Why’d Middle States Go and Do That?

Those of us who work for colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic region were taken by surprise when the word suddenly spread that a draft revision of the Characteristics of Excellence, the primary set of standards for higher education accreditation published by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) now omitted any reference to the library or information literacy as a learning outcome. The surprise was followed by shock for good reason.

MSCHE has been a good friend to academic librarians. It was an early adopter of specific language in its standards addressing information literacy as a desired learning outcome. This was a departure from earlier standards that only spoke mostly to the physical qualities of the academic library (e.g., Did it have adequate study carrels? Were the hours adequate for the institution? Were there librarians available to provide research help?). When the 2002 edition of the MSCHE standards were adopted it was a quantum leap ahead for information literacy in higher education.

It brought to the table the importance of integrating student learning outcomes for research into the curriculum. Thanks to Middle States, and landmark publications such as its Developing Research and Communication Skills: Guidelines for Information Literacy in the Curriculum academic librarians at regional institutions made significant progress in morphing their scattered instruction efforts into strategic initiatives that emphasized curricular integration and assessment. It was MSCHE that set the bar for the recognition of information literacy by accreditors.

Now there is uncertainty. Where information literacy is already well established the draft revised standards may have little impact. There are no guarantees though, and there are still academic librarians struggling for collaboration with faculty and administrative colleagues in order to integrate information literacy into the curriculum. The concern is that just eliminating the language about information literacy and libraries will send a symbolic message that it either no longer needs our attention or is so well embedded in our curriculums that it requires no further mention in the standards. Neither of those perceptions is an acceptable proposition for many academic librarians.

The draft was presented for comment to member institutions at the Commission’s 2013 Annual Conference, December 8-10. Comments were due January 31, 2014. In the week leading up to the deadline, quite a few academic librarians began writing to ACRL President Trevor Dawes or ACRL Executive Director Mary Ellen Davis asking if ACRL would be issuing some sort of official statement or response. Along with ACRL Vice-President/President-Elect Karen Williams and myself, we considered how to best respond to these requests, while recognizing that accrediting organizations are under tremendous pressure to streamline their processes.

ACRL’s own Standards for Libraries in Higher Education (SLHE), adopted in October 2011, foresaw this shift and clearly identified trends in the accreditation process affecting libraries as including, “a move away from a separate library standard within the overall accreditation standard” and “the library’s support of all student learning outcomes, not just those overtly library-related.” At the same time, the SLHE noted another trend in the accreditation process as “recognition of information literacy as the catalyst for the library’s educational role.”

Clearly the absence of information literacy in the revised draft MSCHE standards concerned us. However, we were greatly encouraged that ACRL chapters in the region quickly mobilized to encourage their members to respond with comments and we believe that to be the best initial response. The combined voice of those regional members will carry a powerful message to MSCHE. According to information received by ACRL, academic librarians have already inundated MSCHE with comments about the elimination of references to libraries and information literacy.

Although the deadline for written comments has passed, MSCHE is holding a series of town hall meetings in February and March at various locations throughout the region to discuss the proposed standards with member institutions and to obtain more feedback. (Town Halls are scheduled  for February 20 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; February 26 in Baltimore, MD; March 13 in Albany, New York;  March 21 in Pittsburgh, PA; and March 27 in Philadelphia, PA.  More information is available on the MSCHE website.) If your institution is a member, I encourage you to attend a town hall meeting and share your concerns so that we can make our voices heard as one.

We understand the pressure on accrediting bodies to streamline their evaluation criteria but we hope that Middle States will integrate the concept of information literacy and the educational role of librarians in its next revision.  ACRL’s leadership team will follow results from the Town Hall meetings and if there is a subsequent need for, and opportunity to, offer further input, ACRL will respond.

In closing, I would like to share the comment I submitted to MSCHE on behalf of Temple University Libraries and hope the following key points from my response are helpful to you in preparing your remarks to deliver during an upcoming town hall:

I am writing to express concerns about the lack of language in the revised standards concerning the integration of information literacy education in Standard Five, Educational Effectiveness Assessment.

  • Removing all references to academic libraries and/or information literacy will serve as an unfortunate setback to the significant progress that this region’s academic libraries have made in their ability to collaborate with curriculum committees and individual faculty in making information literacy education an institutional priority.
  • While acknowledging that the nation’s higher education accrediting associations are under pressure from external forces to streamline the standards and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, we urge MSCHE to reconsider the decision to eliminate information literacy skill building from the Standards.
  • Please consider a statement or two that would allow the Characteristics of Excellence to maintain the proposed reduction in overall text.  For example, Standard Five, Criterion Three current lists eight examples for improving educational effectiveness. We recommend adding:
  • Achieving collaboration between librarians and faculty to integrate information literacy education into the curriculum
  • Integrating information literacy education into the curriculum to improve student research

The recently revised Association of College and Research Libraries Standards for Libraries specifically identifies the “recognition of information literacy as the catalyst for the library’s educational role.” We believe it would be beneficial to our region’s academic librarians to have the Characteristics of Excellence in alignment with ACRL’s Standards. 

We share a concern with our academic library partners that if information literacy is simply dropped from the MSCHE Standards it will send the wrong signal to our institutional administrators. Despite the excellent progress we have made in integrating information literacy into the teaching, learning and assessment process, owing largely to the necessity of responding to the language in the current Standards, it is quite possible that we could just as easily experience a diminishing of information literacy’s significance if the current language is adopted.

Steven J. Bell, ACRL Past-President

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