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September 13, 2012

Middle States reaccreditation lauds Pitt

In a report that Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg labeled “very gratifying,” the Middle States Commission on Higher Education heaped high praise on Pitt in its reaccreditation of the University.

The commission report was based on a University self-study and campus visits in November 2011 and April 2012. It 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.”

Pitt’s self-study (see Sept. 30, 2010, University Times), as part of a “special topics” approach to the reaccreditation, focused on assessment and continuous improvement.

Nordenberg said in a Sept. 10 University Update the current review’s topic of developing a culture of assessment was selected “because of the national interest in accountability in higher education, because we wanted to deal directly with the standards that have presented the most serious difficulties for very fine institutions in recent years, and because building effective systems of assessment has been a priority at Pitt.”

Previous special topics have focused on research and the student experience. “Pitt traditionally has opted for special topics reviews, believing that this maximizes the benefits of having a distinguished team of peer reviewers examine work that is important to us,” the chancellor stated.

His update is posted at


The Middle States report stated: “Though it is certain that the University of Pittsburgh will face challenges in the years ahead, there is every reason to believe that the University, if given the chance, is positioned well to maintain and advance its special place in American higher education.”

It cautioned, however, that diminishing state support represents the greatest challenge facing the University, calling cuts made in response to decreased state appropriations “beyond bone to marrow.”

The commission stated: “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 upon the existence of great universities within them (the University today is a wonderful example of this synergy); and that reducing public support for the University of Pittsburgh and institutions like it is singularly shortsighted, even if judged in narrow economic terms (the maxim ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ comes to mind).”


The Middle States report suggested the University undertake a comprehensive review of its Planning and Budgeting System “to confirm the effectiveness of its processes and to identify areas that may need modification.” According to the report, it has been nearly a decade since Pitt’s PBS was reviewed.

The report noted that the University would face challenges with regard to assessment as the budget becomes more restricted.

“One role of assessment is to help decision-makers choose between options and to make other difficult decisions. This means that some worthy options will not be supported in times of scarce resources,” it stated.

“The team found that there may be some confusion about the role that department assessment reports, department annual reports and program reviews play in institutional decision-making. Some units may not be receiving timely feedback regarding assessment reports. It is critical that administrators clearly inform the campus of the process used to make such decisions and the role that assessment information will play in planning and decision-making. In order to maintain the commitment to and faith in the University’s planning, resource allocation and assessment activities, the administration must be responsive to the assessment work of the departments and provide feedback to them in a timely manner. If this does not happen, skepticism may grow, faculty and staff may doubt the value of assessment, and support for assessment may wane.”


Regarding assessment of student learning, the commission suggested the University consider:

• Aligning assessment processes, including documentation of student learning outcomes, with the periodic comprehensive program review process.

• Including faculty members’ learning outcomes assessment efforts in their dossiers for promotion and tenure.

• Continued analysis of student learning outcomes assessments that might identify critical factors or characteristics associated with student attrition or academic success.

• Fostering higher new-student retention by expanding freshman experience or engagement course offerings.

Pitt’s self-study and the commission’s full report are posted at


The commission is a unit of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits degree-granting colleges and universities in the region that includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and several locations internationally. The commission examines each institution as a whole. Institutions must undergo reaccreditation every 10 years. Pitt has been accredited by Middle States since 1921.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 2

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