2018 HLC Areas of Concern

Following the on-site Assurance Argument Review Visit conducted in February 2018, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Peer Review Team recommended, and the Commission supported, a focused visit to Southern in the Spring of 2020.  In their final report, the Peer Review Team identified four core components that are "met with concerns," as listed below.  Southern will be expected to address these four areas as being "met with concerns," for the HLC Focused Visit scheduled for March 2-3, 2020.

Core Component 2.A:  "The institution operates with integrity in its financial, academic, personnel, and auxiliary functions; it establishes and follows policies and processes for fair and ethical behavior on the part of its governing board, administration, faculty, and staff."

Because there is significant confusion on the part of faculty and staff regarding the Commission's policies, particularly those on faculty credentials, the team determined that a subsequent focus visit to Southern is justified in order to interview key stakeholders about delineation of duties and application of Commission policies. The visit will focus, in general, on shared governance in the institution, particularly for broad institutional accreditation processes and also for faculty credentials. Confusion regarding these topics has led to tension on campus. Employees at all levels could benefit from professional development on these subjects. Should funding be available, faculty and staff are encouraged to attend Commission sponsored events so that messaging regarding accreditation processes and policies are not lost in translation. As a suggestion for both content dissemination and an exercise in collaboration, an on campus presentation, by faculty and administration who attend the same Commission event, could be beneficial to report. While not prescriptive, that suggestion should serve as the type of engagement the institution must demonstrate in its subsequent report and Commission visit in two years.

The visiting team should examine Southern's improvement in both the communication and application of faculty credentialing policy as mandated by the Commission. The team should also examine faculty files to make sure at consistent application has consistently been followed. Campus-wide engagement of Commission processes, policies, and expectations should be evident by this next visit. Extended and relevant discussion on this visit regarding the topic of shared governance is also explored in Criterion 5b.

Core Component 4.B:  "The institution demonstrates a commitment to educational achievement and improvement through ongoing assessment of student learning."

The lack of a robust institutional assessment culture and the lack of co-curricular assessment need attention by the College. The assessment committee lacks a comprehensive representation across the institution and lacks a strong systematic and useful process that is easily articulated and shared as expected of a Commission college. Experiential learning in respect to these types of offerings is valued by the College, and as such deserves an assessment program that includes such learning.

A focused visit may yield additional evidence by the College not found in this Assurance Review. The College needs to address a plan of action for comprehensive assessment, including co-curricular assessment, as well as at least one year of results with strategies for improvement based on results. This College needs to provide evidence of a comprehensive assessment calendar that encompasses academic and operational services. Co-curricular assessment planning should be integrated into the College's assessment plan. The College's assessment committee should include additional membership in all functional areas beyond just academics. This action will help the institution's assessment efforts mature from their current status. The next visiting team should be able to review this assessment calendar, clear processes, evidence of broad application, and use of results.

Core Component 4.C:  "The institution demonstrates a commitment to educational improvement through ongoing attention to retention, persistence, and completion rates in its degree and certificate programs."

As identified in the Team's analysis of 4c, Southern obviously must follow State mandates and does so from all indications regarding 4c. However, beyond the goals for retention, persistence, and completion, the actual collection, analysis, and use of data pertaining to those important student success indicators is lacking at the institutional level. The on-site review conducted previously verified the presence of the requirements of 4c. Evidence to support this criterion for this review is lacking.  For future assurance processes, the institution is encouraged to actually define student retention, persistence, and completion as well as measurable goals for each. If it is the institutions wish to use the IPEDS data points, they should be identified as such. Reviewed documents from the previous visit did include the definitions above, but the documents for this review did not. Progress on goals and ideas have occurred, but the expected process maturity has not been fulfilled since the last visit. A focused visit team will seek to clarify any evidence the institution may have to counter this concern.

Ultimately, the current visiting team identified in its electronic review slower than expected growth in the area of retention, persistence, and completion. The College, via state requirements and internal structures, has set goals pertaining to this core component. However, from this electronic review there is a lack of data since the last visit pertaining to useful tracking of students and use of data. Both process refinement and data production with applied examples should be engaged in this report. While two years will not provide sufficient data for long-term trends, the Team expects the institution to move forward in this venue of student service and success with a tangible path. The focus visit should include specific attention paid to the following:

1.  Clear institutional definitions of retention, persistence, and completion as well as process refinement to include how data will be assessed against goals and then moved to action.

2.  Definitive evidence from goal measurements with analysis and demonstrated use of results. While use may be less than reliable for radical change based on a limited data set, a pattern of evidence with thoughtful analysis should be evident.

Core Component 5.B: 
"The institution’s governance and administrative structures promote effective leadership and support collaborative processes that enable the institution to fulfill its mission."

As stated in the Team's review of Criterion 5, the distance review did not yield sufficient evidence to warrant a clear conclusion to render the core component "met." Given that the Board of Governors requested follow up from the president on campus morale, so too should the Commission see follow up on the status of campus morale, especially as it relates to decision making at Southern. However, beyond campus morale is the need to educate faculty and staff regarding the "new normal" in higher education and as referenced in Criterion 5 Summary of this Assurance Argument Review document. One person does not totally control a campus climate, and improvement in that it will take an institutional willingness to engage one another to help move the institution forward. Follow up evidence should provide a variety of perspectives at levels of decision making. The institution should document the process it engages and integrate goals and actions into a dimension of its institutional effectiveness, such as assessment or planning.

There exists enough evidence from a review of documents and multiple interviews on site to warrant Commission follow-up. The prior citation on governance has been remedied, which was ultimately fixed by the retirement of the previous president who was the wife of the governor who is also out of office at present. The College also put in place safeguards for the future for such a situation.

The Team recommends a report with focused visit in two years to address governance and communications. The next Commission Team should expect from the institution a report that clearly and specifically addresses the following:

    1. Revised and improved communication channels across the institution.
    2. Professional development, particularly on Commission policies and criteria. Faculty, staff, and administration need to be more engaged in the re-accreditation process. Such professional development should encompass multiple personnel avoiding only a select few.
    3. Organizational culture assessment that is meaningful, positive, objective, and professional should be engaged, perhaps with the help of an external consultant.
    4. Defined process and protocol for managing differences and reconciling disputes, particularly at a small institution.  While state statutes dictate reconciling disputes, it is apparent that such statue has not resulted in a harmonious, positive campus culture. Such process and protocol should be more institutional-focused in addition to state requirements. Such processes and protocol may be more managerial focused.
    5. New voices utilized on campus in multiple administrative groups that are free from historical challenges and who have fresh insights. While the institution has no control over the appointment of lay members to its Board of Governors, the Commission encourages new members of the Board to offer fresh insights while working with veteran Board members to help move the institution forward and help the campus culture improve.

More information is available in the HLC Peer Review Team's Final Report of a Visit to Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.