Franklin & Marshall’s weekly online newsletter
College Earns Reaccreditation: Q&A with John McCardell
John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College
After a comprehensive self-study and evaluation by its peers, Franklin & Marshall College has been granted reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. A review team of administrators from other liberal arts institutions visited campus in early September to assess the College’s educational programs and services.
John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College, chaired the review team. McCardell was named Middlebury’s 15th president in 1992, becoming only the second president in the history of the college to be selected from the ranks of the faculty. He led a strategic planning effort that produced a 10-year plan for Middlebury, initiated the creation of a residential commons system and led a $200 million capital campaign that exceeded its goal by $12 million. He returned to the classroom as a history professor in 2005.
The following is a Q&A with McCardell about the reaccreditation process and his view of Franklin & Marshall:
Q. What is the purpose of college accreditation, and in a general sense, what is measured?
A. The purpose of accreditation, technically, is to ensure that, at regular 10-year intervals, an academic institution is in compliance with standards set by its regional accrediting agency, the Middle States Association in F&M’s case. Those standards include what one might expect: quality of faculty, curriculum, academic facilities and support; admissions and retention; student services; financial condition; support and stewardship; administrative leadership and Board governance; and that most challenging and, in many ways also most important standard, the assessment of learning outcomes.
The actual reaccreditation of an institution of F&M’s strength is never in doubt, for the college certainly complies with the accreditation standards. I always tell teams I chair and presidents whose institutions I visit to think of the exercise, which is preceded by an exhaustive, institution-wide self-study, as three days of free consulting, where six to eight representatives from peer institutions give freely of their time and expertise to help the institution under review make itself stronger and better. I was blessed to have a very strong team, and I think F&M will benefit from the care and commitment of that team for years to come.
Q. In how many college accreditation reviews, other than Middlebury’s, have you participated?
A. I have chaired reaccreditation reviews for Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Trinity, Wheaton, and now F&M.
Q. What do you see as Franklin & Marshall’s greatest strengths?
A. A clear, coherent and uplifting vision of your future, articulated and championed by an exceptional president and understood and embraced by the community at large. By that I mean, more specifically, a student residential system that seeks to make good on the claims of the residential liberal arts college, creating encompassable communities with frequent faculty/student interaction that merge the lives students live in the classroom with the lives they live in other spheres; an opportunity to consider how you might grow with the extraordinary benefit of contiguous space offering an opportunity that many institutions would envy; a commitment to civic engagement and responsibility broadly defined; a location that offers both proximity to the city and the feel of a smaller town; and a faculty that seeks to educate students on the “connectedness” of the various separate academic disciplines.
Q. What are some things upon which Franklin & Marshall could improve?
A. F&M ought to be competing for the very strongest students against the very strongest institutions, and you do that remarkably well given your current resource base. The college has identified building financial aid endowment as perhaps its highest priority, and the visiting team has tried to reinforce that identification and give it our strongest endorsement. F&M also needs to sustain the will required to finish out its residential system and not to lose heart and leave it half-done. Particularly important is the need to consider ways of integrating juniors and seniors into a system that seems to work splendidly for students during their first two years.
Q. In preparation for the accreditation review, the College wrote a self-study that was framed largely around residentiality and expansion. Can you summarize your reaction to those themes?
A. I hope my responses to some of your earlier questions convey the visiting team’s high regard for the self-study. Your consideration of growth may strike many as counterintuitive, which is why it is so attractive and may offer opportunities. Challenging the conventional wisdom in higher education is not the high-risk proposition many outsiders may think. How many times has our inevitable demise been predicted? How often has our “sustainability” been called into question? While others are wringing their hands, some will move ahead.
Q. Your team responded positively to Franklin & Marshall’s College House system, which is now in its fifth year. What do you think should be the next step in its evolution?
A. Succession planning for dons is critical. The Houses have already begun to take on particularly distinguishing characteristics, owing in large measure to the leadership of dons and prefects. Seamless leadership transitions are not always easy but will become critical with the passage of time. The other pressing need, as noted above, is to exploit the desire of juniors and seniors to continue to be a part of the system. That desire is not by any means automatic or predictable, but it indicates a high degree of credibility in the system and a wonderful level of student attachment to it.
Q. What will you remember most about your visit to campus?
A. Many things, but perhaps most of all the grasp of, and commitment to, an institutional vision, something increasingly rare in higher education, and something to be treasured.