Campus & Community

Ensuring high standards

9 min read

Harvard will evaluate its effectiveness on the road to reaccreditation

Even universities get report cards.

Every decade or so, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) has its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE) review Harvard for reaccreditation. The University was last reaccredited in 2009, and produced an interim report on the results in 2013.

The process is an opportunity for the University to take stock of its mission and achievement and develop opportunities for improvement, said Scott Edwards, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, curator of ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and chair of Harvard’s reaccreditation steering committee.

The accreditation process is built around a peer-review approach, and culminates in a visit from an external review committee, which this time will be led by Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon in October. Edwards’ committee is preparing a report that is produced for the review committee in advance. This self-study is designed to address NEASC’s nine standards, which range from mission and purposes to organization and governance to the academic program and educational effectiveness. As one of several means of getting input from faculty, staff, and students, the University will hold a town hall meeting on Jan. 24, in Harvard Hall, room 202, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

The Gazette sat down with Edwards ’86 to talk about the importance of accreditation, the steps involved, and the efforts to meet the standards.

GAZETTE: Could you explain why the reaccreditation process is important?

EDWARDS: It’s a good opportunity for the University to reflect on its values and activities and to think about whether they are aligned. It’s good to have this kind of reflective activity at least once a decade. Our mission as a university, in general, is to expand the forefront of knowledge and to train the next generation of scholars and leaders. The University has many unique local missions, but I think most departments and centers would agree that training, teaching, and research are our core missions. Mostly, we want to demonstrate to ourselves that we’re doing a good job at educating and fostering scholarship and teaching.

GAZETTE: What are the steps involved in the accreditation process?

EDWARDS: The principal step is the writing and editing of the self-study. In the self-study, we have to appraise how we are doing with regard to all nine standards outlined by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. These cover a lot of aspects: how we are organized, our finances, and things like that. But the heart of it is how we evaluate our effectiveness at reaching educational goals. Drafting the document serves as a springboard to think. The reaccreditation process encompasses all of Harvard, though it emphasizes the undergraduate experience, in part because many of our other Schools have specialized accreditation, while the College and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) does not. One critically important step is that the self-study reflects input from faculty, staff, administration, and students. Another key step is the visit by the evaluation team, and the chance for them to talk with members of the community about the themes highlighted in the self-study. The external team makes recommendations to the CIHE, which are provided verbally and in written form to President [Drew] Faust. Finally, should all go well, as I’m sure it will, the University is officially reaccredited for the next decade or so.

GAZETTE: A great deal of attention has been put on the standard No. 8, which covers the issue of educational effectiveness. Could you explain why this standard is critical in the reaccreditation process?

EDWARDS: Educational effectiveness is one of the core standards because it asks us to reflect on how we accomplish our teaching and learning goals and how we know whether we are effective. We have to consider what information we have that can answer these questions and how we systematically evaluate. At a research university, educational effectiveness is related not only to pedagogy and curriculum, but also to scholarship. And it isn’t just about classroom learning, but beyond. Are we giving students a depth of experiences across the academic disciplines? Are we helping them to gain a global perspective? In what ways do and should Harvard’s educational activities engage those outside of Harvard? How do newer modes of delivery, like those in HarvardX, change our goals or help us to better reach them? We should be very concerned about how we improve over time, adopt new technologies, take advantage of new research about how students learn, and how we measure that learning.

GAZETTE: What does Harvard have to do to show that it is addressing the educational effectiveness questions that NEASC poses?

EDWARDS: Harvard has to make explicit its educational goals, collect data and evidence, and then use that evidence to improve, or show how it is trying to do this. We need to understand what we can about students’ experiences, students’ performance, teaching evaluations, and examine the nuts and bolts of our educational practice. The question is really, what do we do with this information? I think there are a lot of opportunities to make our classrooms more inclusive and more exciting. We also want to buck some of the troubling trends. For example, in my own area, it’s a concern that there is a decline in student enrollment in science concentrators during or after freshman year, and we want to understand why that is, and what can be done to make sure those students who really want to concentrate in science when they come here have every opportunity to stay in science. One thing we have done quite a bit of in recent years is to think deeply about the power provided by the range of course offerings.

The goals of the Program in General Education are a good expression of that, and the recent review of the program has really helped to make the curricula more relevant for current times. I think that through University initiatives like the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) and the School-based teaching and learning centers, we are poised to learn more and innovate more in our educational practices. As faculty we can imagine having access to much more detailed information on student experiences than we routinely see now, and synthesizing this information across departments and Schools so as to help us better understand what drives and influences student learning will help us make more informed choices about pedagogy. In truth, it’s sometimes tough to know how effective you’re being as a professor, and I think we have to seek out new ways to get that information.

GAZETTE: Are there any challenges for Harvard to meet the reaccreditation standards?

EDWARDS: I think perhaps our greatest challenge is one of prioritization. Universities and colleges have a lot more data and information than they had in the past (and in fact there are a lot of people concerned about this issue). It is hard to pull out collective insights, and understand how to synchronize and coordinate. One spin off of this self-study process might be a better appreciation for separate insights that have been made across the College and across the graduate and professional Schools. Still, how do we determine which aspects of the educational-effectiveness work to highlight? Of course, the Ed School is a huge resource in terms of understanding how students learn and in terms of best practices in education. That’s why it’s been great to have Ed School representation on the steering committee, which is composed of faculty such as myself, and some senior administrators and deans, all with different perspectives, and to work together to try to develop a unifying reflection report.

GAZETTE: What’s the role the town hall is going to play in the efforts of Harvard’s reaccreditation process?

EDWARDS: This town hall is a terrific opportunity to get input about educational effectiveness. We want to convene faculty, student leaders, and others, and pose to them specific questions about educational effectiveness. We’ll ask them to brainstorm in real time about questions like: What has Harvard done well, what can we be doing better, and how we can better coordinate new insights in teaching effectiveness? The hope is to discuss in an open forum a set of questions related to educational effectiveness, and to break up into small groups and hear from individual groups. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s one of the really important ways the reaccreditation committee is trying to engage the faculty and to benefit from their insights. I should emphasize how important it is that this be an inclusive process, that we consult widely within the University in order to make this a genuine reflection of the work underway at Harvard on educational improvement, so this town hall is critical for that.

GAZETTE: What other efforts are you launching to get more input from faculty and students?

EDWARDS: Beyond the town hall, we’ll have drop-in office hours so people can talk in real time to members of the committee. We’ll also have a web portal that will allow people to write in their comments once there is a final draft of the self-study. What we’re really looking forward to is constructive, thoughtful ways of evaluating where we’ve come in the last eight or nine years and where we can actually go in the future, starting with educational effectiveness but inclusive of many other aspects of University life. The best way for faculty and students to help Harvard in these reaccreditation endeavors is to participate.

GAZETTE: What else does the University hope to gain from this process?

EDWARDS: This comprehensive evaluation is really meant as a snapshot in a continuous cycle of improvement. It’s really more of a beginning than an end. We’ll gain most from authentic engagement in this work, among the many other efforts to constantly improve this great University, especially for our students.