Nicole Lesher, recently named CalSouthern’s director of educational compliance, has always been drawn to education. She loved school as a child and can even remember playing teacher at home, lecturing to a “classroom” filled with dolls and stuffed animals.
She went to San Diego State University and majored in liberal studies with the goal of becoming a school teacher. However, a stint as a teacher’s aide in an elementary school was enough to have her re-thinking her career goals. She switched her major to English and set her sights on a career in higher education.
It’s a career that has served her well for almost 25 years.
She has worked in higher education—predominately at distance learning institutions—in a wide variety of roles: as an advisor, professor, curriculum developer and dean, as well as in executive positions in university operations. However, her true passion, she discovered, is for accreditation and compliance.
Nicole has guided a number of distance-learning institutions through the accreditation process and has worked extensively in educational compliance. In addition, she has been active with the Distance Education and Accrediting Commission (DEAC), the education association and accrediting body that currently accredits CalSouthern. In this regard, she has served on DEAC committees and conducted site visits as a university evaluator.
She comes to CalSouthern from Henley-Putnam University, where she served as the university’s director of educational compliance. She lives in Vista, California with her husband and two children.
We sat down with Nicole to learn more about her role at CalSouthern, her immediate and long-term goals, and to seek her perspective on some important issues in online higher education today.
California Southern University: Could you please describe for us your role here at CalSouthern?
Nicole Lesher: My role will be to ensure CalSouthern’s compliance both with state and accreditation requirements. I will be continually auditing the university to ensure that we understand and comply with educational standards so that we will continue to improve our institutional effectiveness in all areas.
CalSouthern: What are the implications for current and prospective students?
Lesher: They can rest assured that CalSouthern is meeting the highest standards in academia and that the university is committed to continual institutional improvement which, when you take a moment to think about it, is really what accreditation is all about. Accreditation is purely voluntary, and assures students and the public alike that the institution is meeting the highest standards.
CalSouthern: What factors led you to make the decision to join the team at CalSouthern?
Lesher: I do a lot of work with the DEAC and have a close relationship with them. As part of that, I was part of the team that accredited CalSouthern almost five years ago. Through that process, I got to know CalSouthern and was able to meet many of the school’s executives and administrators. I developed a great respect for the university’s commitment to achieving—and exceeding—performance standards on every level.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to work on DEAC projects with CalSouthern president Dr. Caroll Ryan. I have developed a professional and friendly relationship with Dr. Ryan, and we have often shared knowledge and ideas on accreditation matters—I have a great deal of respect for her and hold her in the highest regard. When this opportunity came up, it was an easy decision for me to join this outstanding institution and amazing group of people.
CalSouthern: You have been involved with distance learning and accreditation in a career that has spanned nearly 25 years. As you know, a few disreputable online universities have attracted a significant amount of negative publicity to the distance-learning sector. Given your wealth of experience, what are your thoughts on the efficacy and validity of distance learning?
Lesher: Today’s students are quite different than those of just a decade or so ago. They are moving from place to place, which often prevents them from staying at the same brick-and-mortar school for their entire academic career. They are working. Distance education is often the best option for these students.
Also, in many states like California, brick-and-mortar schools are so overcrowded, students can’t take the courses they need; it’s often taking them six years to complete an undergraduate degree. Distance education fulfills the needs of these students, in addition to those of adult learners who have families, jobs and busy lives.
Distance education has been around—and has been proven effective—for many, many years, particularly in our military. And with accrediting organizations like the DEAC which has established a solid reputation over many decades and who now specialize in just distance education, students can be confident that they’re getting a high-quality education.
Sure, there are online schools out there who don’t commit themselves to education standards, but there are also brick-and-mortar schools who fail to do so, as well. There will always be a variance in terms of quality. But regarding institutions accredited by DEAC, I firmly believe that students should feel confident that they are going to get a high-quality education. In addition, they should be pleased and gratified to know that the DEAC has a team of dedicated professionals in our nation’s capital fighting for students’ rights in areas such as transferability of credits.
Overall, I think it’s an exciting time for distance education.
CalSouthern: What are your immediate goals in your new position?
Lesher: My first focus is to continue to enhance and strengthen CalSouthern’s already excellent relationship with the DEAC and to ensure that the university achieves initial accreditation with WASC.
CalSouthern: And your long-term vision?
Lesher: It’s my hope that CalSouthern will be considered a leader in accreditation and will actively participate with both the DEAC and WASC to further refine and improve standards of performance so that accredited member institutions will provide education of the highest quality.
And, by providing high-quality programs, CalSouthern will continue to give its students the opportunity to contribute to the common good as they achieve their personal and educational goals.