Making the grade

Portland State graduates can rest assured that their degree will remain legit for another 10 years. The university recently renewed its accreditation and received a full-scale comprehensive evaluation committee report that included both kudos and concerns.

The 57-page report reviewed a wide range of programs and departments with categories varying from institutional integrity to student services, with commendations and concerns for each. Some main concerns noted in the report deal with resources, both physical and financial. The report acknowledged a need to increase staffing to meet the demands from growth in the number of graduate students and the volume of sponsored research.

The panel commended the clarity of Portland State’s mission and its urban focus, but said that certain policies suffered from a lack of consistency in the way they are both interpreted and implemented.

The university was praised for the way it has handled the surge in student enrollment, but the report recommended that classroom usage be reviewed for efficiency, and that some classrooms are overcrowded and scarce.

“The Committee found innovative solutions to decreasing resources in place designed to prevent the loss of integrity of the educational programs,” the report stated. One result of larger classrooms, however, is a faculty report that the number and extent of writing intensive assignments have declined.

The report raised a concern about how effectively the library will be able to accommodate new material. The library has done a remarkable job using innovative technology to broaden its range of available materials, the report said, but warns that the library staff may be insufficient.

The panel discovered concerns among the faculty on the institutional ability to sustain research efforts. This research contributes to the quality of the grad programs. Onsite interviews with graduate students by panel members indicated concerns on large graduate class sizes of 50 or more students.

While the report commended Portland State’s School of Fine and Performing Arts for its creative use of resources and community involvement, it noted a need for clearer assessment guidelines. “None but architecture have clearly documented in the self-study that each course has clearly stated outcomes or objectives, nor are there clear statements of the criteria used in each course by which students are assessed,” the report said.

The 2000 facilities plan noted an inadequacy in both internal and external containment – namely, the need for a professional assessment of conditions to prevent spills into electrical access duct systems and storm water systems. The panel confirmed the conditions still existed, and “the situation could pose safety and liability issues.” The report recommends immediate action to address the issues.

Last Wednesday, the PSU faculty senate sponsored a Town Hall meeting regarding the report to address any issues for faculty, staff and students. “The discussions were really productive,” President Daniel O. Bernstine said.

“None of it was really a surprise,” Terrel L. Rhodes, vice provost for Curriculum and Undergraduate Studies, said of the concerns in the report. He noted that most suggestions and concerns identified by the committee were already being worked on. Rhodes has spent much time and effort on the accreditation review; the university hired him six years ago as institutional liaison for the project. “It’s a big undertaking,” he said of the process.

The process breaks down like this: The Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) forms a panel of reviewers from colleges and universities from the region (provided they neither reside in Oregon nor have a conflict of interest with the respective university). Two years prior to the review, NWCCU gives the university a heads up to the criterion they will be graded upon and recommends starting a self-study at that time. After two years, the panel of reviewers receives the report, looks it over and then visits the university. Over two and a half days the people on the panel talk to different individuals and groups at the university and gauge how the practice matches up with the paper. They write a report on what they have seen with commendations and recommendations. The university in question has a chance to contest and/or correct details in the report.

Getting reaccredited yields two important results, according to Rhodes. Performing the self-study keeps improvement at the forefront of thought and maintaining accreditation allows access to financial aid and grants allotted by federal programs.

Two years ago, President Bernstine appointed a committee of about 25 members from different schools and departments in the university to prepare documents to present to the panel of reviewers. “There are lots of folks who get involved,” Rhodes said, as the committees break up into smaller subcommittees composed of faculty, staff and students.

Rhodes, who has been involved with university accreditations for 15 years, said, “it’s unusual for a campus to have twice as many commendations to recommendations.” He noted that for every eight commendations there were four recommendations.

In February the university should receive an official letter recognizing the reaccredidation. Rhodes looks forward to restarting the process in eight years.

The final report can be viewed online at: