Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Departmental Accreditation

I’m sure we’ve all been getting demands from various societies (GSA, AAPG, SEPM, et. al) to partake in a survey meant to address the issue of department accreditation. The preamble cites decreased enrollment in geosciences programs, departments threatened with merging and closure, and low hiring in the academic realm as reasons for developing a national accreditation for geology departments. Additionally, the generally low impact the geosciences have had on policy, decreased public awareness, and little pre-college earth science education seem to be concerns.

This accreditation scheme is summarized by five models (mostly ranging from impotent to draconian in severity), which we can peruse at .

I’m not certain what I think of this idea yet. What do other folks think? Is a national system of accreditation the way to go? It might force departments to take a more active interest in the broader community, but then again it might stretch stressed departments to the breaking point. Any thoughts?


Hypocentre said...

In the UK we have accreditation of our degrees through the Geological Society (of London). On the whole it is a good thing. It is a bit of a hoopla every five years to renew the accreditation but it is a good for promoting courses and it is good to have someone from the outside review your programme and suggest changes. We have also found it useful in our battles with the university management (e.g. we have to have so many field days, we can't dilute the course, we are a professional subject.

Mel said...

I'm in the same boat as you. I am unsure if this is a good solution. I agree with hypocentre that it will keep our departments on their toes (i.e. keeping up quality - which usually isn't a problem). But, will it actually increase enrollement into the geosciences? Is that an influencing factor in peoples' decision. I'd like to see more data on that aspect before I fill out the survey.

Jeannette said...

I did my undergraduate coursework at a small university in a state not known for it's spectacular geology (think lots of carbonates, little topography, very few outcrops). The department struggled to get and retain students, and most of the (very few) available jobs were in hydro or environmental. There was no geology curriculum in the high schools; thus, most recruiting efforts were focused on intro level classes offered to nonmajors (e.g., intro earth sciences).

The department head worked very hard to build the program, but unfortunately enrollment remained low. Two years after I graduated with my BS, the university decided to cancel the geology major altogether to save money and forego the need to hire a professor to replace a retiring faculty.

Over the course of ~7 years that the major was offered, there were 22 graduates, 10 of whom went on to get advanced degrees at other universities. To me, this is an incredible feat - nearly 50% of this tiny department's grads went on to MS and PhD programs! Still, this record had NO influence on the university's decision.

Would accreditation have made a difference? I know that the department would have worked to get it, but would it have affected the university's view of the major? If so, then I am ALL FOR this accreditation. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch this department be destroyed by the university and state funding agencies. And all because enrollment was low for a couple years.

Eric said...

Along those lines, I wonder if a stringent accreditation process would drive many smaller programs out of business, if only because a lack of funds might force a university to cut a program, rather than fund the mandated field trips, conference travel, and outreach.

Kim said...

I haven't decided what I think yet, either.

On the one hand, a lot of undergrad geology departments survived the last twenty years by being liberal arts majors: being flexible and interesting, and making it clear that the math, writing, and critical thinking skills were great for admission to law schoo, med school, or business school, and that students could also go into careers in anything that an English major could do, and more.

On the other hand, that flexibility means that a "geology" degree can mean any number of different things. How can an employer know the background of a geology grad, given the variability?

I don't know if accreditation would help save geology departments, or would give institutions reasons to get rid of them. I know that chemistry departments use accreditation to justify majors with lots of coursework, but chemistry has more press than geology does.

I suspect that my institution would like an accredited department. I don't know if they would be willing to support it in tough times, though. said...

Accreditation has positive elements and negative. On the positive side, if the accreditation process places demands on departments those demands can be used as justifications to get resources from the administration. If done well, accreditation can also give departments incentive for continuous assessment and improvement.

I've been through a few accreditations for non-geology programs and there is a serious problem with all that I have seen. The accreditation is based upon reports and discussions. The accrediting team does not observe a single class or test a single student. Faculty can write anything in those reports and say anything in those interviews. Departments can even hire professionals to write the reports.

Most people who have been on a hiring committee have seen applicants who look great on paper and can BS well in an interview... then fail miserably in a classroom. It's only when you scratch the surface that you see the true character.

It's like identifying minerals. You can easily be fooled without detailed testing.