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UND prepares for once-a-decade visit by accrediting agency

By Stephen J. Lee

Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota’s leaders have been cramming for three years for a three-day test coming up this week.

Five members of the Chicago-based North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission will spend Monday through Wednesday on campus, administering the anything-but pop quiz.

It’s a test pretty much nobody flunks, and UND is marking its 100th such year being accredited by the association, an independent corporation that measures more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning in 19 states.

But it’s a mandatory, if minimum, requirement, said UND President Robert Kelley, not least because federal financial aid flows only to accredited schools.

Such a comprehensive review comes every 10 years, and Kelley said UND officials have been working for several years to make sure the colors will be flying and will be green and white.

“We are not going to fail,” Kelley said. “We are in good shape.”

Speed bumps

He credited 150 campus leaders who he said have been working on UND’s own “self-study” initiated to meet the “Exceptional UND” vision he began laying out in 2010.

In August, UND issued a 300-page report for itself, but also well-designed for the HLC’s visit, he said last week.

After the last such review a decade ago, the HLC team voiced concern about the way UND and the State Board of Higher Education had dealt with the Sioux nickname and logo controversy; it recommended revisiting the decision to keep it, or at least the way the decision was made, by the state board in 2001.

Now, of course, the name has been gone for a year.

But controversy around how the state board governs higher education remains.

Because of a legislative resolution putting a constitutional measure on the November 2014 ballot, voters will decide whether to revamp the way the state runs the 11 public universities and colleges.

That move was part of months of debate over the leadership of Hamid Shirvani, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, who was dismissed in June.

The controversy drew a special investigation by the accrediting agency, which looked into the University System and state board and found no barriers to continued accreditation of the schools, Shirvani said.

Dickinson State University, meanwhile, is waiting to hear early next month what the HLC concluded after a special investigation into the school’s phony enrollment figures published by its former president. The school could face discipline, which could hurt its recruitment of students, illustrating the heft of the HLC’s work.

Kelley said all the roiling won’t have much to do with UND’s accreditation review. “Systems don’t get accredited, universities get accredited.”

But on his way out the door this past summer, Shirvani also criticized Kelley and UND for not focusing enough on research and overseeing athletic programs.

Faculty members and administrators at UND voiced support for Kelley.

‘Exceptional’ vision

This past week, several vice presidents said that Kelley’s leadership had been solid in giving UND new vision in the long run as well as for next week’s HLC visit.

Kelley himself has good insight into the accrediting process because several years ago, while still at the University of Wyoming, he was a member of an HLC team that took a look at the University of Oklahoma.

“They were a little ‘siloed,’ ” he said, meaning people didn’t reach across departmental and program lines and walls, “not mixing biology, for example, with ethics.”

He’s pushed UND down a path of more collaboration, integrating studies and programs, he said.

The HLC directed UND to focus on five areas: how UND describes its basic mission; how it accomplishes it with integrity; how quality teaching and learning are done; how they are assessed; and how effectively the institution plans and uses its resources.

The new 23-page executive summary of its self-study report lists its own five goals in more self-help style language:

“Through the insights gained via the self-study process and through initiatives growing out of findings within the process, the university will continue movement toward the ‘Exceptional UND’ goals of:

1. Enriching the student experience.

2. Encouraging gathering.

3. Facilitating collaboration.

4. Expanding UND’s presence.

5. Enhancing quality of life.”

Thomas DiLorenzo, the new provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the accompanying 300-page report details what is meant by opaque phrases such as “encouraging gathering.”

“Everything, from teamwork to the way we work in collaborative fashion in our jobs, pushes us to create,” DiLorenzo said. “We know we innovate in groups, and we know that bringing individuals together across diverse populations certainly helps the creative process as well.”

Mission of service

At a more bottom-line level, UND touts its relatively low tuition to the HLC.

“We want to emphasize it because we believe that we are a good value, especially when you take into consideration the high quality of what we provide,” DiLorenzo said.

UND’s tuition and fees have gone up less, on average, than the national average for public universities. According to UND’s figures, average in-state tuition and fees for this academic year will total $7,508 for an undergraduate student. That’s up 42 percent from 2003-04, when the total (adjusted to 2013 dollars) was $5,278.

Meanwhile, according to the College Board, a nonprofit membership group of 6,000 institutions that includes UND, average tuition at the nation’s public universities is $8,893 this academic year, up 51 percent from $5,900 (in 2013 dollars) a decade ago.

The service, or usefulness, of UND to its community, is addressed, too, in UND’s report to HCL.

The fast rise in the new petroleum engineering program, which has grown from a handful of students to more than 200 in only four years, shows how responsive UND can be to the state’s job needs, DiLorenzo said.

UND’s self-study also pointed out that it has a “special constitutional mission to serve American Indian students.”

The university’s financial aid office reports that 554 students identify themselves as American Indians, about 3.7 percent of this semester’s enrollment of 15,100, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said.

That’s one of the highest percentages of any public university, he said, plus UND offers more programs for American Indian students than just about any other university.

That’s the kind of mission accomplishment the HLC looks for, he said.

But it’s an open-book test and the accreditors can ask about anything, he said.

The team has said it wants to see the aviation program in action at Grand Forks International Airport and plans to check out the medical school and law school.

“It will be interesting to see what issues they raise,” Johnson said. “I think we will be able to respond to any questions they have.”

On the Web: To see the self-study and other information related to UND’s accreditation go to

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