Earlier this month, Caltech completed its accreditation process with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), earning reaccreditation for 10 years. The multiyear process, during which Caltech compiled a rigorous self-assessment report and hosted the WSCUC team on campus, required an extraordinary collaboration across the Institute and provided valuable insights that will inform Caltech's direction over the next decade, says Provost David A. Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and academic liaison officer to WSCUC.
"I am grateful to the many people across campus who worked hard for more than two years to shape and prepare for our WSCUC discussions," says Tirrell. "The leadership of Cindy Weinstein and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux in this process was extraordinary."
The Institute filed its report to WSCUC last summer, and the organization's representatives conducted a remote campus visit in October 2020 with faculty, staff, and students. However, the commission wanted the reaccreditation process to encompass more than compliance with academic and student life standards, says Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, Caltech assistant vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and assessment. That is why, for this accreditation cycle, WSCUC instituted a new Thematic Pathway for Reaffirmation (TPR) review that challenged colleges to choose themes for self-reflection.
"Our accrediting body wanted to help make the process useful rather than a big box to check," says Malcom-Piqueux. "By being able to pick themes that were closely aligned with some of the changes that Caltech has implemented since the last accreditation [in 2010], there was an opportunity to ensure that we would engage in a kind of institutional self-study that would inform future decision-making."
Caltech's Accreditation Steering Committee chose two themes: the Core Curriculum and Academic and Co-Curricular Support Structures. Cindy Weinstein, Caltech's vice provost, chief diversity officer, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Professor of English, says that co-curricular support has been a major focus for the Institute since its previous reaccreditation. "I wanted the community to use the TPR as an opportunity to reflect upon the real changes on campus that have taken place with the greater focus on the student experience, such as the creation of the CTLO [Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach]. Many offices have been reorganized, for example the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity, and a lot more attention paid to the co-curricular support structures that are located outside of the academic divisions as well as the support structures within the divisions."
The commission commended the Institute for its excellence and rigor in its scholarly and educational missions; for its leadership in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values; and for establishing a data-driven, evidence-informed culture for assessment of its academic and support services. WSCUC also made recommendations for improvement in both areas. In the case of the core curriculum, Weinstein says, Caltech's students score extraordinarily well at quantitative and critical thinking but not as well in written and oral communication, which demands an institutional commitment to the place of the humanities and social sciences in the core. "We need to close that gap," Weinstein says, "not to lower the quantitative reasoning but to improve our students' oral and written communication core competencies."
Regarding student support, the commission pointed to the need for a continued focus on diversity and inclusion. Caltech's student body, particularly at the undergraduate level, has grown more diverse over the past decade in terms of race, geography, and percentage of first-generation college students. But much remains to be done, Weinstein says. "We need to continue to bring an equity-focused lens as we move forward," she says. "Are there areas where there are certain populations that aren't necessarily having their needs met? Is our curriculum adaptable enough, such that all students can have the development of their whole selves promoted through their Caltech education?"
The Institute has now set forth a series of goals to address those recommendations, starting with a commitment to continue measuring student experience in and out of the classroom using a shared set of measurable objectives. Caltech will commit to further study and understand issues identified by this assessment of student life, including a notable decrease in students' self-confidence, especially in the first year of the core. This is especially true for women and minoritized students. In response, offices in Student Affairs, with participation from Malcom-Piqueux, have undertaken a data-driven project designed to optimize student success. Caltech will make the data from its ongoing self-assessment transparent and accessible to the public.
"That doesn't mean departing from the mission, departing from the positive traditions, or departing from the Caltech experience," Malcom-Piqueux says, "but rather, recognizing that Caltech does need to adapt or expand in some respects to ensure that all of our students are being served well."