February 6, 2001

University Study Looks at Campus, Education Issues

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Cornell is up for reaccreditation this spring, and University officials are using the opportunity to undergo an extensive self-study to address a broad range of campus issues, including undergraduate education and distance learning.

The decennial evaluation is required of all federally-funded higher education institutions under the jurisdiction of the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education (MSA/CHE).

Going beyond the comprehensive review document required by Middle States, the Reaccreditation Steering Committee — which is composed of administrators, faculty, staff and students — drafted a 120-plus-page preliminary document with a special emphasis on future plans for University growth.

Brit Holmberg ’01, a member of the committee, described the self-study as an investigation into “the broadness of Cornell” and a rigorous analysis of “where we are and where we are going.”

The self-study gives us the opportunity to “study the University on a macroscale and to learn what we’re lacking,” said David Mahon ’01, student-elected trustee. “It is a way to look at ourselves in the mirror and to concentrate on bettering ourselves.”

The committee is continually seeking input from campus community members about this important document as it prepares to publish a final version of the self-study near the end of this month.

“Generally, people have found that it gives an accurate perception of what Cornell is,” said Michael Matier, director of institutional research and planning.

The self-study first reviews the last decade in three chapters about mission and governance, self-examination and resource management.

It also outlines goals for improving undergraduate education through the North and West Campus residential living-learning initiatives, efforts to enhance faculty-student interactions and changes in the undergraduate curriculum.

The last chapter, on distance learning, is “an effort to enhance an already existing mission,” according to Polly McClure, vice president for information technologies. eCornell, a for-profit distance learning provider, is one effort to exploit such technologies.

The Cornell Board of Trustees convened in New York City on Jan. 26-27 and carefully reviewed the document, according to Matier.

The Reaccreditation Steering Committee also discussed the self-study in a video conference on Jan. 22 with Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Duke University and leader of the reaccreditation evaluation team that will be coming to Cornell in late April.

On this meeting, Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, commented, “She seemed very pleased and so were we.”

Cornell, being the high caliber University that it is, has “a little more flexibility” in terms of the evaluation procedure, Dullea explained. By focusing the self-study, the University has “the opportunity to assess itself in a formal way and to look at certain areas more closely,” Dullea said.

“How to present ourselves” is one of the biggest challenges that committee members have faced throughout the process, Mahon said.

“The most courageous decision the University made was to be honest and not just to put the best of Cornell forward, but also to acknowledge places where we’re not yet where we want to be,” he added, suggesting undergraduate academic advising as an area for improvement.

Although a chance for restructuring presents itself each time the University faces reaccreditation, Cornell is presently undertaking broader revisions than it attempted in the recent past, according to Mahon.

“This is a significant and unique time in the University’s history,” Mahon said, pointing out that the residential initiatives and information technologies are just two examples of ways in which the University is improving itself.

Ten years ago, the accreditation team sent to Cornell by Middle States boldly called Cornell a “world treasure.”

In 1998 President Hunter Rawlings challenged the school in his State of the University Address “to become even better — in fact, the best research university for undergraduate education in this country.”

Now, the task is not merely to maintain ground but to grow as a school with “an aim to serve society by educating responsible citizens and extending the frontiers of knowledge,” according to the self-study’s mission statement.

“All our initiatives are ongoing,” said Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services. “This is not a culmination, but a window into what we’re about.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts