By: Diane Stirling
In a self-assessment that involves more than two dozen faculty, staff, administrators, plus university officials and constituent groups, the School of Information Studies (iSchool) is in the midst of the accreditation process for its Library and Information Science (LIS) program.
The initiative is undertaken every seven years. Jill Hurst-Wahl is coordinating efforts to have the master’s degree program certified by the American Library Association (ALA), shepherding the process in stages since late 2013. Hurst-Wahl is an associate professor of practice in the School’s LIS program, and as director of the LIS program and the LIS with school media specialization program as well, it’s in her domain to oversee the process.
Accreditation is a familiar process for Syracuse’s LIS program. The School has been continually accredited for nearly 90 years, since 1928, according to the American Library Association. Between formal accreditation reviews, library programs provide the ALA with biennial reports that provide updates about changes and new dimensions of program offerings.
The ALA accreditation review is an extensive effort, Professor Hurst-Wahl said, comprising essentially a self-study of the entire program. The detailed, complex process spans two years, and it’s work that is above and beyond the everyday duties of faculty, staff, and administrators.
At the iSchool, LIS faculty members are writing assessment chapters that illustrate how program components meet ALA professional standards. Staff members are gathering supportive data. Students and others will read report drafts and offer their feedback. Administrators play a key role, especially during the site visit in November, which will involve university-level, as well as iSchool, officials.
There is a great deal of insight that comes from undertaking such an extensive self-assessment, Hurst-Wahl observes. “It really makes us think about every aspect of the graduate program and the things that touch it. We think about the work that our faculty does; how we think about our space, and about our campus and our online facilities. It makes us think about everything in minute detail.”
The ALA’s website calls accreditation “a voluntary system of evaluation of higher education institutions and programs…a collegial process based on self-evaluation and peer-assessment for improvement of academic quality and public accountability…. [which] assures that higher education institutions and their units, schools, or programs meet appropriate standards of quality and integrity.”
Fall Site Visit
A key point in the process is the site visit of a six-member external review panel, LIS professionals and educators. Panel members conduct a three-day visit on behalf of the ALA Committee on Accreditation, after having read the School’s completed report a month earlier. Once on campus, the panel undertakes a wide range of activities. Members will look at facilities, meet with students, alumni, adjunct faculty, staff, and the University’s Provost’s and Chancellor’s offices. They may sit in on classes that take place on campus or online. They also may speak to employers of LIS graduates, and perhaps conduct surveys of graduates or students, and communicate with them by email.
After the visit, Hurst-Wahl said, panel members will write a report for the Committee on Accreditation, their determination of how well the School’s self-assessment and offerings meet ALA standards. The committee will make its accreditation decision regarding the Syracuse program in January 2016.
After long months of preparing documentation, the site visit is something the faculty and School officials look forward to, Professor Hurst-Wahl said. “We want the panel to talk with people on campus who can lend insight into the things that faculty and staff have been doing, how we are thinking about student learning, how we are thinking about and doing program assessment. The time on campus really gives them a different perspective. Rather than just reading [our report], they’re talking to dozens of people about the program and seeing how the program is supported by the iSchool and by the University,” she noted.
iSchool Assistant Professor of Practice and Senior Associate Dean Barbara Stripling, who is serving her outgoing year as ALA president, discussed the importance of a school’s accreditation.
“It builds national standards and expectations for effective library education,” Dr. Stripling said. “It holds programs accountable for developing goals and outcomes and ways to assess student learning. It really enables standards that enable library education programs to be reflective and strategic and to improve their own practice. It sets a high level of expectation and provides coherent quality, and some assurance to students, that the education they get is calibrated to those high expectations.” Additionally, Stripling said, she “believes the only way to judge the merit of a program is through the impact it has on the student. I think the standards have taught us all to be more student-focused and more aware that our graduates have the outcomes they need to be successful librarians.”
“One of the valuable side benefits of the accreditation process is that we always keep key educational issues in our sights – curriculum, assessment, student outcomes, etc.,” said iSchool Interim Dean Jeff Stanton. “Our LIS faculty members do a masterful job of making sure that our program features stay aligned with the big picture goals of our two master’s degrees and our two library-focused certificates.”
What Is Evaluated
The report must address how the School is implementing current ALA standards. The self-study looks at the School’s mission, curriculum, faculty, students, institutional support, and facilities. It assesses how students are recruited; their demographic makeup; and where they get jobs. It also invites feedback from students about the program, facilities, and offerings. According to Professor Hurst-Wahl, “that reflective piece is very important. It shows that you’re not just doing things and measuring what you’re doing, but that you’re reflecting on all of it and considering what changes you need to make.”