Accreditation has never been a question for Wabash College. Recently, it’s become the main point of conversation.
Accreditation is a process that reviews higher learning institutions to ensure quality and compliance with both state and federal policies. Colleges and universities that receive approval are eligible for hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid, and furthermore, speaks to the legitimacy of the education each student receives.
During The Higher Learning Commission’s review, one of the criteria that institutions are judged on is how many credit hours each student takes at a minimum. At Wabash, courses are counted as four-hour credit courses, even though most only meet for the equivalency of a three-hour credit course.
“A lot of liberal arts schools do that, including about half of the schools in our academic group, the Great Lakes College Association,” said Todd McDorman, Dean of the College. “They award credits like we do and so do schools like Oberlin and Kenyon. The accreditors looked at our system and said, ‘well, most of your classes only meet for the amount of time that we commonly associate with a three-credit hour class, even though you say your class is worth four credit hours.’ So, they’ve asked us to demonstrate why and how our courses are the equivalent of a four-credit hour class, even though about two-thirds of them meet for the amount of time that is associated with a three-credit hour class.”
The accreditation team that visited and reviewed Wabash was pleased with all other aspects of the College. However, the credit system still became a point of contention.
“When they talked to faculty during their visit, they were largely persuaded that the courses are worth four credit hours,” said McDorman. “But when they look at the syllabus, they don’t see the explanation.
They need us to include our credit policy and an explanation for the course of where that additional instructional time comes from. Basically, one additional instructional hour per week is what they’re looking for us to explain to them.”
When the initial decision came back, administrators tried to appeal, claiming that Wabash classes are more difficult than other institutions and that they require significant time outside of the classroom, justifying the four-credit hour label. The appeal was denied. Now faculty and administrators need to find a solution. Currently, there are two main options that have been discussed in faculty and Academic Policy Committee (APC) meetings.
The first option being discussed is a change in the way that syllabi are written. Statements would be included that discuss what the expectations outside of the class are, therefore justifying the fourth credit hour associated with the course. The second option is a change in the way that Wabash schedules classes. Each Monday, Wednesday, Friday course would be 60 minutes instead of 50 minutes and count for 3.6 credit hours instead of 3. Tuesday and Thursday classes would experience similar changes. However, this option poses problems to overall scheduling that would need to be further explored. “Both options bring some further decision making, but the further decision making brought by the second option is more significant,” said Dr. Shamira Gelbman, Political Science Professor. “Those decisions are bigger and consequential to the daily life of the College, whereas the decisions for the first option are a little more straight-forward and won’t have big waves of effects.”
The recent discussions surrounding the solution to this problem have been spirited among faculty members because there isn’t an obvious solution. “I think we’re in a necessary sort of messy exploration of what our options are,” said Dr. Preston Bost, Psychology Professor. “I think it’s important first to emphasize that the visit team didn’t question whether Wabash was providing the education that it promises to its students. What they communicated to us was that we’re delivering what we say we’re delivering to our students but took issue with one specific aspect of the accounting.”
“I think people are thinking carefully about what the implications are here,” said McDorman. “They’re thinking carefully about the work that’s imposed on students. They’re thinking about the work that they will experience as faculty members. They’re thinking about questions of retention if we make certain changes. They’re thinking about the impact it could have on our culture. Those are big questions. I think what we’re hearing is our faculty thoughtfully and candidly exchanging ideas on how to approach the issue. Faculty are testing out these options and in that is a messy, engaged process. It’s a little bit Socratic. People are really going back and forth in the way they ask the questions. You can hear in the conversation as people will individually move toward one direction or another across the conversation as they are listened to carefully, and as they listen carefully.
Throughout these conversations, student voices have been involved through the Student Senate APC representatives.
“The Student Senate Academic Policy Committee (SSAPC) is a committee of the Student Senate, which is responsible for communicating the needs and wants of the student body at faculty meetings,” said Benjamin Sampsell ’24, SSAPC Chairman. “The SSAPC Chairman serves as an ambassador at APC meetings with faculty, which are meetings where professors who are part of the committee meet and talk about credit requirements, changes to the curriculum and changes to our academic policy as a school. Wanting to have a student voice, they invite the academic policy committee chairman, and sometimes guests, to come in.”
Recent faculty discussions have come across as unproductive and worrisome to some student representatives.
“It feels like the way the conversations are going are not super fruitful for finding more advantageous solutions, but I also don’t think that there is an advantageous solution,” said William Grennon ’24, Student Senate Treasurer and SSAPC Representative. “I think they’re being exhaustive in examining the outcomes, but it seems that there’s not as much urgency as I think that there should be.”
It is apparent that there could potentially be significant student life changes, but the magnitude of those changes is unknown.
“The consequences are for the College because the schedule changes would probably mean doing away with a common lunch hour,” said Gelbman. “That has very big consequences for when we have events and who can go to them. How we do our hiring of new faculty will be affected. Killing that common lunch hour is more consequential than anything it would do to my personal classes. The other option (syllabi changes), for most classes, would not lead to very big changes. It might lead to just changing the way certain parts of the course are explained in the syllabus. There are one or two courses I teach where it might lead to some rethinking of, ‘ Am I really meeting our requirement here? If not, do I need to add something to this course?’”
“I think in some classes, there would be no observable change,” said McDorman. “But I’m not going to be as cavalier or bold to say that it would be that way in all the classes because faculty know what their classes are like, and they’ll have to discern the extent to which they feel like they will need to make tangible adjustments in order to demonstrate the four-credit hour value if that is the direction we ultimately go.”
“One of the larger concerns that we all have is that we not burden our students excessively with whatever the solution is,” said Bost. “We do believe, as our students do, that they’re working very hard right now. And that we don’t want to add to that burden.”
Moving forward, steps will need to be taken to ensure that Wabash continues to be an accredited institution. It’s obvious that not receiving accreditation isn’t a viable option. Faculty and staff will continue to candidly discuss the options at hand and find a solution that is the best for Wabash students and faculty. A path forward is expected to be decided on come February.
“The message that I have been relaying, as someone who’s been involved in virtually every layer of this conversation, is that it’s going to be okay,” said Bost. “We are not on the cusp of degradation. If you read the Higher Learning Commission’s report, you will see that the Higher Learning Commission has great regard for Wabash, including its faculty, staff, administration and students. Of the 69 criteria for accreditation, there were 68 that they had no issue with. It’s a strongly positive report. I don’t think our students have to worry about the value of a Wabash degree or the respect that it carries in higher education.”
Going forward, this will continue to be a topic to follow. Current Wabash students, especially upperclassmen, may not see the effects of these changes. However, undergraduates and future students will likely undergo a Wabash experience that’s different for those that came before them.