By Matthew Wojtechko
Engineering students have alerted administration that they were unaware the six-year-old engineering department has not yet begun the application process for ABET accreditation.
“There was a gap in communication,” John Smetanka, vice president of academic affairs and academic dean, said. “The faculty weren’t really talking a lot about the accreditation process with the students, and so there were some assumptions being made that were not corrected.”
“My understanding is that students have been informed that there is a lengthy process before you’re even ready to [apply] for accreditation,” said Stacy Birmingham, professor and head of the engineering science department, who recently arrived at Saint Vincent in August.
“I don’t think anyone has a perfect answer,” Stephen Jodis, dean of the Boyer school, said in reference to the question of whether students were aware of the accreditation plans. “I was surprised to hear they were surprised.”
In response to students’ concerns, Birmingham had a meeting with each class
“[I] listened to their concerns, talked about the accreditation process, answered their questions and told them what we’re doing with the program,” she said. “If there were any misconceptions, [I] made sure I corrected those.”
As a result of the misunderstanding, Smetanka said faculty will communicate more with students, such as in seminars and advising meetings.
“Faculty are much more aware that they need to talk about the accreditation procedure and where we’re at in that process,” he said.
The date the department will gain accreditation is indeterminate.
“It’s difficult to say right now what our timing will be,” Birmingham said.
She said that, while her hiring and the construction of the James F. Will building were important steps to applying for accreditation, more needs to be done. This includes hiring another faculty member to start next fall, ensuring student learning outcomes are being assessed properly, ensuring the curriculum is stable, ensuring institutional support, and understanding where students are being employed, which entails speaking with alumni and their employers.
“Once all that occurs, we have to submit for a readiness review, and then once we have a positive outcome […] we can enter into a year long self-study, and at the conclusion of that we would have a visit from ABET in the fall,” she said.
This results in a draft report from ABET noting the findings of the visit, followed by a potential dialog between the school and ABET into the summer, Jodis said.
The final report is then sent to ABET’s hundreds of engineering accreditation commissioners, who make the final vote on accreditation, he said.
“We want to get it right because the level of review is very, very high.”
“You can never say when you expect to have [accreditation], because that’s ultimately up to your ABET site team and the general vote of the ABET convention,” Birmingham said. “We’re looking to hire the fourth faculty member, we will then fill out the curriculum, and at that point we can start putting the readiness review together.”
Both anonymous students said graduating from a non-ABET accredited college puts them at a disadvantage.
“In the engineering field, not having the seal of ABET approval can get your resumé thrown in the trash,” one student said.
Birmingham said that while ABET accreditation is needed for some types of jobs, such as government jobs, most jobs do not require it.
However, “if a student wanted to go to an industry or an employer where accreditation was a must, the student could follow the 3-2 pathway,” she said,
The four-year degree at Saint Vincent, on the other hand, is good for students who want a general engineering degree or want to go to the college for other reasons, she said.
Both students also said the misunderstanding has hurt student-teacher relationships.
“There’s this awkward tension between the faculty and students,” one student said.
“It’s awful any time you have that kind of situation,” Smetanka said. “There’s kind of a gap in trust then.”
“In my experience it’s always been best to get those out in the open and to talk about them as openly and honestly as you can with the people involved,” he continued, “because that allows situations to be cleared up."
The two students explained that seniors first realized the department would not be accredited in time for graduation during their senior seminar class, which is “designed to review engineering topics to be included on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam taken by graduating seniors as the first step toward State Certification,” according to its description on the Portal.
Some of the class missed the first question on a quiz asking about who is eligible to take the Fundamental of Engineering Exam, the students said, which prompted them to learn they could not take the exam directly after graduation.