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On Wednesday the New England Association of Schools and Colleges completed its review of MIT, as part of MIT’s bid for reaccreditation. Before the NEASC’s arrival, President Susan Hockfield noted in her State of the Institute address that she hadn’t “broken a sweat” over the outcome.

Is accreditation really necessary or useful? MIT’s reputation speaks for itself. Busloads of tourists regularly drive up to 77 Massachusetts Ave.; MIT frequently tops the US News and World Report list of engineering schools and much of the faculty are pioneers in their fields.

Universities did not always have such clear-cut reputations. Accreditation became particularly important in the mid 20th-century as the burgeoning number of colleges and universities spawned numerous diploma-mill schools. The NEASC, and similar institutions in other regions of the US, assumed responsibility for school validation.

“They made sure that [schools] were doing what they said they were doing,” so that prospective students were not defrauded, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said.

Accreditation is ultimately a voluntary process, and, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, some schools do, in fact, opt out.

However, it is a requirement for receiving federal financial aid, requesting an educational reimbursement from an employer, or easing the transfer of credits between universities.

How does it work?

The accreditation process begins with a self-study report submitted by the university. A conglomeration of insights from students, faculty and administrators, the report identifies the mission of MIT and how it facilitates the execution of that mission in everything from school governance to student services. According to Michael J. Faber, who coordinated the self-study for the Office of the President, “It is an opportunity for self-reflection and reassessment.”

Based on this report and observations gleaned from a four-day review of the campus, the NEASC will decide whether MIT deserves reaccreditation.

None of the concerns raised about MIT are likely to merit probation. In fact, neither MIT nor peer institutions have faced probation in recent years though Duke was flagged earlier this year on the qualifications of its teaching staff.

American University Professor Milton Greenberg wrote in The Chronicle that “few if any accreditation visits will end without some ‘suggestions’ for improvement that may affect the campus budget for many years.”

Changes from ten years ago

The 1999 accreditation report said that the NEASC expressed concern over the “excessive” funding of new construction (the Stata Center) while older buildings deteriorated; the employment of graduate students of variable training as recitation instructors; the “obsolete” or “nonfunctional” nature of certain libraries; and the financial losses associated with the dining system.

Clay said, “All of these issues have been addressed, if not solved.”

In response to the 1999 evaluation, MIT has increased workshops for graduate student instructors, as well as expressed an intention to invest at least $45 million in repairing older buildings.

In the past year (ten years after the issue was raised in the 1999 accreditation cycle), MIT has renovated the Barker Engineering and Dewey (Management and Social Sciences) libraries while closing the Aero/Astro and Earth and Planetary Sciences libraries.

For this evaluation cycle, MIT has chosen to focus on the work of its strategic task forces: interdisciplinary research and globalization. The initial NEASC assessment of these and other MIT initiatives will be online in several weeks.

The administration has already posted the results of the self study and supplementary documentation at http://web.mit.edu/
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