From the President's Desk
They Got It!
As about 60 members of our university community settled into their seats for the WASC team’s exit presentation on Friday morning, March 9, it was easy to sense a little nervousness in the room. Although our reaccreditation has never been in doubt, we still had a lot riding on this review. We were looking, in particular, for affirmation from WASC that we were accomplishing what it had exhorted the University to do in their last visit in 1996, namely, “to take hold of its own destiny.” With a new Master Plan, an updated Strategic Plan, a strengthened advancement effort, a new enrollment growth plan, and deeply articulated institutional emphases on student learning, diversity, civic engagement, regional stewardship, and sustainability, we were anxious to see whether WASC recognized that we had our priorities in order and our work in synch to accomplish them.
Because so much depends upon the composition and chemistry of the WASC team and the attitude it brings to the visit, it is not unusual for even the best prepared campuses to be a little nervous. And make no mistake about it, we were prepared. Led by Vice Provost Arno Rethans and a steering committee composed of Beverly Gentry, Lori Fuentes, Don Graham, Jennifer Robison, Marc Siegall, and Chuck Worth, our self-study reflected two years of solid preparatory work. It was first-rate in every respect. Ironically, however, it may have been too good.
A few weeks before the visit, we were getting a feeling from the visiting team that they doubted the story that our self-study told. In particular, they wondered whether it was too “self-congratulatory” and positive about our momentum. They questioned whether our strategic plan and its values and priorities truly govern our institutional behavior. Less than a week before the visit, I chatted with the head of the visiting team and pointed out that self-awareness and self-confidence were, in fact, good things, but his response was more along the lines of “we’ll see” than “we can tell.”
The visit started with skepticism and an apparent lack of enthusiasm for our story characterizing the WASC team. Some of us wondered whether they felt more compelled to find reasons to doubt our story than to discover it. For, it often seems teams are driven to find fault amidst the mountains of evidence that document success.
And then something wonderful happened—they met our students. In a forum specifically for students and in other encounters with them, the team abruptly came alive with a sense that something special was happening here.
And then something else wonderful happened—they attended a poster session in Yolo Hall at which over a hundred programs and curricula, representing all divisions of the University, were highlighted. The team had been wondering since before they arrived on campus what this undefined thing called “the Chico experience” was all about. They found it in Yolo Hall that afternoon, and that provided them with the context to go back to the self-study and to recognize the quality and integrity of the story within it.
And so, here we all were in Kendall 207, awaiting the report of the chairperson of the visiting team. Soon after he began to speak, however, the anxiousness in the room evaporated. Two comments of his most stood out for me and the others in the audience.
First, he said, “We discovered that your students love this place.” Then he hesitated and started again. “No, what I mean to say is that your students love, love, love this place.”
Second, he reported, “This thing called the Chico experience? We got it.”
The exit report is not the last word on the WASC review process, of course, and the visiting team did not leave us without some critical observations. But their comments were mainly about how we could tell our story better. They affirmed, most of all, that we are true to the values we state in our Strategic Plan, none more clearly than being “a community connected in our conversations, confident in our strengths, and intentional in our aspirations.” They left us, in other words, with appreciation and encouragement.
The WASC process is a two-stage affair, and this visit was just the first step. It was focused on our capacity to be who we say we are and to achieve what we declare we are trying to accomplish. A follow-up visit in two years will review our effectiveness in these endeavors. The two stages are obviously linked, and success in the latter is unlikely to be realized and demonstrated without an appropriate, strong foundation. I have no doubt that WASC’s return in two years will echo what our recent visitors concluded about our story—they got it.
Thank you to the many members of our community who contributed countless hours of work in preparing for the visit and to all members of our university who delivered a clear, compelling message to the WASC team while they were here. As the team discovered, we did not invent this story for them. We live it every day.
—Paul J. Zingg, President