College receives first-rate NEASC accreditation report

Returning after winter break, the Williams community was greeted by a glowing 26-page report filed by the visiting accreditation team, calling the College a “model academic community.”

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) team, consisting of administrators and educational leaders from peer institutions, visited the College last October to meet with students, faculty, staff and administrators and assess all facets of the College. The recently released report, divided into eleven standards, will be used in NEASC’s final decision over the continuation of accreditation in late winter. Accreditation must be renewed every ten years in order to qualify for many significant federal and institutional grants.

The visiting team was particularly impressed by the College’s commitment to self-assessment. Reflecting national trends for more quantifiable measures of success, the report praised the College’s close attention to data gathered from student surveys and studies. More specifically, the report cited a number of recent structural changes that have been driven by suggestions from outside consultants, including the addition of the position Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity and the consolidation of financial responsibilities under the Provost’s office.

“The institution spends a lot of time assessing itself,” said Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs. “We think this is a good investment.”

The visiting team also commended the strong relationship between faculty and administration. The College’s faculty is intimately involved in major standing committees, including the Committee on Appointments and Promotions, Committee on Educational Policy and Faculty Compensation. The faculty was praised for its “widely shared commitment to excellence in teaching, scholarship and research, and service to the community.”

However, the report noted relatively smaller staff involvement in College decisions. According to Dean Merrill, staff relations will be discussed in the 2020 Committee, a group formed last year by President Schapiro to discuss the College’s goals and plans by the year 2020. “It’s something I’d like to see more conversation about,” Merrill said.

In addition, the visiting accreditation team expressed concern over funds allocated through departments and deans. Travel and research grants for pre-tenure professors have not increased in six years. Kolesar discussed the possibility of increases in funding, but said that virtually all faculty members who apply for these grants do eventually receive funding. “That’s the one tiny little note on which we have a different perception,” Kolesar said.

The report highlighted the tutorial program: the number of tutorials has increased from 21 in 2000-01 to 54 this academic year, partially due to a 28 percent faculty expansion since 1996-97. Student course surveys have consistently rated tutorial courses higher than non-tutorial classes.

However, the report still noted the difficulties of smaller departments in offering both tutorials and courses required for the major. Nonetheless, while the numbers are fewer, smaller departments and programs still do offer tutorials in a “reasonably good cycle,” according to Stephen Fix, director of the tutorials program and professor of English. “In some cases, faculty in smaller departments have taken courses that might be taught as small seminars and converted them to the tutorial format,” Fix said.

The report continued to offer suggestions on student life, including more support for international and disabled students, development of “multipurpose programmable social spaces” and a review of the first-year orientation program. These echoed the opinions of College Council and students who met with the team. Issues brought up during those meetings included the role of First Days in creating a cohesive campus and the ongoing limbo of Goodrich Hall.

“Williams College is grappling with many of the same issues around student life as are other colleges and universities,” the report acknowledged, “They have significantly expanded their support for student life, and the team would encourage them to continue to support this critical area.”

During the last accreditation process, the College was criticized for the lack of technological integration into teaching. Since then, almost all classrooms boast some form of technology, and the Office of Information Technology (OIT) has increased support and training in technology usage. “It’s satisfying that it’s something that is a much stronger operation than ten years ago,” said Kolesar.