UFF-FAU Analysis and Recommendations on Southern College and Schools Accreditation (SACS) Process and Report
August 14, 2012. Union receives numerous complaints alleging FAU administrators’ arbitrary application of SACS accreditation procedures, Faculty cite potential attempts to undermine curricular decision-making
After receiving several complaints from faculty regarding the SACS accreditation process, UFF-FAU sent out a general query to all faculty on July 18, 2012 to investigate additional faculty concerns regarding the process and compile a general report. As of August 8, 2012, we have received a total of 33 responses that stretch across all of the colleges of the university.
We highlight here some of your major concerns as well as suggested remedies. We hope to meet the administration soon regarding this issue to make the accreditation process more equitable and fair. If anyone has any additional concerns not addressed here, feel free to contact UFF-FAU at: president (at) uff-fau.org.
Two of the most prevalent concerns relate to the administration’s very limited understanding of some of the academic disciplines being accredited. The first relates to the fetishization of faculty holding 18 graduate credit hours in their teaching discipline. At its worst, this has been read extremely narrowly to mean that if faculty have not taken the actual courses they teach, they are not qualified to offer them now.
This becomes a problem for older faculty whose fields have dramatically changed over the decades. For example, communication faculty who were granted Ph.D.s prior to 1990 probably have never had a course on the internet. Yet it would be laughable to suggest that older faculty in the field could not offer a course on internet technology since their graduate work did not include it.
Even more seriously, such a literal and deterministic link between graduate coursework and the courses faculty teach fails to understand the fundamental ways in which faculty interests and research diverge and develop after graduate school. As one faculty member writes, “Our business is by its very nature much more fluid, and we are expected to expand our own horizons and go beyond our current limits through our own, self-directed research and teaching precisely because we are in higher education.”
Another faculty member notes, “It is not unusual for any faculty over the long trajectory of their careers to pick up some new thread, new idea, and conduct research and teach. The society and students benefit by such advances and so does the university from all the new expertise that is added to the field(s).”
Yet another senior colleague stresses: “If the idea is to make sure that we deliver ‘cutting edge’ programming to our students, then we have to consider the wisdom of linking credentials so heavily to one’s transcript. For those of us who graduated over 15 or 20 years ago, if we are still teaching what is on our transcript, then we have a problem; indeed—in some cases that should be grounds for not being allowed to teach a course!”
A major portion of faculty time is spent producing new knowledge, yet some administrators seem to think that this new knowledge will have no effect on the courses we teach, even after decades of social and curricular change. To not respond to the changes in our fields through our scholarship and teaching would quickly relegate FAU to irrelevancy.
This becomes a particular issue for interdisciplinary-based departments where faculty with degrees from different fields are often hired. Although such issues should be easily resolved by appealing to department chairs’ and faculty members’ expertise within the specific fields of study, this knowledge-base has been at times ignored by FAU accreditors. As one faculty member noted, “Part of the problem involved the reviewer creating her own definition of what our professional discipline is and is not.”
Due to faulty assumptions based on administrators’ limited outside knowledge of the field, faculty members have wrongly been penalized by being de-accredited. Another faculty member well summarized, “I want to believe that when faculty are hired, they are hired based on their credentials. I also want to believe that those who hire faculty know what they are doing. To see the judgment and procedures of colleagues, the colleges, and the departments that hire us being questioned is upsetting and an insult to their judgment, their hiring practices, and their academic integrity.”
The implications of such actions threaten the curricular autonomy of the departments themselves. As yet another faculty member questions, “If faculty who were assumed to be suited for a course by the program area faculty and/or chair are now deemed unsuited for such an assignment, what are the implications for the curriculum over which faculty have jurisdiction? Is this not an indirect infringement on faculty’s right to make curricular decisions?” The union would argue that it indeed is and that it weakens the stature of the entire university.
To exemplify the problem we would like to offer a case study of Judith Burganger, a full professor who has been at FAU since 1980. Burganger had served as Eminent Chair at Texas Tech and as Artist Lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In April, her credentialing was challenged by FAU administrators for the very courses that she had developed for the university and that were essential for graduation through the degree program.
To make matters worse, she had a series of graduate students attending FAU to study with her and who had rejected acceptances at other prestigious universities. It is difficult to understand how the credentialing process in this case has strengthened FAU at all. It has challenged decade’s worth of work Burganger has produced, the tenure-and-promotion process, promotion to full professor, the expertise of outside institutions, and the intelligence of students from other institutions who want to study with her. Although this is an extreme instance of the internal accreditation process demonstrating startling ignorance and a usurpation of legitimate authority, it reveals the absurdity to which it has been carried. (We have just learned this morning that Judith has finally been accredited after a four month process).
We have also had repeated complaints about how faculty with degrees from universities outside the U.S. have been challenged to justify the credibility of such a degree. Although one want to believe that there must be some legitimate reason for questioning such degrees, faculty members have not been told what those reasons are. As a result, the process seems xenophobic to many by singling out faculty who have not received degrees within the United States and contradicting the very mission of diversity that FAU supposedly upholds.
This relates to a larger issue of tone: tenured and non-tenured faculty have routinely felt their jobs threatened by the accreditation process. Rather than consisting of a dialogue between faculty and accreditors with the goal of explaining and understanding the specificity of disciplines and their requirements, the process has instead placed faculty on the receiving end of emails that demand transcripts, articles, CVs, and the like with little-to-no explanation and within unrealistically short deadlines.
The union has repeatedly received accounts of faculty unable to concentrate on research or other demands due to the fear inspired by such unilateral demands. Rather than being a collegial process between the faculty and administration, accreditation has deteriorated into what some faculty perceive as nothing less than an inquisition where you are presumed guilty before proving yourself innocent, where you are first decredentialed and then asked questions later, if at all.
UFF-FAU offers the following recommendations to improve the credentialing process making it a less stressful and more equitable for all faculty:
1) The Provost needs to issue clear and precise credentialing guidelines regarding how the administration is interpreting SACS accreditation. This should then be distributed to all faculty and administrators. This will provide an even playing field for all to understand how they are being judged and what requirements they need to meet.
2) Chairs’ justifications need to be heeded. The union has heard many accounts of chairs having to repeatedly justify certain faculty members’ credentialing. This is an immense waste of time and resources. Academic specialization and expertise should guide the process. If there is a disagreement, the burden of proof should lie on those outside of the field of study. The departments and schools hold a much fuller and more nuanced understanding of their fields of study than does any outside individual. Therefore, the accreditation process needs to harness such information in order to properly proceed and offer evaluations.
3) Tone/time: These issues seem to be related. Because of the short timelines being given to faculty members to produce materials, the tone of emails from administrators becomes curt and inhospitable. This becomes a traumatic experience for some faculty members, so they should not only be given adequate time to collect such materials, but should also be entitled to a full explanation of why such materials are needed in the first place.
Although we understand that the administration is under immense pressure from the state to justify the very existence of public education and the role of universities, eviscerating departmental integrity and demoralizing faculty through the accreditation process is not the best way to proceed.
The process should be a dialogue between faculty and administration about the particularities of academic disciplines and how faculty research, creative work, and teaching might or might not fit into the historical and theoretical components of said disciplines. But instead it has at times degenerated into a one-size-fits-all process where accreditation guidelines remain unclear and the challenges seem based on unexamined assumptions and inadequate knowledge of the discipline.
At a time when the Governor and the Florida Legislature regularly demonstrate their ignorance of and hostility to the basic tenets of higher education, it is especially important that administrators do not abandon their defense of the university and the faculty who comprise its core.
As a result, it is crucial that administrators do not pretend that they alone can evaluate faculty credentials without doing serious damage to the diversity and creativity of the faculty’s work. We look forward to working with the administration to resolve these issues. We will keep faculty updated regarding the administration’s response and seeking your further input and participation to assist in improving the accreditation process.
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