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MATTERS AT HAND: Free parking on campus? UND must be serious

Representatives of the Higher Learning Commission will be in town next week. Their visit is part of a process leading to reaccreditation for UND. This is critically important for the university. In a news release issued Thursday, the university r...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

Representatives of the Higher Learning Commission will be in town next week. Their visit is part of a process leading to reaccreditation for UND.

This is critically important for the university. In a news release issued Thursday, the university refers to "this momentous visit" and points out that it marks the 100th anniversary of UND's initial accreditation.

This visit isn't related to the one that the HLC plans to the North Dakota University System office. That one was prompted by bitter controversy about Hamid Shirvani, the former chancellor who took almost $1 million and left the state.

The visit to UND has been scheduled for a decade. Reaccreditation takes place on a 10-year schedule.

Continued accreditation almost certainly is not threatened this year, but UND is taking the process seriously. "About 150 faculty, staff, students and administrators from across UND have spent the past 36 months preparing," the news release said.

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That's three years.

Probably not everyone worked full time on it.

The Higher Learning Commission itself establishes criteria. The university responded with a self-study intended to judge its success against goals.

HLC has these criteria:

• Mission

• Integrity

• Quality, resources and support for teaching and learning

• Evaluation and improvement of teaching and learning

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• Resources, planning and institutional effectiveness.

These have a properly grave and academic resonance. And they likely take in the concerns most often heard from state legislators, who often wince at the money the state's colleges and universities take out of taxpayer pockets.

Legislators really have only two criteria. The first is, do students who enter college get degrees on time? And the second is, What does what they're learning have to do with their job prospects and the state's situation?

Retention, in other words. And relevance.

The university itself worries about retention. It tracks entering students, and it knows how many leave without a degree, how many earn degrees on time and how many take longer than four or five years to finish up.

Those are the kind of questions that legislators often ask.

Educators themselves sometimes bristle at all the attention on retention, and some of their concerns are legitimate. Not every entering student has clear career goals, and some change majors several times. For some, that means taking time off or enrolling somewhere else. There are other factors as well, such as illnesses and family circumstances.

Accepting all of this doesn't lessen the interest in how long it takes a student to make it through. Each year is expensive.

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If retention is prickly for academics, relevance might be poison.

Much of what goes on at UND (or any other college) doesn't have a matter-of-fact connection with the real world. Still, a philosophy course or a drawing class broadens student perspectives. Language classes introduce them to new cultures.

It's clear that relevance is not just about preparing students for jobs -- although that's part of it.

Understanding the state's culture and political climate is another part. So is knowing and appreciating other people.

Again, accepting this doesn't lessen the concern about relevance, and educators have to have some regard for how their work fits in.

In some cases, a perceived lack of relevance has damaged university programs. The example I'm most familiar with is the Program in Communication, which moved away from professional training to an emphasis on theory.

Another is the Writers' Conference, which increasingly focused on esoteric topics over the years and now is in funding trouble.

The UND medical school first faced harsh criticism about its failure to supply doctors, then promised relevance to the state's emerging health needs in its successful campaign for a new building.

In response to the oil boom, UND has added a program in petroleum engineering. It also needs one in mineral law -- law for mineral owners as well as mineral developers.

Retention and relevance are the issues that stir legislators and taxpayers. UND ought to bring these to the center of the accreditation process, using the Higher Learning Commission's visit to highlight efforts on both fronts.

That would help cement the university's relationship with the state and its people while it satisfies the demands of its academic judges.

By the way, readers can weigh in on all this at UND's open forum on reaccreditation. It will be held Monday at 4 p.m. in the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl.

Parking will be free -- another sign of how seriously UND takes this process.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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