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Former Provost Doug Baker: Global Competitiveness, Accreditation and Improved Higher Education

Leaders in the public and private sectors of the economy are concerned about the global competitiveness of the United States. Nations can compete based on a variety of factors such as abundant natural resources, low wages or, in the case of the U.S., by our skilled and educated work force. For much of the last half of the 20th century, America prided itself on the quality of its primary, secondary and post-secondary educational systems. 

The primacy of those systems has come under close scrutiny in our more recent history as we began, and continue, to fall down the global rankings of students’ educational attainment.  A number of educational reforms have been attempted in across K-12 systems, with No Child Left Behind Act as the most visible. In spite of related increases in factors such as student educational goals, enhanced curriculum, standardized student testing and improved teacher training, the U.S. continues to move backward in the global rankings. We have evidently been missing critical components of the K-12 educational process. This year, the Micron Corporation Foundation awarded the University of Idaho a $1.2 million grant to study the impact of potentially missing factors in this equation, such as the role of parents, poverty, local and state policies, and the interactions among these factors (www.uidaho.edu/research/stem/micronstemed).  This is an important longitudinal study to help us better understand the factors for student, and ultimately, our country’s success. 

Similar concerns have been expressed about the eroding performance of the U.S. higher education system. Other countries, such as China and India, are investing heavily in higher education so that they will have the resulting research and educated workforce to increase their global competitiveness. In a recent trip to China, I was very impressed with the resulting quality of faculty and students, as well as the level of government investment in higher education there. 

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has also become quite concerned about the competitiveness of our universities and looked at ways to improve our effectiveness, in spite of state-level budget challenges. One method to affect higher education is through the five regional accreditation commissions designated by the U.S. Department of Education. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities oversees our area of the country and has proactively worked with colleges and universities to develop a new set of accreditation standards and processes. These standards were overwhelmingly adopted by schools in the Northwest last year and form a more efficient and refined management tool for us to use as we implement our new strategic plan. 

The first standard asks schools to identify their mission, core themes (e.g., goals) and expectations. We have done much of that work during our recent strategic planning process and a report on that standard is due to the NWCCU in September.

The second standard asks us to identify whether we have the resources and capacities to fulfill that mission, and a report on that standard is due in 2012.

The third standard focuses on planning and implementation. The fourth standard looks at effectiveness and improvement, and the fifth standard looks at mission fulfillment, adaptation and sustainability. They are due in subsequent years. 

Ron Baker, NWCCU vice president, presented an engaging overview of the new standards last month during a visit to Moscow (www.uidaho.edu/provost/accreditation). This framework will provide a continuous improvement process and an important context for the implementation of the University’s strategic plan that will be covered in an upcoming edition of The Register