Come one, come all, to the Fifth Annual CGCL.  For the uninitiated, that’s a “Cross-Generational Community of Learning”.  Though perhaps not quite as brilliant as Frank Costanza’s “Festivus for the rest-of-us,” Dave Kane came up with a pretty good and worthwhile idea — Winter Study (or at least a slice of it) for the rest of us, who can no longer go wander around campus and wonder at the winter whispers of Williamstown’s accumulating snow.  Maybe of greater interest is that CGCL is assuredly one of EphBlog’s most successful — and no less importantly, least controversial — initiatives.

After one year off, due to the rather political nature of CGCL IV (demands of federal judicial employment and all), I’m very pleased to be back and participating for the fourth time this year, to discuss Williams and the Accreditation Process.  My topic is the overview and introduction, more specifically, Williams’s own Self-Study process, the first step in Accreditation.  Self-Study, in turn, comprises an Introduction, Preface, and Overview, which I will talk about in turn, after the cut.

INTRODUCTION

Williams is accredited by the Committee on Institutions of Higher Education (“CIHE”) of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (“NEASC”), which is one of six regional non-profit accrediting organizations in the US.  NEASC reaccredits its member/subject institutions every 10 years, and this past year (’07-’08) was Williams’s turn under the microscope.

The introduction makes clear that the process of self-study is as important as the result.  NEASC has 11 areas on which it focuses: Mission and Purposes; Planning and Evaluation; Organization and Governance; Academic Program; Faculty; Students; Library and Other Information Resources; Physical and Technological Resources; Financial Resources: Public Disclosure; and Integrity.  Williams, designing the self-study, added 3 more: diversity; the [much-lauded but ultimately ineffective, at best] new residential life system; and creativity in student learning.

Morty was the head of the Self-Study Committee, which included students, faculty, and alumni; Prof. Roger Bolton was the Coordinator of the committee and drafted portions of the self-study report.

After the “comprehensive, rigorous, and candid” Self-Study report indentifies both targets for improvements and means of achieving those targets, the real fun begins: an On-Site Review, followed by NEASC Review and Action.

PREFACE

Williams was a bit idiosyncratic about how it did things.  Rather than a separate diversity section, it tried to weave it into all the other sections; additionally, it was not sure how to proceed with the somewhat ambiguous “creativity” section, and instead placed it as a significant subsection within “Academic Program”.  In that same vein, “assessment of student learning” was both more involved and more important than the Committee had first anticipated.

There are also some additional details on the process itself (in this section linked above) that are not particularly noteworthy.  There are, however, interesting tidbits: unsolicited voluntary involvement by students and faculty uninvolved with the Committee ranged from slim to none; while the Committee’s writing process created some really fantastic information, much of which would not have been possible from individuals or small groups, much of that depth and breadth was left on the cutting room floor, in large part because of the timing which left too much to spring and summer, and not enough for most of the school year.

OVERVIEW

And now we get to the meat of the report.

Williams’s strengths include: 15% more faculty over the previous decade, curricular innovations, 40% more student diversity, smaller class sizes and more tutorials (I guess somebody’s listening to DK after all…), new requirements in quantitative reasoning (sorely needed, though still woefully insufficient) and intensive writing (which should be tailored, in my opinion, to focus more on the specifics of composition — logical train of thought, grammar, sentence structure), Interdisciplinary endeavors and experential learning, overhauled campus life (no, this is actually a weakness — it’s much ado about nothing but misery.  Williams simply lacks the critical mass and size, as some of us keep emphasizing, for a Yale/Hogwarts type residential house system that the “neighborhoods” attempt to ape), serious new infrastructure especially for the Sciences (Schow is awesome, and I’m glad to see Williams focusing on the most infrastructure-intensive, and most difficult, academic disciplines).

The report also touts environmental commitments (though whether those will remain so strong in this economy are uncertain at best), and an administrative restructuring as notable improvements.

Areas for improvement:

The report identifies 3 areas for improvement, 2 of which, diversity and sustainability, are woefully predictable.  In this economy, I suspect much of “sustainability” will go on the back burner (if not the freezer), given its high cost and low benefits to the students/college (as opposed to claimed benefits to the planet).  Instead, I think that the focus of sustainability will be on the College’s financial situation.  Diversity considerations are much less costly for their benefit, and do produce a noticeable effect on the college (though the exact amount, and types of benefit, are not undisputed).

The college also correctly identifies residential life as an area for improvement.  Unfortunately, it contends that we will all get used to this “neighborhood system” within a few more years (perhaps in the way that parapeligcs get used to wheelchairs), and does not mention any of the myriad difficulties (aside from widespread opposition and dissatisfaction) with this system, nor consider the opportunity cost of its implementation.  Sorry, I’m still not buying this one, and I think that most people never will, because the whole system is arbitrary and ill-fitting for a college as small, cohesive, and campus-centric as Williams is.

That’s the gist of the gist.  Thanks for bearing with me.  My comments on the merits of politically sensitive issues will be limited, but let me know your feedback.  Yes, I got stuck with the driest part.  It happens.  But let me know what you think.

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