Tim Bralower's Thoughts on Accreditation

Accreditation of geoscience programs is a topic under much discussion these days (early 2008). Tim Bralower, Head of the Department of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, offers his thoughts on the subject. Tim sent this message to the Building Strong Geoscience Departments email list on March 4, 2008.


The decision for a field to institute accreditation of degree programs is very complex. Our engineering and chemistry colleagues point out many positive and negative outcomes from their accreditation processes. There is no doubt that assessment of learning outcomes can be beneficial and many Geoscience programs are actually participating in regional assessment of this nature. Nevertheless, I believe that accreditation, currently under discussion by a committee sponsored by GSA, would have an overall negative impact on Geoscience curriculum and Geoscience Departments. The impact would vary depending on the structure and requirements of curriculum, participation, and reporting, as laid out in the different models proposed by the GSA committee.

The effect of accreditation would be felt in curriculum, pedagogy, research, department direction, and competitiveness on campus, as well as in resource allocation. Here is a summary of problems with Geoscience Accreditation along with likely outcomes.

  1. This is a tremendously exciting time for the Earth Sciences as a result of global environmental change and recent natural disasters, and Geoscience education is booming as a result. Enrollments are growing nationally. This is a great time for programs to diversify, capture students who are interested in the Earth but not necessarily interested in being card-carrying geologists. We could lose many of these students if accreditation of our core programs prevents us from diversifying.
  2. If conceived poorly, accreditation would have a highly negative effect on student learning. If the standards focused more on curriculum than learning outcomes, courses would overly stress learning facts and content rather than solving problems.
  3. Faculty would need to invest a large amount of time revising their syllabi and would lose a great deal of creativity and ownership of curriculum. Accreditation would divert faculty attention away from general education, which is part of our forte.
  4. Many of the most exciting and fundable research areas are at discipline boundaries. Accreditation would prevent departments from hiring faculty in these areas and prevent collaboration with other programs on campus and decrease research funding.
  5. Accreditation would require a huge time investment for department administrators taking them away from key tasks such as competing for university resources, strategic planning, fundraising, and faculty mentoring. This would weaken the position of Geoscience departments in the university community.
  6. Many Liberal Arts and smaller regional programs departments will not have the personnel to teach required classes and curricula. These programs that traditionally produce many of the top geologists would be penalized by accreditation. Programs that are of marginal size or strength may be closed.
  7. Companies generally want employees who can think and solve problems. For many employers, students from accredited programs may turn out to be less promising than those from programs that don't accredit.
  8. Many states have their own licensing requirements. Universities currently liaise with community colleges and other institutions where specialized (i.e. OSHA) courses are taught. The relatively low number of students who want to become professional (i.e. licensed) geologists can take this route now. Accreditation would treat all students as if they are going in this direction. Moreover, many geoscience fields require an MS degree for employment, whereas in the engineering disciplines, the BS is the typical entry-level degree.
  9. The constitution of an accrediting body would be very difficult in our broad field. There is no body of scientists that would be universally acceptable to the diverse specialties in the Geosciences. The fact that GSA has sponsored the committee to investigate accreditation is already likely to be viewed negatively be geochemists and geophysicists.
  10. The move would be incredibly divisive for the Geosciences. Many prominent and larger programs would forgo accreditation and this division will look very bad for the Geosciences as a field.

There would be benefits from accreditation of degree programs. However, as outlined above, I believe that a wide range of problems would outweigh these. I urge all of you to get involved in on the ongoing debate that will have a large impact on the future of our field. Talk to your colleagues, pass this along to them, and complete the GSA survey that can be found at:


Finally, I stress that this is my opinion, not in any way that of all of the faculty in my department, college or university. I'd be happy to discuss any of the issues with you. It's a great time to be engaged. Accreditation would impact the way we do business in a profound way.



Timothy J. Bralower
Professor and Head
Department of Geosciences
Pennsylvania State University