The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges will be visiting Northern Kentucky University this April 22 and 23 to reevaluate the new Foundations of Knowledge general education program.
The program, which was instituted at NKU last fall semester, was not reviewed as a substantive change by the commission, and therefore was not reviewed “properly,” according to the United States Department of Education.
A substantive change, as defined by the commission’s website, http://sacscoc.org, is a “significant modification or expansion in the nature and scope of an accredited institution,” or, rather, a change in the university’s education program that would possibly affect the quality of a student’s education.
The Department of Education sees NKU’s new Foundations of Knowledge program as a substantive change in NKU’s general education requirements, and because the commission did not review the new program as such, the department has insisted that the commission do so.
“When we originally submitted everything … we were not required by SACS to submit for a substantive change,” NKU Vice Provost J. Patrick Moynahan said. “It was unclear whether our Gen Ed program was considered new or just revised.”
Some clarifications were made to NKU’s Foundations of Knowledge program since the submission to the commission last year, but no changes.
“Some students were taking two language courses to fulfill a six-credit-hour humanities requirement, which only required three credit hours in the form of a language course,” said NKU director of general education Kent Johnson.
“That was never the intention,” Johnson continued, “and we had around 65 students who had misunderstood that, so we made the clarification that students need to take something other than language courses to fulfill that requirement very clear now… Out of a couple thousand or so graduating students… 65 doesn’t seem like such a large number, but we still wanted to make that point clear.”
Last semester the Department of Education investigated complaints submitted by two NKU professors who asserted that the commission did not follow proper complaint procedure in reviewing their complaints against NKU’s new general education program.
The complaints filed said that NKU’s new general education program wasn’t in compliance with the commission’s standards, and that the program would jeopardize NKU’s accreditation.
NKU’s program was reaffirmed for accreditation in December 2009 under its former general education program, and the commission was informed of the intention to implement a new general education program in June 2010. According to the Department of Education, the commission did not follow proper procedure in the evaluation of the new general education program’s substantive change, nor did they properly handle the complaints from the professors.
“After reviewing the complaint, the department finds SACSCOC out of compliance in four areas of the secretary’s criteria,” United States Department of Education Accreditation Division director Kay Gilcher said in a letter to Commission President Belle Wheelan. “The agency (SACSCOC) did not review the institution’s new general education program under a substantive change to ensure that the change in courses did not adversely affect the capacity of the institution to continue to meet the agency’s standards. As a result, the changes to the general education program caused NKU to be out of compliance with SACSCOC standards.”
Wheelan has yet to offer comments on the situation despite repeated communication efforts through email and phone calls.
The complaints filed against the new program could have been centered around the concern of a lack of Humanities/Fine Arts classes, or, rather, the concern that a student may be credited with a Humanities/ Fine Art credit that was derived from a class that was not considered to be so in the old program.
“If the public, state, and federal government are relying on SACS to ensure a general education taught by faculty with at least 18 graduate hours in those areas, SACS has willfully and disgracefully failed them,” NKU professors Terry Pence and Robert Trundle said in a co-letter to SACS Commission Chair John Hilpert. “Classes are not either from the advertised areas or areas taught by qualified instructors.”
Johnson explains that he feels that the Foundations of Knowledge will offer a better general education experience for NKU students, and that the process should be more about developing what he calls “life skills” than just taking a class to fulfill a requirement.
“NKU was never found to be out of accreditation,” Johnson said. “We made our new Gen Ed program to promote values that we felt every graduate needed, like critical thinking or effective communication, and we made it somewhat uniform to allow transfer students to have an easier time either coming in or going out to other Kentucky institutions.”
“The word accreditation makes some people worry, like SACS is just going to swoop in and shut us down or something, but that isn’t really what accreditation is about,” Moynahan said. “The accreditation process is more about progress and improvement and pointing out where we can be better, so I always see it like that.”
Johnson and Moynahan are both ready for the commission’s visit this month, and both said they do not expect to encounter any further “hiccups” in the process.