By Katie Quaranta
A two-person accreditation team from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools will visit Ohio University's Athens campus April 23-25 as part of a periodic evaluation of the institution. The university is a participant in North Central's Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP), and the visit is an opportunity for the team to determine if the university has been successful in implementing long-term quality-improvement initiatives.
Outlook interviewed Martin Tuck, associate provost for academic affairs, to learn more about the AQIP program, what this visit entails and how the university community can participate.
What is AQIP?
The university is accredited through the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. AQIP is a separate accreditation track within North Central. If you are on a typical accreditation track, then the agency will send a site visit team every 10 years, stay about a week and dig into the institution's finances and academics. Then they'll leave and report commendations and concerns as well as recommend whether the institution should remain accredited.
AQIP is very different from that. It's more of a proactive approach to accreditation rather than a reactive one. It is all about quality improvement. The university will maintain its accreditation as long as we follow this quality improvement philosophy. As part of this process, you select areas within your institution that you want to improve, and you develop these areas into different action projects. These can involve academic or non-academic areas.
An institution is actually invited to join AQIP, so you don't really select it yourself. If North Central believes that it's a no-brainer that you will maintain accreditation, they may suggest a university select this track in order to benefit from these various quality improvement projects.
Why is it valuable for Ohio University to take?
We joined AQIP in 2002 mainly because we saw it as a mechanism by which we could make improvements in the institution. With the old process, we were maintaining accreditation, but the fact of the matter is, it wasn't really doing anything for the institution. AQIP allowed us to focus on areas of the institution that we want to improve.
Is this a common accreditation process?
No, it's not. We were one of the first schools of our size that joined AQIP. The other accreditation track has been around for years, so it's more common because it has more of a tradition and more of a history.
We are actually an unusual AQIP school because of our size and complexity. Most of the schools that are following the AQIP track are smaller technical and community colleges. I think many of the larger schools look at it and question why they should go into this new, experimental type of track if they are already 99 percent sure that they are going to maintain accreditation anyway. Kent State joined AQIP about six to eight months before us. There are more schools getting into it now, but we were one of the first large comprehensive schools.
What will the accreditation team do during its visit?
We're having what's called a quality checkup visit. The team is going to be talking to various groups of people and individuals such as President McDavis, Provost Krendl and teams of individuals who were involved in the creation of the strategic plan.
It's not a visit that will determine accreditation because the university maintains accreditation as long as it's on the AQIP track. It is really a visit to determine if the university is following the AQIP quality improvement philosophy. They will then file a report with North Central as to whether Ohio University has embraced this philosophy and whether this track is suitable for the institution.
What projects has Ohio University undertaken as part of AQIP?
In AQIP terms, they refer to these quality improvement initiatives as action projects. Every institution on the AQIP track has to have at least three active action projects at any one time. Another characteristic that attracted us to AQIP is that we have total control over what those action projects are, and we have the freedom and flexibility to change the projects on an annual basis.
When we first joined AQIP in 2002, the initial four action projects were really to create initiatives to improve student engagement on campus and to improve the first-year experience. We chose these areas because research indicated that our upperclassmen were much more engaged in campus than our freshmen. That was a concern for the institution because we felt that our freshman-to-sophomore retention was suffering as a result.
Several projects came out of that. For instance, increasing learning communities was part of an AQIP initiative. Now about 80 percent of freshmen participate in a learning community. The common reading experience for freshmen was designed to increase student engagement. Another initiative is to put group study areas in new and renovated residence halls to increase student engagement, encourage students to interact with one another and to help them feel more connected.
What projects are we working on currently?
The first one is the development of common learning outcomes for Ohio University students. A faculty committee was formed a couple of years ago to analyze what we want every Ohio University student to have learned or what skills we want them to have developed by the time they graduate. As a result, a set of common learning outcomes was developed. Now we're looking at our general education program and asking if we are achieving these outcomes. If we're not, what changes can we make to achieve these goals? Click here for more on learning outcomes.
Another project has to do with the graduate program enhancement, or GERB. This was a committee formed to enhance existing research and graduate programs so they will meet their full potential. It's a way of selectively investing in graduate education.
The third project, which we just instituted a couple months ago, is to integrate the AQIP quality improvement activities with the institution of the strategic plan. When we first joined AQIP, we didn't have the Vision Ohio strategic plan. But now that we have Vision Ohio and are in the stage of implementing this plan, it makes sense to use it as our blueprint for future AQIP activities.
That's how it ties into Vision OHIO?
Yes. Not all the initiatives in the strategic plan will be good AQIP action projects, because a good AQIP action project has to be measureable and it has to be something that you can complete in about a year or two. I chair a group of faculty and administrators who decide what the action projects will be. We've tried, unofficially, to align those projects with the goals of Vision Ohio. Now we've actually fused the membership of the AQIP advisory group with that of the Vision Ohio Steering Committee. That group is now one that is going to be recommending initiatives to the executive vice president and provost and the president to achieve Vision Ohio, and what is going to come out of that are various AQIP action projects.
Why are those projects priorities for the university?
Because from an entire campuswide effort, they are the cream that has come to the top as to what the campus as a whole wants to work on: strengthening undergraduate education, strengthening graduate education, improving faculty diversity and national prominence.
How often does the university undergo the AQIP evaluation?
AQIP actually is an ongoing process. Every seven years, a team from North Central comes in for the quality checkup visit. We have to file a report every year on our action projects. We have to attend what are known as strategy forums every two to three years, during which we analyze our AQIP activities and determine ways we can improve how we're participating in the program.
How can the university community participate in the evaluation?
Sixty to 70 people will meet with the team either individually or in small groups during the quality checkup visit. Everyone on campus is also invited to an open forum on April 23, which is the first day of the visit, from 4 to 5 p.m. in Walter Hall 135. We sent out a notice announcing the visit and invited people to share feedback by logging onto a Web site. The forum is the best way for the campus community as a whole to participate.
When will the accreditation team share its findings?
I think that within about three weeks to a month they will send a report to North Central, and then we will hear soon after that.
If they suggest we stay on the track, which I am anticipating they will, they will probably give us some pointers for improvement and we will continue to file the annual reports. In seven years we will have another quality checkup visit.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I think it is very important for people to know that the university is accredited and maintains accreditation. We are committed to quality improvement, not only through the creation and implementation of the strategic plan but also through our accreditation activities. Finally, I would like to encourage the campus community to attend the open forum on the 23rd to participate in the quality checkup visit.