Thursday, December 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/27: Accreditation

“The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that in all four of the cases, accreditation by the American Library Association did not, and could not, guarantee the survival of library education programs on campuses where administrators had determined to eliminate them.” — Marion Paris, Library School Closings: Four Case Studies (1988)

As noted previously, I’m writing a book about the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The school closed in 1985, three years after I graduated from the program. The framework for my narrative is provided by Marion Paris’s book, specifically her case study of the Minnesota closing. I’m now writing the last major chapter, with the goal of having the book finished and ready for some publisher (as yet unidentified) by the end of January.

One of the issues I’ve been wrestling with in my research and writing is the role accreditation played (or didn’t play, as the case may be) in closing the school. All of my findings line up behind Paris’s original observation: accreditation did not guarantee the survival of the school. Just yesterday, I found a most remarkable letter written by the director of the school, Wesley Simonton, to Elinor Yungmeyer, accreditation officer for the ALA Committee on Accreditation. Here’s one section of the letter that caught my eye:

As the same time I must convey to you my express regret that the faculty of our College of Liberal Arts is unwilling to recognize the importance of accreditation….Unfortunately, our Liberal Arts Dean has told me that the liberal arts faculty generally, being unfamiliar with the accreditation process, tend to assign little weight to its findings. Future events may indicate how University officials “up the line” view the results of accreditation, but knowing something of the resistance of University officials to the many accreditation agencies on their doorstep, I cannot be optimistic. And so I end with the disturbing thought that universities are not sensitive to the accreditation process. This is undoubtedly “old hat” to you, but at least you now have new evidence on the subject. You have a difficult job in explaining the process—its details and its integrity—to university presidents and other high-ranking officers.

The letter is disturbing and makes me wonder what the current state of affairs is with the ALA and its Committee on Accreditation (COA). Are they still fighting these same battles with university administrators? Why do we accredit programs? What utility is there in the process?

I have, in some ways, been involved with the accreditation process. As a student at Minnesota, I observed a COA visiting team and met with them during their visit. While working in Illinois I was a member of an accrediting team, not for a library school, but for a private high school. As an adjunct faculty member of the MLIS program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul I participated with the school in providing feedback for its self-study report, met with visiting team members during a site visit, and saw the process develop into the eventual accreditation of the St. Kate’s program. The accreditation process is hard work. I discovered, while working on my book, how much work the faculty and administration of the U of M school went through for two self-studies and site visits. A year or more was spent working on each self-study. Enormous energy was spent by the visiting team preparing for the visit, making the visit, and then writing a report of their findings. All of which then went up the line to the COA for its evaluation and processing. At every step great amounts of time and careful attention were paid to the process.

Yet I am still left with the question: to what end? I understand the need of accreditation to insure the quality of individual library/information science programs. I’ve seen how this process helps guide a school and its parent institution towards avenues of improvement. I know and understand how the process, in the end, provides the profession with a cadre of new and competent practitioners. But if the parent institution doesn’t grasp the process, if administrators and faculty from other disciplines can hold the process in such contempt, where does that leave us? I’ll admit, I’m not up to speed on what’s happening on this front today; I’m reflecting my findings from three decades ago. But it does make me wonder and want to find out where the matter stands today.

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