Navigating Accrediting Issues with a New President and Board Chair

By Wesley T. Dellinger    //    Volume 22,  Number 4   //    July/August 2014

Shortly after taking office as board chair at Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in spring 2012, a sink-or-swim situation quickly arose that eliminated any hopes I had of a gradual learning curve.

At the end of June of that year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education notified LVC that we were being placed under accreditation warning status. The commission found that our college was not in compliance with two assessment standards: institutional assessment and assessment of student learning. To make matters more challenging, we were also preparing to welcome Lewis Thayne as the 18th president of LVC on August 1.

The warning announcement was a shock to the board and the entire campus. We expected a few issues worthy of attention, but the declaration opened our eyes to some serious shortcomings. Middle States informed us that it would probably take two years before the warning status could be lifted. Needless to say, that was not the start to my tenure as chair that I had envisioned.

Failure to measure institutional assessment was a fault of our community and board. We lacked the ability to justify the direction of the institution. Board committees needed reconfiguration. Board bylaws required revision. We asked AGB to consult with us as the board looked at itself critically and determined how to address our weaknesses.

The end result was a board structure that better reflects our needs. The finance and investment committee was split to acknowledge that the two concepts require very different skill sets. Meanwhile, the academic and student affairs committee remained intact because the two inherently go hand-in-hand.

Most importantly, though, if someone asked us, “Why do you do it this way?” we finally had a legitimate answer. “Because that’s the way it’s always been” would no longer suffice, and with good reason.

Assessment of student learning was another challenge entirely, and one that required cooperation across campus. President Thayne did a remarkable job of unifying the institution and ensuring that everyone understood the seriousness of the situation. Long-standing hierarchies were challenged in favor of open and honest discussion among faculty members, mid-level and senior administrators, the president’s office, and the board.

I learned that I needed to become a more purposeful student of college trusteeship during that challenging time. I engaged intensely in the life of the college while becoming more astute about higher education issues. That meant hours of meetings on campus, AGB seminars, gatherings with alumni, and purposeful study of publications, including Trusteeship magazine.

President Thayne and I met regularly throughout this process—something we continue to do today. He provided clear communication to the entire board to ensure we remained engaged and informed.

Thanks to a cooperative campus, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief on June 27, 2013. After just one year, Middle States removed the warning status and reaffirmed LVC’s accreditation after finding us in full compliance with all 14 of its standards.

The biggest lesson learned from the warning status process was that listening is half of communicating. The board and the administration weren’t listening carefully enough to the regulating bodies in the past, and I’m very grateful to have learned this lesson so early in my new position.

Having the accreditation issue resolved has allowed us to focus on some of the other challenges currently facing higher education generally and Lebanon Valley College in particular. We’ve now initiated a strategic-planning process that involves our entire community in devising a vibrant future for LVC.

It’s never pleasant to be kicked on the backside, but we’re certainly a better institution for having gone through it.