Speaking with Randy Lawson
by Ani Aharonian
Note: I interviewed Randy and wrote this article in July, approximately one month before he passed. It appears below as originally written.
Santa Monica College’s last self-study (now called self-evaluation) and site visit took place in 2010 with the next round scheduled for 2016. It is no secret that when it comes to accreditation, one would be hard-pressed to find someone more knowledgeable than SMC’s Executive Vice President, Randal “Randy” Lawson. Randy serves as Accreditation Liaison Officer, has co-chaired the 1998, 2004, and 2010 accreditation self-studies, and served on visiting accreditation teams to other colleges. Randy graciously spoke to us about the last accreditation self-study and site-visit and the preparations for the 2016 accreditation year.
Randy explains that the 2010 site visit could be thought of perhaps “as an example of ‘not a very good visit’ which was very disappointing to us because …we felt we were so well prepared particularly in comparison to 2004…”
SMC’s accreditation was reaffirmed and the college received praise for the high instructional quality the college is known for, but did receive 9 recommendations for improvements. Some were relatively minor and easily addressed (e.g. although the college had ethics statements for each employee group, the team recommended developing a district-wide code of ethics). However two were of primary importance and required a follow-up with the commission in six months. The first involved completing the college’s master planning process Randy explained that the college had changed the planning process in 2005 and so had not yet completed a full cycle at the time of the site visit. In addition to not having had an opportunity to experience a full cycle in order to clarify the entire process and evaluate the components, the college’s research function was very weak at the time due to very recent staffing changes and a staffing shortage in Institutional Research. The Office of Institutional Research is critical to the support of institutional effectiveness and improvement by assisting the various campus constituents with ongoing and systemic evaluation processes, therefore the second task of primary import was to increase and strengthen the research function of the college.
Recommendation 1: To meet the standards, the team recommends that the college complete the development of a sustainable comprehensive master planning process with the Master Plan for Education at its core. The resultant multi-year plan should contain explicit links to instructional and student services programs, human resources, facilities, technology, and other planning needs that are revealed by the program review process or other assessments of institutional effectiveness. The team further recommends that the college work to achieve among its constituents a uniform understanding of the planning cycle and documentation processes through a mechanism accessible to all audiences regardless of their previous experience with the institution (Standard I.A, I.A.1, I.A.4, I.B.1, I.B.3, I.B.4, I.B.6, I.B.7, II.A.1.a, II.A.1.c, II.A.2.f, III.A.6, III.B.2.b, III.C.2, III.D.3, IV.A.5, and IV.B.2.b)
Recommendation 3: To meet the standards, the team recommends that the college evaluate the efficacy of the current staffing model for the institutional research function with a goal of providing timely, in-depth analysis of effectiveness measures and other key institutional metrics to move the college toward the goal of becoming a culture of evidence (Standards I.B.3, I.B.4, I.B.6, I.B.7, II.A.1.c, II.A.2.e, II.A.2.f, II.A.2.g, and II.B.3)
The college had a very short time frame of about 4 months in which to address these recommendations in a follow-up report to the ACCJC. In hindsight, Randy feels the visiting team did SMC a great favor, “…it made us get to work and complete things, and it probably got us past any minor bickering that we might have had along the way about how we were going to do this.” In that short time, SMC’s master planning process was finalized and the Master Plan for Education which is the college’s core planning document was revised to more clearly describe the planning process and the interrelationships of the many components of the planning process. The Office of Institutional Research (IR) expanded the available data on the college’s website and the college developed two new employment classifications (research analyst and senior research analyst) and quickly began recruiting for a research analyst.
The SMC community banded together and worked hard, particularly the District Planning and Advisory Committee (DPAC) and made what Randy describes as “incredible progress” and SMC “moved from needing to do this follow-up report to being asked, the following spring, to present at the Northern Regional Workshop for the ACCJC on the relationship between program review and the integrated planning process.” In other words, in a very short time, SMC transitioned from receiving a serious recommendation for improvement of the planning process to becoming exemplary in its master planning process.
Through his role as Accreditation Liaison Officer, Randy, himself a member of several visiting teams evaluating other colleges, has observed that planning, program review, and student learning outcomes (SLOs) have become, and are likely to remain, focus major directions in accreditation, “… there is more of a trend for those kinds of things to be the reason why a college is asked to do a follow-up report or, in more extreme cases, placed on warning or other kinds of sanction or so on.” With most colleges now having had an opportunity to set up processes with regards to planning, program review, and SLOs, Randy believes the focus will now be on how well the colleges do with evaluating and assessing these processes and using the data for continuous improvement. SMC’s current processes were designed in order to help make this easier to accomplish and Randy is confident that we are doing this well as an institution, having made significant improvements with annual objectives in terms of setting, meeting, and following-up on these objectives in a meaningful way. Randy recommends the Master Plan for Education and the Institutional Effectiveness Report to those seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the planning process at SMC and the institutional goals which guide the planning process.
In preparation for the 2016 Self-study and subsequent site visit, the college is now in the process of forming teams for all accreditation standards and sub-standards and has recently sent out a “Call for Volunteers” in a district-wide email. Participating in the accreditation process by joining one of these teams and being part of the discussions is an excellent way for new faculty and classified staff to get involved. Randy encourages any interested employees to get involved, “Participating may mean just being on one of the committees and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write something… Being involved is just being part of the discussion. We think the broader that discussion can be, the better. So we want to encourage people to join one of the standard committees or subcommittees in an area that interests them.” Volunteers who wish to do so are even encouraged to branch out and join committees in areas different than those they work in as a way to learn more. Randy stresses that there is no requisite background or knowledge necessary and “in some cases it is better to have someone who doesn’t know anything about that standard there because their questions are often the kinds of questions that someone on a [visiting] team might ask or they might notice something that is a small weakness that we who know it well may overlook.”
While SMC prepares for accreditation, any significant findings will be shared with the college as one of the first steps in addressing any campus needs. “If we notice something that needs to be addressed, and we can address it now or at least begin to address it now, it’s a strength and it puts us ahead of the game.”
If you are interested in learning more about accreditation in general or about the planning process at Santa Monica College, please consult the reading list of helpful resources and documents below: