Accreditation Report Reaffirms Pitt’s Position As a “World Class Research University”

Issue Date: 
September 10, 2012

Calling the University of Pittsburgh a “world class research university” with an “unwavering commitment to excellence” and an “extraordinarily talented and beloved leadership team,” a newly released Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation report praised the University’s institution-wide system of assessment and awarded it reaccreditation for a 10-year period, without qualification, the maximum permissible time for an extension of accreditation.

In commenting on the University’s progress, the Middle States team, which was chaired by New York University President John Sexton, stated: “Over the past 15 years, the University of Pittsburgh’s reputation as a world class research university has been advancing steadily. By any measure, this reputational advance reflects reality. From the undergraduate education it provides to the research it produces to the external awards and honors its faculty and students earn, the University can be proud of where it stands.”

“Everyone in the University of Pittsburgh community has been committed to the goal of continually improving Pitt’s position relative to the country’s very strongest research universities,” Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said. “To receive this external validation of our progress, from such a distinguished group after they had carefully evaluated our programs, is an especially satisfying form of reward for everyone involved in Pitt’s important work.”

The University chose to focus its self-study on assessment because of the current national focus on accountability in higher education, because it wanted to deal head-on with the standards for assessment that have been a problem for other fine universities moving through the accrediting process, and because building a culture of assessment has been a priority at Pitt. In commenting on that choice, the evaluation team’s report stated that “the choice of assessment as the topic of the Self Study is yet another indicator of institutional strength: there is a genuine and evolving ‘culture of assessment’ at the University; and the willingness to invite careful assessment of that culture by a team of visitors is itself a proof of that proposition.”

The report commented favorably on the University’s decision to implement a decentralized system of assessment, “thereby allowing units to develop methods suitable to their context while insisting nonetheless that the measures developed be rigorous, meaningful and tied to goals.” The report also noted that Pitt “is not a prisoner of the numbers produced” by the system. Instead, “the University administers its system with a careful injection of wisdom. … The information produced in the assessment system is evidence used by decision makers in setting the University and unit goals, but it is not the sole basis for the decisions made.”

“We have worked for many years to use the evaluative process to further our institutional and academic goals by developing systems to measure outcomes and to assess our levels of success—in education, in research, and in efficiently operating this large and complex institution,” Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson said. “Today, particularly in the face of widespread financial constraints, creating the capacity to measure effectiveness and efficiency is not an option, but a basic responsibility.”

The evaluation team also highlighted a recurring cause for concern—steep reductions in state support. “The greatest challenge to the University of Pittsburgh—no matter how talented its leadership or how robust its system of assessment—is external. … In response to [recent cuts in state support], the University already has made operational efficiency a priority; and it has undertaken budget cuts, redesign of benefits, efficiencies, productivity increases, and the imposition of University-wide salary freezes. To the outside observer, these cuts were beyond bone to marrow.”

The report further discussed the possible consequences of such cuts, not only for the University, but also for the regional economy. “We would be remiss if we did not note the following: that excellence, once lost, is difficult to regain; that excellence at even a great university is fragile and sometimes evaporates quickly; that, in the decades ahead, great cities and states will depend increasingly on the existence of great universities within them (the University today is a wonderful example of that synergy); and that reducing public support for the University of Pittsburgh and institutions like it is singularly shortsighted…”

In this regard, the accreditation report’s expressed concerns are much like those raised in the recently released National Research Council report, Research Universities and the Future of America. That report, issued by a 22-person, blue-ribbon commission chaired by the former CEO of DuPont, stated: “America is driven by innovation—advances in ideas, products and processes that create new industries and jobs, contribute to our nation’s health and security, and support a high standard of living. In the past half-century, innovation itself has been increasingly driven by educated people and the knowledge they produce. Our nation’s primary source of both new knowledge and graduates with advanced skills continues to be our research universities.”

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education—which accredits colleges and universities in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—visited Pitt twice during the 2012 accreditation process. The first visit occurred in the fall of 2011 and involved a general review designed to ensure that the University is in compliance with all accrediting standards, is operating in a way that is consistent with its mission, and is delivering high-quality educational programs that meet the needs of its students. The second visit occurred in the spring of 2012 and focused on the University’s self-study, “Using a University-wide Culture of Assessment for Continuous Improvement.” Under relevant accrediting rules, a qualified institution may give special emphasis to an area of particular, timely importance in its self-examination. In the Middle States Commission’s last two accreditation visits, Pitt had focused on research and the undergraduate student experience.

Over a two-year period, several hundred Pitt faculty, staff, students, and trustees participated in the re-accreditation process and contributed to the development of the self-study report that was produced for the evaluation team. In addition to President Sexton, the members of that team were Nicholas H. Allen, provost emeritus and Collegiate Professor at the University of Maryland, University College; Brian J. Byrne, vice president for the Lincoln Center of Fordham University; Charles Carmello, associate provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland at College Park; Arthur T. Johnson, provost emeritus and professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Michael Ryan, director of University Accreditation and Assessment at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The springtime visit of the evaluation team coincided with the extended series of bomb threats that targeted the University of Pittsburgh during the last academic term. In commenting on that dimension of the experience, the team’s report concluded,“The Team observed the benefits of planning in real time, as the University coped with a series of bomb threats during the Team’s visit. Staff, from the Chancellor to the football coach, reassured students evacuated from their residence halls late at night; shelters were prepared in case of such evacuations, in keeping with earlier planning exercises; the Team was moved from one threatened building to a back-up site for meetings already prepared in case it was necessary. Without advanced emergency planning, the University could not have functioned as well as it was doing as the semester came to a close. Student acknowledgment of the University’s concern for their well-being was evident to the Team in several different forms.”