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Emory celebrates reaccreditation, 'Nature of Evidence'

Emory’s Quality Enhancement Plan, “The Nature of Evidence,” includes hands-on opportunities for first-year students to engage with primary evidence.

Emory University has received reaffirmation of its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which includes approval of the university’s inaugural Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), “The Nature of Evidence.”

This marks the first time that the QEP has been incorporated into the SACSCOC accreditation review process, a rigorous, multi-stage examination that is required every 10 years and touches on all aspects of Emory’s programs, services and facilities. The next review will take place in 2024.

Focused on the undergraduate experience, the QEP is now a mandatory component of SACSCOC accreditation and requires institutions to select a program or initiative dedicated to improving an aspect of student learning or the environment for student success.

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Claire Sterk, who served as a member of the SACSCOC leadership team, envisions the QEP becoming an empowering force, with the potential to transform Emory’s academic community and beyond.

“Questions about the nature of evidence force us to step back, to reflect on the assumptions we make, and to work together and explore evidence from a multi-disciplinary perspective,” says Sterk, who sees within the QEP opportunities to demonstrate both “our ambition and creativity.”

In a letter received in January, SACSCOC announced that its board of trustees met in December to formally reaffirm Emory’s accreditation for the next decade, requesting no additional reports — the equivalent of “receiving an A plus,” says Nancy Bliwise, associate vice provost for academic planning and professor of pedagogy in psychology, who served as Emory’s SACSCOC liaison, managing the review process for the institution.

“Reaffirmation of accreditation sends a message that an institution has integrity,” Bliwise notes.

Regional accreditation also allows for a smooth transfer of academic credit hours between universities and colleges and provides a critical stamp of approval for those institutions to receive federal and state education funding, she says.

“Reaccreditation without the requirement for further reporting is an extraordinary outcome,” says Emory President James Wagner, who expressed appreciation for the work of Sterk, Bliwise, “and the whole team that helped guide this process.”

“We can also take pride in the recognition of our Quality Enhancement Plan as a model for other universities,” he says.

“Our society needs policies and decisions based on evidence rather than assumptions, rumor or bias, and our faculty is committed to ensuring that Emory students recognize and marshal knowledge that has a basis in reality.”

QEP: The power to transform

Last spring, a SACSCOC site visit provided the Emory community with a preview of how its proposed QEP, “The Nature of Evidence,” might be received by peer reviewers.

Notre Dame Provost Tom Burish, who led the reviewing team, opened his evaluation with enthusiasm, describing the QEP as a topic with the power to be transformative “not just for Emory, but higher education as a whole,” recalls Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Pamela Scully, director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and African studies, who chaired the QEP Development Committee.

“I remember him saying that he’d never come across such joy among a faculty for a QEP,” adds Scully, who views the topic as “a great fit for Emory.”

“We are a liberal arts research university, which means that questions of evidence are absolutely central to what all of us do, whether we’re in history, women’s studies, biology or public health — how we come up with arguments or proof of research relies on the quality of our evidence.”

Teaching Emory students to become productive citizens of the world requires “knowing how to use, understand and work with forms of evidence,” she adds. “It really speaks to the passion of why we do what we do.”

“The Nature of Evidence” was selected as Emory’s first QEP after a university-wide nomination process culminated in a series of community conversations, from which four final themes emerged: Primary Evidence, World View, Sustainability and Community Engagement.

Following campus-wide dialogue — a process first guided by QEP co-chairs physics professor Eric Weeks and art history professor Sarah McPhee, then by sociology professor Richard Rubinson and finally by Scully— those four themes were narrowed to “Primary Evidence.”

After much discussion, the QEP Development Committee elected to define the study of evidence more broadly, selecting “The Nature of Evidence” as Emory’s new QEP, a five-year plan that aspires to empower students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers capable of evaluating ideas and information using different types of evidence.

“All of the QEP proposals were excellent and would have really galvanized a number of important things we believe in and are doing at Emory,” says Bonna Wescoat, professor of art history, who largely drafted the initial proposal.

“The advantage of ‘The Nature of Evidence’ is that it touches everyone in all aspects of university life,” she adds.

“The entire community became stakeholders because everybody works with evidence, which is never static — it’s continually being made, moving forward, invigorating our disciplines.”

Exploring “The Nature of Evidence”

Plans are already in place to begin weaving “The Nature of Evidence” into the first-year Emory experience through three key components:

•    Introductory/orientation experience

•    Classroom experience in First Year Seminars (FYS 190)

•    Co-curricular experience

Elements of those components, including online introductory videos for entering first-year students and faculty workshops to develop evidence-focused course criteria for freshman seminars, are due to be rolled out in a few months, says QEP Director Tracy Scott, sociology senior lecturer who leads the implementation committee in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

A co-curricular experience will be introduced this October, as first year students gather in the Woodruff Physical Education Center for an “evidence lecture” — a Carter Town Hall-style event featuring two Emory faculty discussing evidence from different disciplines.

Applications for Emory faculty who want to participate may be submitted through Feb. 13.

“Evidence is about learning and discovering,” Sterk says. “The QEP provides an opportunity to build on the expertise and interest in evidence among faculty, students and staff.”

“Through its extracurricular experiences and the freshman seminars, we will expand the horizons for our undergraduate students and prepare them to think critically, solve problems, remain curious and be life-long learners.”

Scott says that she’s been pleased at the enthusiasm Emory faculty have shown for enhanced teaching about evidence, “which is at the foundation of everything that faculty do across the disciplines,” she says.

In an age of online information overload, “undergraduate students don’t always understand how to distinguish good evidence from bad,” she adds. “The QEP is foundational to students becoming better problem solvers and should really help students connect the dots to see that evidence is at the forefront of all their academic learning.”

Though Walter Reed, a professor of English, has explored questions of evidence in past freshman seminars — notably, when discussing the art and politics of William Blake, who as a child claimed to have seen the face of god in his window — he is intrigued by the possibilities of expanding those dialogues in more interdisciplinary directions.

“Statistics and big data, literary sources or even criteria of evidence as taught in the Emory Law School — I think there would be real value in considering the nature of evidence and what counts as evidence in different disciplines and divisions,” Reed says.

Cecile Janssens, a professor of epidemiology in Rollins School of Public Health, sees potential for the new QEP to expand upon aspects of evidence that are already woven into many Emory courses — even those beyond Emory College.

“It’s such a timely topic, especially in an era where it’s all about information and we often don’t question and evaluate the truth of the content,” says Janssens, who is currently teaching students to be “skeptical and critical” thinkers in her master’s level class “Critical Assessment of Science Communications.”

Although centered on the first-year experience, QEP components are deliberately designed in a way that could eventually be extended beyond freshmen, Scott notes. A website dedicated to QEP implementation is scheduled to launch in February.

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