View from the Board Chair: Boards and Academic Quality

By Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth    //    Volume 19,  Number 2   //    March/April 2011

When asked about the institution that I currently serve, I have a short and (I hope) vibrant “elevator speech” that includes a comment about the phenomenal education our students get both inside and outside the classroom. I rarely get a question like, “Really? How do you know?” I used to lose sleep over the fact that I probably had more anecdotal evidence than specifics on how I could make such a sweeping statement about the academic quality of the institution. Today, I know I am right, but what is my evidence?

Our accreditation process and documents clearly explore the academic-quality question and provide us an opportunity to seriously evaluate our programs. Although academic assessment has become a topic du jour in recent years, we take it seriously. At Moravian College, we have an assessment program that is well-defined and broadly implemented. The faculty has embraced a program and a process that is right for us:

• Each academic department conducts, on a periodic basis, an external assessment of the value of the courses and programs defined.

• The administration asks for and reviews student evaluations for each course. What is missing, perhaps, is a specific plan for assessing the longterm effect of each of our courses, departments, and majors. We stay in touch with our graduates, but we don’t yet quantify the value of the courses they took.

• Each department spends the year assessing a single student-learning outcome for their program, reviewing student work geared towards that goal and providing a written summary to the institution’s student-learning-assessment committee.

In just a few semesters, the results have led to improved curricular, content, and pedagogical changes in several departments and programs. We are making good progress and get kudos from the accreditation folks.

Although the chief focus of this article is on academic excellence, it is important to note that our Institutional Research Office and Center for Leadership and Service also use standard survey instruments to measure “skills” growth over the four years, consistent with our desire to have students develop both inside and outside the classroom. Results indicate higher than average growth, particularly in leadership ability and in understanding the importance of becoming a community leader and the value of participating in community-action programs. We are proud of those results.

In our Academic Programs Committee (and all board committees), we try to create agendas that are focused on major strategic issues that warrant discussion. We instituted this several years ago when we realized that our meetings had become very “data-driven,” allowing little time for substantive discussion.

Recently I met with our academic dean to discuss how our board members could become more knowledgeable about academic excellence. He immediately recognized that, as fiduciaries of the institution, we deeply care about that key aspect of our mission. To effectively carry out our responsibilities, we need a report format that allows us to understand trends in the quality of the education being delivered.

AGB has just issued a new statement on board responsibility for academic quality that gets at the heart of this fundamental requirement. The statement encourages board members to respect that the faculty has authority over the design, delivery, and assessment of educational programs, yet it also reminds us that boards must accept ultimate responsibility for the overall quality of those programs.

This is a no brainer, isn’t it? Of course, we need reports and a dashboard on academic quality. We need to look at trends and analyze the effect of assessment on our academic programs. We need to understand the actions that are being taken as a result of the hard work of assessment. We need to include faculty members in those discussions on a regular basis—and maybe students, too. Most important, we need to understand our academic goals and ensure that we are meeting the learning and preparation commitments we make to our students.

So much to learn, so little time…

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