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Accreditation team set to visit Berkeley
Campus’s report creates a roadmap for enhancing undergraduate education

| 08 October 2003

For the past several years, the campus has been turning a mirror on itself in preparation for a once-a-decade renewal of its institutional accreditation. An important step in the process comes Oct. 15 and 16, when the regional accrediting body — the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) — brings a delegation of nationally known educators to Berkeley for a final site visit. Under a newly revamped WASC review process, the colleges and universities it evaluates are invited to focus on self-defined priority issues, rather than responding primarily to standardized checklists. In this way, it is thought, the process will have benefits and uses beyond accreditation itself.

Berkeley has opted to use the new process to reexamine undergraduate education — a high-priority campus issue, and one raised by WASC a decade ago when it called attention to the decentralization of responsibility for undergraduate education at Berkeley. Since that time, Chancellor Berdahl created a new senior administration position dedicated to the campus’s undergraduate teaching mission. Christina Maslach, Berkeley’s first vice provost for undergraduate education, leads the current accreditation effort and hopes to make effective use of its findings and its roadmap for action.

“I am impressed by the recommendations that the campus working groups developed as a result of this self-study process,” says Maslach. “The next step is to focus on implementation — and to figure out how we can move forward, in spite of the grim budget climate, to turn this blueprint into a reality.”

Four key issues
For the final phase of its accreditation review, the campus has identified four priorities seen as key to enhancing undergraduate education at Berkeley: reinventing large-enrollment courses (which emerged as a very high priority), enhancing the culture of teaching, improving academic program review, and preparing students for successful capstone experiences. “Capstone” in this context refers to a major project that addresses a significant question, using skills the student has developed earlier.

History Professor Richard Cándida Smith chaired one of the working groups (each made up of faculty, administrators, staff, and students) that together developed Berkeley’s 50-page accreditation report on educational effectiveness. The group proposed, as a goal for undergraduate education, the gradual acquisition of skills needed to complete a capstone project. That’s something that’s already happening at Berkeley, he notes. “What we did is come up with a conceptual framework,” he said.

Cándida Smith says the dialogue helped him articulate what he and other faculty are already doing in the classroom. In History 124A, for example, his students are required to locate, contextualize, and interpret a primary source document. “It’s very elementary, in some ways,” he says,”but essential if you’re going to have a successful senior thesis.”

Examples of successful capstone opportunities — in history; environmental science; theater, dance, and performance studies; and the McNair Scholars Program — are included in the campus’s report to WASC. So are recommendations to help expand and strengthen the campus commitment in this area — among them: reward faculty research mentors, offer departments incentives and resources for developing research opportunities, and help students reflect on their development as researchers.

“Some of the recommendations can be executed through the chancellor’s office,” says Cándida Smith. “Many others will have to be discussed by the Academic Senate…. That’s going to happen, I’m confident.”

Similarly, Berkeley’s self-study on the remaining key issues — new ways of approaching large-enrollment courses, encouraging good teaching, and improving campus assessment of academic programs — includes “best practices” case studies, a summary of challenges, and recommendations for improvement. The recommendations are the result of input from a broad cross-section of the campus community. Participants at the May 2003 e-Berkeley symposium, “Rethinking Large Enrollment Courses,” for example, will recognize many of their ideas and suggestions in the WASC report.

Bucking the trend
Berkeley’s accreditation review occurs in the context of a national debate on standards and accountability in education. At the K-12 level, many advocate (while others decry) more extensive use of standardized testing as a measure of how well schools are doing. When the federal Higher Education Act comes up for renewal next year, the Bush administration is likely to push for similar kinds of metrics for post-secondary education.

In this context, people like David Ward — president of the American Council on Education and chair of the nine-member team set to visit Berkeley — are keenly interested in Berkeley’s accreditation efforts. To the extent that the upcoming site visit, and WASC’s new model, are successful, they could conceivably provide a counter to the national trend toward more test-driven and standardized accountability.

During its site visit, the WASC team will meet with key Academic Senate and administration leaders on how to translate the blueprint Berkeley has developed into concrete changes and improvements for undergraduate education. A complete copy of the campus’s accreditation report, links to supporting documents, and WASC’s response to its fall 2002 site visit, are available for review on Berkeley’s accreditation website, education.berkeley.edu/accreditation. Members of the campus community are invited to view the report and to offer feedback to be considered for implementation at accreditation@uclink.berkeley.edu.