won’t offer assistance to an unaccredited school.

Individual departments at the UI are also accredited by specialized agencies.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which requires a 20-to-1 faculty-to-student ratio in classes and a 15-to-1 overall faculty-to-student ratio.

This requirement means expanding class sizes or laying off professors — a possibility during such an economic crisis — would make it impossible for entities such as the journalism school to retain accreditation.

The school is also searching for a director, which could end up costing up to $12,000 before it is concluded, said Linda Maxson, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Search costs within the college typically run between $6,000 and $10,000, she said.

Though 24 job-candidate searches in the liberal-arts school have been halted, filling some positions — such as the journalism-school director and faculty in biology and chemistry — is necessary for keeping accreditation, Maxson said.

The journalism school was one of the first to be accredited in 1948, but lost accreditation in 1972 after switching to a more multimedia approach to the field.

UI Professor Emeritus Kenneth Starck, who was director of the school when it regained accreditation in 1978, called the approach “ahead of its time” and said he thinks the accrediting council did not understand it.

“It is essential to maintain accreditation,” he said. “If you don’t, it suggests the program is not meeting a minimum of professional and academic standards.”

UI College of Engineering departments are evaluated and accredited every six years by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

The biomedical engineering department was recently accredited again with a suggestion to reorder its list of expectations of graduates.

Edwin Dove, the interim department head, said accreditation is critical for engineering departments.

“Jobs are easier to get if you graduate from an accredited department,” he said. “You can’t get a job with the federal government unless you graduate from an accredited department. Getting a professional engineering license is also much more difficult if you graduate from an unaccredited college.”

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