The View from Here: Thoughts on challenge and change at Erskine (Dr. Brad Christie)

Posted on September 1, 2014

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Inside Erskine.

By Dr. Brad Christie, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

For the past year I’ve been privileged to serve Erskine in two critical capacities at once. As Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, I remain Erskine’s chief academic officer and dean of the college faculty. In that role I am responsible for faculty recruitment, hiring, and development; I oversee all things academic at the college and seminary. This ‘number two’ position has found me often in the president’s office in the past four years. But over the past year, as Acting President I have worked between the two offices—literally—as never before, which likely gives me a unique perspective on Erskine and the challenges we currently face.

SACS Accreditation

Among those challenges is our status with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, our regional accreditor. Erskine has been accredited by SACS (now SACSCOC) since 1925. And, let me be clear: Erskine remains fully accredited today.

Accreditation is normally reaffirmed every ten years. For many years, even before moving into the Academic Office as dean, I have been Erskine’s primary point person with SACS. As the last self-study director, I oversaw our last reaffirmation efforts in 2002. Since then the landscape of higher education has changed significantly, as has the nature and process of reaffirming an institution’s accreditation.

Erskine was among the last group of institutions to be reaffirmed under the old self-study model. That process entailed department-by-department analysis addressing over 170 relatively precise “must statements” which comprised the Principles of Accreditation. By 2001 the Principles had been completely reconstructed. The “new” Principles have been revised four times since 2001. Between 2006 and 2011, an entirely new fourth section, “Federal Requirements,” added eleven more standards designed expressly to address federal statutes pertaining to higher education.

Thus, in general, the case for continued accreditation has shifted from an institutional (inputs) focus to a sharper focus on outcomes, specifically student learning outcomes. Earlier self-studies were mostly narrative reports supported with selected data; today’s compliance certifications are data-driven reports featuring briefer, mostly summary narrative. Decennial reaffirmation used to be periodic; now the process is continuous. A Fifth-Year Report is now required, which focuses on the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP, added in 2001) and the federal requirements. The entire process, while still conducted by regional associations of peer institutions, has become increasingly driven by federal imperatives.

Ongoing Leadership Transitions 

Shortly after Erskine’s accreditation was reaffirmed in 2002, Dr. John Carson announced that he would leave the presidency at the end of the following year. The dozen years since his departure have been marked by about half a dozen transitional episodes in the president’s office. Without treading through the details, these included an academic year beginning with no president, a part-time interim, two sitting presidents, two presidential searches that ended without an appointment, and of course, one year with an acting president. Additionally, during this period the Erskine community faced a governance crisis that easily ranks as one of the more challenging moments in its 175 years.

Historical interests aside, the reasons for noting this transitional theme is to draw our attention back to the issue of accreditation. Under the old model of self-studies, the bulk of energy and focus was in the final two years prior to the next review. This continued even though, as described above, the nature of accreditation had changed. Institutional habits are firmly entrenched.

As you mentally overlay the two timelines, in 2009-10 you begin to see a convergence of challenges during a critical window for engaging in a totally new accreditation process. While presidents do not typically manage the details of accreditation, leadership is key to the process. Ongoing fluidity at the senior leadership level, combined with governance issues, had a uniquely disruptive and distracting impact throughout the institution.

To put it mildly, a lot was going on as we entered our decennial reaffirmation review.

_DSF3490-w1000The Current Situation

Fortunately, we have successfully addressed nearly all of the SACSCOC recommendations that came from our 2012 decennial reaffirmation review. Several of these required two full-year cycles to accumulate the necessary data. By the end of this calendar year, we anticipate demonstrating compliance with these key requirements and standards.

At the end of 2013, however, SACSCOC added several recommendations regarding financial matters that once again require more than a year to demonstrate sufficient progress. Due to the rigidity of the timelines in the accreditation process, Erskine’s accreditation will likely continue under sanction into next year. While sanction presents us with both obstacles and opportunities, Erskine remains accredited, as it has been since 1925.

As I have reminded the campus community over the past year, Erskine is not alone in facing significant financial challenges. This is common across higher education. But the future is not all bleak. Fortunately, Erskine’s challenges are not primarily in our core operations or our academic offerings. Our task is to structure our offerings and operations so that we generate enough revenue to support the institution in a sustainable way.

With the arrival of Dr. Paul Kooistra as Erskine’s 16th president, we begin this year with a renewed hope and reliance on God’s provision. Dr. Kooistra has earned a reputation as a kind and gifted leader who has guided organizations through difficult days with transformational results. I look forward to working with him as we steer Erskine forward.

Higher Education is Changing

That higher education is changing is not news. However, the scope and depth of the changes currently taking place are categorical and unprecedented. This past summer I asked the Erskine faculty to read Jeff Selingo’s COLLEGE (UN)BOUND (New Harvest, 2013).

The book’s subtitle is The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. In it Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes several important realities — some promising, some stark — that colleges and universities of all types must face.

Rather than comment at length, I simply offer highlights of a few of the things I believe we will be grappling with at Erskine.

  • A Personalized Education: There will be a move from a “one-size-fits-all” model toward something far more tailored to the individual student. This is already a strength of Erskine’s approach to learning.
  • Hybrid Classes (in-class and online): This one is fairly familiar and self-explanatory. I have already suggested to Erskine faculty that we need to be thinking and teaching more inventively in such modes.
  • Unbundling the Degree: Students will increasingly gather credits or specialized instruction from a variety of institutions to compile a degree. I agree this is coming, but I think Erskine will be slow to participate.
  • Fluid Timelines: Why not? Structured gap years and year-round options for students already make good sense for many.
  • College Moneywise: It will change completely. We don’t know how exactly (that’s partly what we’re trying to figure out now as we navigate Erskine’s current financial challenges), but it will change.

Over the past year in my role as acting president, I have been telling students, faculty, staff, and anyone else I’ve spoken to that these realities mean change for Erskine in ways large and small. The only certainty we have is that things will change. They must.

However, rather than fear change, we must meet it with clear minds, open hearts, and trust in God’s goodness and love for us. In my address to the student body on this topic last year, I reminded them of a passage from 2 Chronicles 20, verses 15 and following:

Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed…for the battle is not yours but God’s….Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf….Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed….the Lord will be with you.

Such is my hope and prayer for us all as we continue to pursue Erskine’s historic and noble mission.