This session focuses on the early stages of the self-study process. This stage includes the following:
- Choosing a steering committee
- Developing a writing team
- Gathering data/information
- Creating a war room
- Creating an organizational structure for the report
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) is a metropolitan university located in Central Arkansas that offers 53 baccalaureate degrees, 44 graduate degrees, two law degrees, and eight doctorates. To meet the region’s diverse needs, UALR offers one undergraduate certificate, seven associate degrees, and 19 graduate certificates. As a metropolitan university, UALR is committed to educating Arkansans and to dedicating its research and service resources to advance economic prosperity, social and physical well-being, educational development, and cultural vitality in Central Arkansas. The campus covers approximately 260 acres and the university enrolls between 12,000 and 14,000 students a year.
Following its last accreditation visit by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities in 2000, UALR entered into a period of self-reflection, planning, and unprecedented growth. During the early- to mid-2000’s, UALR conducted three long-range planning activities that resulted in UALR Fast Forward, a comprehensive strategic plan; UALR On the Move, a complete revision of the campus master plan; and Partners for Progress: Shaping the Future of the University District, a revitalization plan for the commercial and residential areas surrounding UALR. These strategic planning initiatives played a large role in the creation of the self-study and were major sources of information and examples of evidence. Work by the steering committee began in September 2007 and the writing team had its first full meeting in February 2008. The majority of the writing work was done in the Spring and Summer of 2009, with the successful HLC site visit taking place in November 2009.
The Devil is in the Details
Writing experts such as Peter Elbow recommend that up to 70% of writing time should be spent in getting ready to write: gathering information and evidence, considering organization, developing arguments. We chose to create two groups who would work collaboratively on the self-study report. The steering committee was tasked with gathering examples of evidence for the core components of each criterion. The writing team developed the organizational structure and the style guide for the document, and focused on keeping a holistic view of the report.
We’ve created the following tips to help you avoid some of the issues that can trip you up early in the self-study process. By paying attention to these details early, you will save a lot of time and greatly decrease your stress.
Introduction & Steering Committee
“Not everyone can be on the Steering Committee.”
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the steering committee is to gather examples of evidence related to the accreditation criteria from across campus. To ensure that this purpose is met, the committee should be kept small enough to make sure everyone has a clear role and be composed of people willing and able to lead evidence-gathering activities. Additionally, people who have their own agendas for participating (e.g., to enhance their tenure portfolio; to make sure their college is highlighted) should be avoided. Most important, this is not a time to consider campus politics. You want and need people who are committed to the task and who will work to accomplish it.
“No one writes a self-study twice. No one.”
Akin to the composition of the steering committee, the composition of the writing team should be carefully considered. Obviously, the writing abilities of the team are important. Equally important is the ability of the members to work and write well with each other, to give up ownership of both the writing and the writing process, to hit deadlines (or be flexible with revised deadlines), and to express and receive criticism. In addition, people’s knowledge of the university’s activities and components are vitally important. Look for people in your communications office, and in academic departments such as rhetoric, English, and mass communications.
“Don’t make stuff up.”
It’s critical that you know where the examples of evidence originated. For example, you need contact information, job titles, specific dates (we had numerous examples of evidence that read “A number of years ago, UALR initiated….”), web addresses, numerical data about programs, and information about impact of programs. We have created a sample of a document you may give to members of the steering committee so that you can follow-up for more information if necessary.
Create a War Room
“Every self-study needs its own space.”
We found it helpful to have a dedicated “war room” where we could display documents vital to the planning process such as an organizational chart for the university, a list of correct and accurate titles for departments, centers, groups, and administrators, a timeline for both the university’s history and the writing of the report, the large-scale outline of the report. In addition, we created a large and significant GANTT chart for the project. Although we created an initial timeline, looking back, we wish we had displayed it in a visually prominent fashion to remind us of the multitude of tasks that needed to be accomplished throughout the process, including but not limited to things such as the federal compliance report, the public comment period, the assembly of the appendices, and the compilation and formatting of CIP code information.
A first draft of our document production schedule with a candid phrase “a miracle happens” written between gathering information and final editing.
“Figure it out ahead of time. Or pay the price.”
The organization of our report caused us the most trouble. Early on, the writing team realized that the Criteria were not necessarily the best way to organize the report for our university and we decided to use the four cross-cutting themes (Chapter 3, Criteria for Accreditation, pp 3.3.1) as an organizational structure. This worked well for us, until we realized that we needed to make the criteria more explicit for the site visitors. This lead to significant re-arranging and re-working of our organizational structure and the examples of evidence.
An additional organizational problem we faced was the fact that the steering committee drafts were organized around the Criteria and drew on the three strategic plans mentioned previously for their examples. While we were quite happy that people were cognizant of the strategic plans, the drafts were repetitious, using not only similar examples, but many times similar language. As a result, we spent significant time tracking examples of evidence, finding new examples of evidence and in general, making sure we weren’t using the same information repeatedly.
We realized we needed a mock-up of the report to test out various organizational structures. Once we settled on a structure, we created a large outline on butcher paper and assigned specific pieces of evidence to each section. We wrote examples of evidence on post-it notes so that they could be moved and re-arranged and re-assigned at will. This accomplished three things:
- the entire writing team had a visual overview of the report, thus helping us conceptualize the narrative arc,
- any repetition of examples of evidence were easily and quickly seen, and
- the criteria were burned into our brains early in the process.
Much of the stress related to the self-study process can be avoided by creating an organizational structure at the very beginning of the process that:
- Includes a detailed timeline,
- Outlines the structure of the document in relation to each Criterion, and
- Specifies what evidence needs to be collected by whom and by when. These initial steps pave the way for a smoother process.