Southern Arkansas University (SAU) is classified as a Carnegie Masters M, small (3,226), four-year, regional, comprehensive institution that is primarily residential and rural. The institution is rapidly evolving, with an increased graduate and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) enrollment. SAU has been one of the few institutions in Arkansas to realize positive enrollment growth in the last two years (Southern Arkansas University 2015a). The university is located in the southwest corner of rural Arkansas, and its student clientele is predominately residential. As previously mentioned, one of its largest growth areas is in graduate education, which is being augmented with online delivery.
Before 2010, SAU maintained its accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) through HLC’s Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality (PEAQ), in which institutions were evaluated for reaffirmation of accreditation every 10 years. The 10-year cycle had served the institution well, but it had not provided the incentive to advance the evolving mission of the institution. In fact, there were several things that were not working for SAU. The 10-year reporting cycle did not support change. The self-study that was required as a part of PEAQ was written in a way to mask opportunities or perceived weaknesses. A small group of individuals worked on PEAQ, and ongoing resources were not devoted to the process. After the self-study was completed, the report was marginalized, results were not communicated to stakeholders, and changes were not pursued. We continued to do what we have always done because “that’s the way we have always done it.” Overall, the PEAQ process did not foster broad stakeholder involvement and did not support a culture of improvement on campus for SAU.
The stakeholders of the institution sought a more positive approach, one that would embrace the concepts espoused by Deming (2000), in which we would continuously strive for improvement in every facet of our operations. We began to explore the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) Pathway that was launched by the HLC in 1999 (Higher Learning Commission 2015).
In 2010, SAU began the quest for participation in the AQIP Pathway. Work teams that corresponded with the original nine AQIP Pathway categories began to meet in fall 2010, with the initial Systems Portfolio due in spring 2013 and the Quality Check-up during the fall 2013. The process served our needs well for the initial report. The Systems Appraisal, which is feedback from peer reviewers, was favorable, although our compressed timeline did not allow for action based on the feedback prior to the Quality Check-up.
Despite the difficulties of the timeline, the process as well as the actual visit went very well. The initial Systems Portfolio and the Systems Appraisal provided numerous “opportunities” to address. As intended, the campus has been evolving. Processes are being identified for improvement, and the issues raised by stakeholders are being collected by the Quality Matters Leadership Team and Quality Matters Executive Council. These two bodies prioritize these opportunities for assignment to Action Project teams to address. The Action Project teams are made up of a cross section of stakeholders who work to find tenable solutions to the assigned opportunities.
A cultural change has resulted from SAU’s commitment to continuous quality improvement (CQI). This commitment is best captured by the institution’s leadership as described by the university’s president emeritus, Dr. David Rankin, and paraphrased here: Every institution has regional and/or specialized accreditations, but the mark of distinction is quality. Quality, engagement and the supporting evidence will set us apart from our peers. As current president Dr. Trey Berry says, “Accreditation is not about cycles; it is about all of us, all the time.”
Since our move to the AQIP Pathway, we have experienced positive outcomes from a maturing CQI process. The AQIP Pathway process facilitates faculty and staff ownership of CQI efforts. Diverse groups of key stakeholders working together on teams have broken down silos and promoted collaboration on campus. Rather than the “smoke and mirrors” of the former self-study procedure, stakeholders are having genuine conversations about processes, documenting those that are effective and correcting those that are not. Action Projects have made significant improvements, including in the areas of general education assessment, advising processes, online education governance, and an in-house professional development program.
Infrastructure and Resources
Infrastructure and resources have been a necessary element of our CQI implementation. Now, there is a commitment to CQI from the board of trustees, administration, faculty members, and staff members. The teams developed to support CQI have been incorporated into the organizational chart with an emphasis on multidirectional communication (Southern Arkansas University 2015b). SAU has also found that using existing governance structures, such as our senates and standing committees, empowers groups to make change and avoids unnecessary duplication of efforts. Resources have been committed to CQI, with a dedicated budget line for compensation, travel, software and training.
Champions of CQI at all levels influence the culture on campus, and we are seeing people embracing what CQI can do for the university. As the CQI processes mature, new leaders are emerging; better data are being collected, aggregated and used for informed decision making; and campus-wide participation is increasing. New avenues of communication are emerging alongside a culture of collaboration, empowerment and trust. To maximize the potential of CQI, there has to be broad stakeholder buy-in from administration, faculty, staff, and students. It has become abundantly clear that an administrative champion, resources, infrastructure and a culture of empowerment are essential for CQI efforts to benefit the university.
Deming, W. E. 2000. Out of the crisis. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Higher Learning Commission. 2015. The AQIP Pathway. http://www.hlcommission.org/Pathways/aqip-home.html.
Southern Arkansas University. 2015a. Mulerider facts. https://web.saumag.edu/institutional-research/mulerider-facts/.
_____. 2015b. Organizational chart. https://web.saumag.edu/administration/files/2008/08/Org_chart.pdf.
About the Authors
George White is Associate Professor of Education, Kim Bloss is Dean of Graduate Studies, Jennifer Rowsam is Assistant Dean of Advising, Brian Logan is Instructor of Economics, and Gerald Plumlee is Assistant Professor of Management at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.