Dr. T. Allen Smith, Institutional Detective
Dr. T. Allen Smith
JACKSONVILLE -- September 17, 2002 -- A former Jacksonville State University dean who wanted to return to the classroom in 1985 took an unexpected turn in his career and spent the next 13 years as an institutional "detective" instead.
Thanks to Dr. T. Allen Smith, JSU employees can back up every claim of quality about JSU with plenty of strong evidence. When something goes wrong, Smith finds out why. When the university's top leadership needs to make a crucial decision, they can look at the facts accumulated by Smith in order to make a rational decision rather than a speculative one.
Smith, dean of the former College of Humanities and Social Science and professor of psychology, was courted to assume a leadership role on an institutional assessment committee during JSU's last reaccreditation study. Soon he became director of institutional assessment and embarked on the full-time job of measuring the effectiveness of JSU's programs and giving the institution remedies for improvement.
With the university preparing for another reaccreditation visit by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in February 2003, Dr. Smith's work has placed the university in its best position ever to prove to the regional accrediting body how it lives up to its mission statement.
Smith does his sleuthing by gathering evidence with an arsenal of studies such as the College Base Exam, New Student Survey, Graduating Senior Survey, Major Field Achievement Test and Graduate Student Survey. In many cases his office both administers the surveys and analyzes the results. Smith not only designs some of the studies but also tediously tabulates the results, one questionnaire at a time, and tells the institution what the results mean.
"Basically, before the assessment office was established in 1988-89, nobody was doing anything to tell us how well our students were doing, other than giving course grades or grade point averages," Smith recalled. "You couldn't say what percentage of students developed mathematical competence, you couldn't say whether the graduates in a certain program were being employed in their field when they graduated, or how satisfied students were with what they got here or what they liked or didn't like and what they thought needed changing."
During his years as dean, Smith realized the university had no central office to gather essential data he could use to make decisions. As a psychologist who thoroughly understands testing and statistics, Smith knew what kind of behavioral research to use.
The administration turned to Smith for help when he stepped down as dean to teach in 1985. Although he did teach for a short while, in 1987-88 the administration asked him to give leadership in helping JSU prepare for SACS reaccreditation in the area of institutional effectiveness. He was then tapped to head the Assessment Office in 1989.
"I agreed to do this as a partial load because I didn't want to leave the classroom. It became obvious the first year that wasn't going to be possible, and so I had to start doing this full time. Even then, I thought my role would cease at the end of the self study. But then it became apparent that someone would have to continue."
With regrets, Smith taught his last class in 1989.
"I found I couldn't do both; I would be cheating my students," he said. How does one man do it all?
"Well, I often worked weekends and left at ten o'clock at night," he said.
Because of Smith's work, the administration has a better understanding of students' needs and what it needs to do to serve them with excellence.
Just one example: Administrators needed to know why some students dropped out of school even though they were performing well.
Smith, who joined JSU in 1971 and became dean in 1978, said, "Looking at the survey of students who were eligible to return after a particular semester but did not, we found that the vast majority left for reasons that had nothing to do with JSU. Rather than dissatisfaction with the institution, they reported illness, economic difficulty, getting married, moving, needing to take care of somebody or wanting a degree in an area that we didn't offer. And we found that about 60 percent who didn't return planned to return in the future."
Smith also cites how his data helps academic programs improve.
"In psychology, our testing found that students were scoring low in the area of child development. They used that information to target their next new faculty position for someone with expertise in that area. A few years later, we found on further testing that the scores had improved," he said.
And Smith is pleased to see increases in "student satisfaction" scores in such areas as mathematics and computer science.
For the institution as a whole, Smith's years of work paved the way for a smoother reaccreditation self study. He said, "We are in a much better position in terms of the information that we have and the documentation that we're able to provide. When SACS came in last time we were still developing base lines for many areas to determine what the current status was so we could shoot for some improvement."
Smith has left his mark on JSU. Statements of quality are based on solid research, and Smith has the evidence to back up those statements.
Looking to the future, Smith says JSU is "developing a culture of evidence, where you don't just accept people saying they're effective or that their program is working. You say, 'Well, what is the evidence?' before you make decisions. With evidence you can make rational decisions instead of political ones."
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