Auburn University’s (AU) acclaimed College of Agriculture has earned another award—one from an organization with a long title and an easy-to-understand mission.
It came from the nonprofit Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) and honors the college for its humane treatment and care of research animals.
Approval places the AU College of Agriculture in the same accreditation company as the AU College of Veterinary Medicine and AU School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
Auburn Professor Jim Bannon, who oversaw the university’s accreditation preparation and compares the designation with a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," couldn’t have been happier when he got word of the honor.
"To have a program accredited by a premier agency that signifies the best in animal care and research is quite an accomplishment," Bannon said, during an interview with Cooperative Farming News at the E.V. Smith Research Center in Macon County.
Just as proud as Bannon was Richard Guthrie, dean of the AU College of Agriculture, who said accreditation enables the university’s animal research program to compete "with the best programs in the nation."
"It certifies we hold to the highest level of animal care and have the capability to undertake even the most sophisticated animal research needed to support agriculture in the United States," said Guthrie.
Bannon and his staff worked hard on the project, one which took three years to complete and led to a 457-page detailed report filled with information about his department’s efforts to rank with the best in the world.
Agriculture experiment stations are located around Alabama and are involved in a variety of projects including animals. They are vital to continuation of the mission set forth at Auburn University since its inception.
"Very high standards are set for the care of animals in our research program," Bannon said. "They involve animals big and small, including rats, mice and guinea pigs."
Some of the research conducted by the department focuses on ways to cure or better treat illnesses like diabetes and heart problems. Research also is done on larger animals like beef and dairy cattle.
Bannon said the lengthy accreditation process had been discussed in past years, but never started. It is a daunting undertaking requiring hours of documentation and isn’t something to start without careful consideration.
"We felt we needed that level of accreditation because it says we’re doing everything we can that signifies excellence in animal care in our research programs," said Bannon. "The report we submitted describes in detail the programs and personnel involved, from those in upper administration to instructional staff."
The study was so intense, so detailed that much of the three-year program was devoted to program description. Much more than that was involved, of course, but it showed just how determined Bannon and his staff were to make sure the report was as close to perfection as possible.
Once the application was received by the international organization, four representatives were sent to Auburn for a site review. Paper descriptions are one thing, but, as the saying goes, "seeing is believing" and the inspectors were sent to the university to see for themselves.
The AAALAC inspection began in Fairhope at the Gulf Coast Research and Experiment Center where beef cattle are studied. At the same time, another team was at the Sand Mountain Experiment Station. Another team went into the Black Belt.
It took a solid week for the inspectors to do their job and when it was time to compare notes they used modern technology to discuss their findings and ask questions.
"Many programs involved in something like this have reviews in a conference room at a specific location, but we have so many experiment stations scattered around the state we had a video conference instead," Bannon said. "That gave the inspectors a chance to talk about their findings without having to travel to Auburn to do it."
Requirements in the care and treatment of research animals are specific and demanding, and Bannon’s team was more than up to the occasion. They had done their homework long before the teams arrived for the inspection.
"They looked for everything from the water the animals drink to the food they eat," he said. "They want to know how the food is stored and if it’s sealed off from rodents and insects, if the food is properly labeled and if it’s being used beyond the expiration date."
Bannon said there were some negative findings, but nothing serious. Accreditation of anything usually involves some need for corrections and improvements, so they weren’t unexpected.
"When they had their exit interview with us, they said we had a very good program, one with the fewest number of citations of any unit they had seen in a long, long time, so that made us feel pretty good," he said.
The inspectors couldn’t say when and if accreditation would come, but it was obvious from the tour and the findings it was almost a given. Three months after the teams arrived, accreditation was approved.
Such is not the case at some universities where negative findings are so extensive accreditation is not extended and those seeking it must return to the drawing board and try again. Some do. Some don’t.
In Bannon’s case, he knew he and his staff had done all they could to see that all the requirements were met. It then depended on the inspectors and a final decision by those involved in accreditation at AAALAC.
"I can’t worry about what I can’t control," said Bannon, 63, who was born and raised in Montgomery. "I was confident what we had done was sufficient to obtain accreditation and it meant a lot to us when it was granted."
Those unfamiliar with what accreditation means do not know how important it is for future work at universities and other entities around the world. In the U.S., that importance can be traced directly to Washington.
"You can almost forget about receiving some federal grants without accreditation," Bannon said. "At Auburn it was just a matter of not having pursued accreditation in the past. Having it now means some doors will open to us down the road and that’s a good thing."
Accreditation means AU’s College of Agriculture joins a select group around the world. It is now one of 770 universities, agencies, companies and institutions in 31 countries. Given the fact thousands are eligible to apply, those selected represent a small percentage.
Bannon has every reason to be proud of his department’s achievement. Some of the world’s most celebrated organizations, including the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the American Red Cross and the National Institute of Health are among those receiving the honor.
Making the list the first time out is quite an honor, but Bannon and his staff are well aware accreditation is not something that will last forever.
Those institutions receiving it must reapply every three years. There is every indication Auburn University’s College of Agriculture will go through the process again in 2012.
Too much work went into obtaining it not to seek re-accreditation, said Bannon.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.