By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Gallaudet University was put on probation today by its accrediting agency, a warning sign that problems persist months after protests shut down the school for the deaf.
"We wanted to avoid that label," President Robert Davila said yesterday. "But we may look back on all this . . . as a blessing in disguise. It gives us an opportunity to change, and change is good."
School officials described a campus in the midst of a rapid transformation as they rush to meet standards set by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The core curriculum has been revamped, admissions standards have been raised, and a more united campus community has been rethinking the mission at a turning point for deaf education.
But probation is a blow to a school hobbled by recent events.
Gallaudet remains accredited but must prove by November 2008 that it is again in compliance with eight of 14 standards, including its leadership, integrity and retention. One higher-education expert said that is "not a good set of numbers."
Last year, before Davila arrived, the school was shut down for days by protesters angry about the incoming president -- whose appointment was later terminated by the board of trustees -- and other issues on campus. Soon afterward, the Middle States Commission delayed its re-accreditation.
"Loss of accreditation is pretty much a death sentence to a college or university," Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education said, because students can't get federally funded grants and loans.
They also might have trouble transferring or getting into graduate school. The most important effect is symbolic, as schools need that stamp of approval from the voluntary review to remain respected and competitive.
"No school wants to go on probation," Hartle said, "because it raises questions with the media, with donors, with alumni, with government agencies. But they will deal with it very quickly, I suspect."
Davila said he hoped the probation label will not hurt enrollment. The school already has to struggle to attract and keep students, with more deaf children getting implants that allow them to hear and more interpreters and technology making it easier for many to choose mainstream schools. Gallaudet's enrollment dropped during the protests, and there are 15 to 20 fewer incoming freshmen this year than last, Davila said.
Stephen Weiner, who officially starts as provost Monday, added that enrollment numbers were bound to drop because higher admissions standards have been put in place as part of a new focus on academic rigor. In the fall, some faculty and staff said they were worried about a loss of academic integrity at the school, including pressure to change grades.
For more than a century, Gallaudet has been a center of deaf culture, and news from its Northeast Washington campus ripples quickly through deaf communities around the world. Divisions and acrimony remain from the protests. Racial issues are still simmering, especially since a popular administrator -- a black man who started a Listserv known for its frank, controversial and often anonymous posts -- was fired recently.
One of the accreditation agency's concerns was that the campus would have to find ways to come together.
Weiner said issues that erupted in protest are now being dealt with openly, and there's more debate on campus.
School officials said more than 150 professors are busy this summer in work groups, pushing to make improvements in the way they teach students, keep them in school, test them, prepare them for postgraduate life and track that progress.
"People are energized," Weiner said, working toward a common goal. Freshmen will arrive to a new core curriculum, quickly designed and approved with an eye to the commission's concerns, which requires fewer general education classes and moves students more quickly to classes relating to their majors.
Davila described an education that would be more pragmatic, ensuring that students graduate with the skills needed for their careers. They need to measure those results, so the school is pulling together data and designing new ways of evaluating students to prove that they are making progress.
"President Davila and his team are taking this very seriously and they are exercising the needed leadership to resolve longstanding [accreditation] issues and strengthen Gallaudet's status as a stellar institute of higher education," Nancy Bloch of the National Association of the Deaf wrote by e-mail last night.
"We will be in compliance by November 2008," Davila pledged, "because we have no other choice. We will rise to that challenge -- we already have. . . . When we look back on this 10 years from now, we will consider this an important turning point in the history of the university."