The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, or NWCCU, has expressed concern to University of Alaska officials after reviewing recent media coverage on UA’s journey toward a proposed restructuring.
A letter was sent on Sept. 26 to UA officials by the NWCCU that expressed concern over the UA system not meeting key standards required by their organization. The letter was addressed to the UA Board of Regents, UA President Jim Johnsen and the chancellors of the Universities of Alaska Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast.
However, UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen wants students to know that the University of Alaska Anchorage institutional accreditation is not the focus. Sandeen says not to worry, the accreditation held by UAA continues to remain strong.
“Our accreditation is in excellent standing, and this [letter] does not touch in any way the quality of our academic or research programs,” Sandeen said. “It is a bureaucratic issue, a structural issue that we need to resolve. So, I don’t want students to waste a minute of time worrying about it.”
In the letter, the NWCCU said that the UA system was failing to meet two mandatory sub-standards within one of the ten standards established by the commission. A response by UA officials was requested by Oct. 31.
The two sections within standard two set by the NWCCU are:
- “In a multi-unit governance system, the division of authority and responsibility between the system and the institution is clearly delineated. System policies, regulations and procedures concerning the institution are clearly defined and equitably administered”(NWCCU Standard for Accreditation 2.A.2).
- “The institution demonstrates an effective and widely understood system of governance with clearly defined authority, roles and responsibilities. Its decision-making structures and processes make provision for the consideration of the views of faculty, staff, administrators and students on matters in which they have a direct and reasonable interest” (NWCCU Standard for Accreditation 2.A.1).
The sub-standards call for clarity in the division of authority in the UA system toward UA administrators, the UA Board of Regents, the UA President and chancellors. Roles, responsibilities, policies, procedures and regulations all need to be clearly defined within the system.
The other sub-standard requires inclusivity on the consideration of views belonging to stakeholders, students, faculty and staff in making decisions that will affect their roles within their institutions.
The letter was written by NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy and is in response to a variety of feedback provided from UA stakeholders, local media and a visit to UAF by NWCCU Senior Vice President Mac Powell that was mentioned in the letter as well.
“We are concerned that the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast have failed to meet the above critical Standards for Accreditation, in accordance with the United States Department of Education’s 34 CFR Part 602,” Ramaswamy said in the letter.
The NWCCU asks that immediate action be taken in the form of Ad Hoc reports, that is to be prepared either collectively or individually by UA officials. An Ad Hoc report is a report prepared to respond to specific questions or needs quickly, often without in depth analysis.
The UA Board of Regents is currently working on a decision to possibly bring the entire UA system under a single accreditation. UAA stakeholders, students, staff and faculty have spoken in opposition of a consolidation during Anchorage Assembly town hall meetings and other forums. A topic often discussed at the meetings and forums was the lack of involvement from the Board of Regents in obtaining the voices of those outside the board.
Though the NWCCU letter speaks of the UA system’s accreditation, UAA’s institutional accreditation was reaffirmed in January 2019 by the NWCCU for another seven years, and UAA has met institutional accreditation standards set by the NWCCU continuously since 1974.
The letter was not in response to UAA specifically, but directed at decisions and practices at the statewide level, according to Sandeen.
“[The letter] is really directed at the president and the board at the statewide level,” Sandeen said. “But, because the chancellors are the chief executives of the accredited universities and we are members of the NWCCU, the letter comes to us.”
The NWCCU is recognized by the U.S. Board of Education as the authority on university educational quality in the Northwest.
Beyond the accreditation reaffirmation, UAA received four commendations from the commission. The four commendations received by UAA were for an inclusive planning process for UAA 2020, maintaining a culture of diversity and inclusivity, commitment to community engagement and extensive assessment of student learning.
Commendations are awarded by the NWCCU as recognition to standards that a university is performing exceptionally at. These commendations are a reflection of the quality of UAA, according to Sandeen.
“One of our deans is an examiner, so she’s on the team that goes and reviews other campuses for the NWCCU, and she said ‘yes, it is very unusual for a university to get four commendations,’” Sandeen said.
The entire accreditation reaffirmation process is not idle, and Oct. 4 kicked off meetings to begin preparing for the next accreditation process in 2025, according to Sandeen.
Chancellor Sandeen ensures a response from UAA will be sent before the NWCCU deadline and that she will be actively involved in communications with the NWCCU.
Involvement from the UA Board of Regents and UA President Johnsen will be key as well, Sandeen said, as the standards in question fall in the realm of the UA statewide branch.
“We need to work in partnership with the [UA] President and the [UA] Board because it’s their policies that are being questioned,” Sandeen said. “We need to work together.”
Sandeen promised transparency in her response to the NWCCU and will be placing her name personally on the document, though she will be taking part in a collective collaboration with UA officials during the Ad Hoc report preparation.
“Of course we’re a team, so we want to be comfortable with what each other is saying, but ultimately it is my signature, and I have to have my professional integrity that what I am saying is true,” Sandeen said.
UAA accreditation has been continuous for 45 years, and Sandeen reminds students to remain focused on being successful.
Feedback, questions and concerns can be sent to Chancellor Sandeen at [email protected]