Eric Barron's Thoughts on Accreditation

Accreditation of geoscience programs is a topic under much discussion these days (early 2008). Eric Barron, Dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, offers his thoughts on the subject. Eric sent this message to the Building Strong Geoscience Departments email list on March 19, 2008.

The discussions to date on accreditation have been quite interesting. I had the pleasure of being dean at a college that had 5 departments and 4 institutes in which two of the departments included 7 ABET programs (Materials Sciences with 4 separate degree programs, Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, Mining Engineering, GeoEnvironmental Engineering). I also had Geosciences in my portfolio. I participated in the ABET process for all of my degrees as a dean. There are many pluses and minuses.

PLUSES

  • A sense that you are fulfilling basic requirements that are universally recognized
  • Credibility for your graduates - many firms won't hire unless you come from an accredited degree program
  • A self study report that makes programs reflect on their ability to deliver on their degrees
  • A forced effort to assess what happened to your students after they left and to get their opinions on the success of your program
  • An external opinion that looks at you and your self study that is independent from the faculty that wrote the self study

MINUSES

  • Many programs rarely worked out-of-the-box because in almost every case the course requirements were very restrictive
  • Programs tend to look identical in terms of course offerings
  • Programs would consistently would reject suggestions for new pedagogy or efforts to take on new institutional requirements (general education changes in the sciences for example) and consistently used ABET as the reason they couldn't change
  • After doing many of these, deans and provosts come to recognize that the ABET reviewers actually work to promote the fields that they are reviewing because they are colleagues in the fields that they reviewed. So, most reviews came with the suggestion that central spend more money on the program and faculty felt that this investment had to be made to satisfy ABET. I watched this have a negative impact on the perceptions of my provost and president because they saw the same story repeat itself for 15 different programs. This devalued the advice.

There is a move afoot by many major institutions to push back on ABET (MIT doesn't participate in Engineering ABET and I can tell you that their students do just fine because we know they do a good job and we see student transcripts and see what they have taken). The push back is also occurring because of the perception that the advice is becoming self-serving for the discipline and because ABET is used as an excuse to not change.

My view is that there are many ways to get the items in the PLUS column, but if we create an ABET for the geosciences we have the potential to end up with many of the negatives. That isn't what we are after - so come up with a proposal that enhances credibility and helps us do a better job and I am all for it. Mimic ABET, and I will bet that we will regret a tightly wound formal review that makes every program the same. I do not think Texas will play if we perceive a system that saps our creativity in exchange for an anointed degree.

Eric Barron
Dean, Jackson School of Geosciences
University of Texas at Austin

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