HLC releases Academy accreditation report

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools released their report on the Air Force Academy's accreditation status Oct. 27 with the official decision to renew the Academy's accreditation for another 10 years.

The report culminates years of preparation that included a 278-page self-study report and a three-day visit from academic experts who interviewed senior leaders, faculty members, cadets and Academy staff.

"All of us at the Academy can take great pride in this accomplishment," said Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the dean of the faculty. "Although we did a good deal of specific preparation, the overwhelming success of this accreditation has to be attributed to the daily pursuit of excellence by every cadet and permanent party member in all the mission elements."

Col. Richard Fullerton was in charge of preparing the self-study report and coordinating the consulting evaluators' visit, which took place during the 2009 spring semester. He described the accreditation report as a "clean bill of health."

The report contains two sections: an assurance section, which measures how well the Academy meets its criteria for accreditation; and an advancement section, which contains evaluators' suggestions for how the Academy can improve the quality of its education in future years.

The summary of the commission's review states, in part, "The USAFA has a clear mission focus which is linked to its constituents, is committed to improve and has the ability to change. Its commitment to teaching excellence is exceptional as is its commitment to providing an extraordinary learning environment supported by robust assessment structures." The full report is available from the Academy's public Web site at http://www.usafa.af.mil/deanoffaculty.

The 10-year reaccreditation is the most favorable option the commission could have taken, Colonel Fullerton said. The HLC's recommendations could have included a requirement for reports on specific areas, a shorter accreditation period or focus group visits if the commission had found significant issues.

The Academy's Self-Study Report revealed areas where the Academy could still improve. One area regards a perception that the Academy limits faculty's academic freedom. Pages 189-192 of the Self Study addresses these concerns, which the commission summarized in Page 30 of their report's assurance section:

"Faculty members who expressed concern endorsed USAFA as an 'outstanding educational institution,' 'very deserving of full accreditation' ... These same faculty members, however, described a chilling environment that constrains and even punishes faculty who publish or voice views that are controversial or unpopular with higher-ranking officers."

"Academic freedom is a tough subject!" Colonel Fullerton said. "The whole point of academic freedom is to discuss controversial topics and to enhance cadets' education. We want cadets to tackle these issues ... we want people to be able to talk about things they think are important."

Faculty Operating Instruction 35-101, "Clearance of Material for Public Release and Academic Freedom," states that "Faculty are entitled to freedom to present and discuss in a classroom, in a professional manner, any material relevant to the subject matter and/or lessons of military service and citizenship." It also directs the director of research and the Public Affairs office to approve publications as long as the submissions do not contain operations security information or misrepresent official policy.

However, Colonel Fullerton said, "Within the constraints of Air Force and DOD instructions and the FOI ... we expect people to be within their realm of expertise, and we have to be professional about it," he said. "But some published articles have been very controversial." One example highlighted in the self-study report is "Hope is Not a Plan: The War in Iraq from Inside the Green Zone," a book edited by Maj. Thomas Mowle and published in 2007 that criticized how the United States conducted operations in Iraq after the end of major combat operations.

"Between April 2007 and October 2008, more than 400 papers were sent to the director of research for review," Colonel Fullerton said. "All but a handful were approved without comment. The only publications returned for corrections were returned because they were believed to contain material that was export-controlled."

Faculty and cadet diversity is another focus area where the Academy is working to improve. The assurance section of the HLC's report lauded the Academy's efforts, stating, "While every institution struggles with diversity, the USAFA has made a conscious effort to attract all forms of diversity in its student body ... and has been very successful overall in increasing diversity along many vectors among the cadet core."
"We're trying to become more diverse," Colonel Fullerton said. "Progress has been very gradual. We're working on it, but it's a slow process."

Diversity plays an important role in higher education, exposing cadets to a wide range of ideas and views, but it's also important in preparing cadets to become leaders of character, Colonel Fullerton said.

"When our cadets graduate, they'll be lieutenants leading a diverse Air Force," he said. "It's important that they know how to deal with diverse viewpoints and ideas. Also, think about where we're fighting wars today. We're an expeditionary Air Force, and we have to be able to work with people from different cultures who have different views."

The Academy does a great job in selecting and admitting the most highly qualified class of new cadets every year, looking at all aspects of the development of these outstanding young men and women, Colonel Fullerton said, adding that finding leaders of character isn't as simple as just selecting those candidates with the highest SAT or ACT scores.

"As we're looking at who comes into the Air Force Academy, we're looking at who has the potential to be a leader of character," he said. "It's not just about scores -- it's also about potential." The Admissions panel tries to look at what each applicant will bring into the Air Force and the Academy.

One of the Academy's greatest strengths is the blend of civilian and military faculty members, which provides both breadth and depth of academic and military experience from which cadets can draw, Colonel Fullerton said.

"Virtually all of our civilian professors have PhDs," he said. "This gives us immediate expertise in academic disciplines. By way of contrast, most of our military educators are captains and majors, who have Air Force operational expertise, which is important because our mission isn't just teaching academics."

While military faculty members' deployments can cause ripples within the learning environment, other faculty members have stepped up, Colonel Fullerton said. Moreover, when the military faculty members return to the Academy, they have fresh experiences that they can share with cadets. The exposure to a mix of military and civilian instructors helps prepare cadets for the operational Air Force.

"Civilians run the military," he said. "Cadets may work directly under a civilian when they're officers, but even if they don't, they'll all have civilians somewhere in their chain of command."

Another strength is the Academy's shift to learning-based outcomes and the steps that the faculty has taken to measure the learning outcomes -- some of which are less tangible than others. The self-study report highlighted how evaluators use rubrics to measure cadets' respect for human dignity, one of the Academy's 19 outcomes.

"We watched cadets interact in Basic Cadet Training and had observers score cadets' reactions amongst themselves," the colonel said. Indicators for very good adherence to respect for human dignity include "Assumes personal responsibility for actions or decisions" and "Role models the standards he or she holds others to," while indicators for poor adherence include "Tolerates others who do not meet standards" and "Consistently makes decisions without consulting others," according to the self study.

Colonel Fullerton said everyone at the Academy should be proud of their role in preparing the Academy for the accreditation visit.

"I'm very proud of how this institution did with this accreditation because it's a reflection of everyone at the Academy doing their jobs well day in and day out," the colonel said. "I'm proud to be part of that team."