Using Accreditation for Your Purposes
By Edward O'Neil

From the June 1997 AAHE Bulletin


Accreditors face confusions of purpose and clientele.

Even so, a director of a major study of accrediting believes smart, assertive leaders can make the process work for their campus.


The president looked over the memo summarizing the costs to his comprehensive university of the visit by the regional accrediting association and felt his ire rise. The $250,000 in direct costs was enough to spring the anger, but he knew better than most what else the review had cost his institution.

There was of course the indirect expense of time on the part of several large faculty and administrative committees and their support staff; he imagined the multiple for this might be two times the cash outlay. Then there was the time of some of his best academic and administrative leaders, as they rode herd on a not very creative process; that leadership resource was particularly valuable because leaders of quality were rare and the demands on their talents numerous.

Delayed because of the accreditation visit were the development of a new interdisciplinary program in the basic sciences, a much needed review of faculty teaching evaluations, and a substantial rebuilding job in student services.

All this for what? A report that told him what he already knew — that his institution was in good health — laced with recommendations that fit neither the campus's strategic plan nor the particular realities it faced. After waiting for the regional's decision ("approved"), the president shipped off an irate letter to the association's director and began organizing a panel to "address" these issues at the next AAHE conference. The panel's point: the entire accreditation exercise was unnecessary, unhelpful, expensive, and an unwelcome add-on to an already crowded institutional agenda.

The president's reaction may capture the feelings of many administrators and faculty to the accreditation process — regional or specialized — but is it a fair one? Don't accreditors serve an important public mission? Aren't they about improving educational quality? How could something so well-intentioned be such a bane for a campus?

When something seems this broken, the fault most likely has a number of sources. At root are some mixed and not very complementary ideas about what purpose accreditation serves. Is the process about compliance with standards, or about improving something that has already achieved a high level? Was the process itself carried out in a manner that added value to the direct consumer of the service: the university? If not, was the fault with the skills of those who delivered the service? If so, what might be done to improve those skills?

And, we might ask, did the president really understand what the accreditation process might do for his campus? Or, did he see it as merely a necessary evil to get through as quickly and painlessly as possible?

Let's go back over the confusions about purpose and customer, then look at what the president might have done.

The Purpose

Fundamental confusions exist about the nature of the accreditation process, whether institutional or programmatic. Professionals who govern the process, accreditation staffs, site visitors, and the institutions themselves understand the process in two ways. First, and most traditionally, accreditation is seen as the way institutions of higher education comply with standards of quality established to protect the public. In this role, the accreditors are the cops; the process rouses the same fears that any institution would bring to a public hearing in which it might be found wanting in some area that ostensibly protects the public's interest.

The other idea about accreditation is that it is an improvement process that brings in our colleagues from other campuses to give a critical but respectful eye to what we are and do, making helpful suggestions as to how we might do better what we already do quite well.

These are incommensurable ends, and hammering them together in the same process only weakens the possibility that either will be served well. As standards creep up in well-meaning attempts to prod institutions to do better, the higher bar for approval heightens institutional anxieties about the process. But the greater the emphasis that's put on compliance, the less likely it becomes that collegial coaching will have its effects.

It seems unlikely that we will ever get rid of a requirement for some oversight of institutions by accreditors, so the process inevitably will have a compliance aspect; when it feels like enforcement, institutions are inevitably less likely to appreciate its value as outside consulting.

Instead of confusing these two quite different processes, why not clearly separate them into the two distinct activities they are? The compliance activity should be set to the smallest, stripped-down set of standards necessary to protect the public's interest. As much as possible, easy-to-obtain outcomes measures — graduation rates, licensing exam pass rates, alumni surveys, graduates' jobs — should be used to measure satisfaction of standards.

The highly prescriptive criteria of accreditors, which buoy themselves with structural, resource, and curricular details, will give way to this emphasis on outcomes; schools and programs will have to be trusted in the way they go about achieving their stated ends. Only a new program or one that has failed to meet the mark on some compliance standard might come under closer scrutiny.

With such a process handling the role of compliance cop, accreditors would then be in a position to create a second, improvement-oriented process, positioning themselves as a source of institutional services that genuinely added value. As higher-end providers of improvement services, accreditors will then compete with other providers — consulting firms, other academic organizations, perhaps government agencies — that also have the capacity to organize and deliver services ranging from strategic planning to curriculum change and program evaluation.

Can the accreditors compete? In such a system, the question becomes moot. Either they provide a service that is genuinely valued by the institution — one the institution is willing to pay for — or they in time wither for lack of customers.

Paradoxically, one such service they might provide has to do with a present function few parties believe accreditors do well: accountability. Over the next decade, higher education will increasingly come under scrutiny from public bodies, private agencies, and consumers as to how it uses its resources.

Institutions will be expected to provide real demonstrations of how the resources allocated to them have produced a set of outcomes. The objective measures mentioned earlier — graduation rates, time to graduation, success on licensing exams, graduates with jobs, and reported satisfaction of students and graduates — are likely to be part of the new expectancies to which higher education must respond; there may be need for further metrics that look directly at learning outcomes and at accomplishments in research and service.

On paper at least, who better by experience and intimate knowledge than accreditors to coach institutional customers in best responses?

The Customer

The second necessary component in the evolution of accreditation will come as associations ask themselves difficult questions of who exactly they serve, and in what ways. It would seem that at least five distinct customers are relevant here: the institution, the potential student, the public, the professional community, and the faculty.

What is of interest to the institution in a process like accreditation? If the process is one of minimal standards, then the institutional customer wants to meet these as efficiently as possible and get on with its mission. If the institution seeks to improve itself, then it could make good use of an objective, informed review of its programs, reviews free from professional or disciplinary advocacy.

Part of the future for all of higher education will be deciding what programs to keep and which to retire because they are not being carried out at a competitive level. Such assessments are of course impossible when done as "self-study" by internal faculty. But if accreditors could offer a review process that judged where individual programs fell in terms of quality, perhaps by quartile against national norms, that service would be of enormous value to campuses facing inevitable decisions of what to enhance from a base of high quality, what to improve to an acceptable level of quality, and what to disinvest in because of failure to meet quality expectations.

If real data about the performance of programs could be developed through an "accreditation process," institutional demand for such a service would ensure a busy future for provider agencies.

Accreditation, differently conceived, might also fill an information void that now confronts students. Certainly, students today can easily obtain the accreditation status of a school or program, but that information only isolates egregious violators and doesn't help much with choice. What students want to know is the relative values and strengths of programs. Right now they turn to commercial providers of such information or to journalistic treatments such as in U.S. News & World Report. But a service for students that took finer account of professional judgment and of differences of mission and clientele — all these, accreditors' presumed forte — would be one of perceived high value (and that students and parents would willingly pay for).

The public's interests are served by the accreditation process, but its interests are ever the vaguest and most general of the lot. This might be why those in the accrediting community are most willing to discuss their public obligation, because "the public" is the least demanding and articulate of accreditation's possible consumers. The public at a minimum requires that academic programs will be delivered as promised in a way that is consistent with some national sense of minimum standards of quality.

Clearly accreditation also serves the professional interests of academics. The process helps the professions and disciplines define themselves and provides some context for the evolution of the meaning for those communities of practice.

By surrounding ourselves with an accreditation process, we prevent entry of other competitors offering comparable services. This impulse may come from a wish to protect the public from unscrupulous providers preying on the uninformed with inappropriately prepared faculty, ill-thought-through curricula, or inadequate facilities; or we may just want to protect our own interests by keeping more innovative, less costly providers of our services out of the fold of respectability. In this context, accreditation creates a barrier to entry, one that may be just high enough to protect the public or so high as to thwart innovation and choice on the part of the public.

In all of this — especially in specialized/programmatic accreditation — it is difficult to decide whose interest is being served.

Finally, the accreditation process serves the faculty of the institutions and programs being accredited. The accreditation standards are created by faculty and as such they serve the faculty's definition of what should be. These standards can be and are used as leverage for claiming resources for individual programs. Sometimes this move may be very appropriate, other times inappropriate; as an all-or-nothing proposition, accreditation often becomes a pretty blunt instrument on behalf of particular faculty interests.

Recommendations

Accreditation will always serve multiple customers, but it should do so in a manner that genuinely responds to the expressed interests of real customers, not the interpreted interests as decided by accreditors. The process should also clarify whose interests are precedent, as various of these will inevitably conflict.

In the final analysis, institutional leaders will have to decide what they derive in value from accreditation as they manage their institutions. If accreditation remains another way of sustaining the status quo of faculty, disciplines, professional schools, or entire institutions, it may serve some short-term interests but it will miss opportunities to help academic institutions along new pathways.

What I'll recommend from all this — for presidents, provosts, and deans — comes from my experience on campus and sense of larger developments in accrediting.

My experience isn't so different from that of other veteran administrators. No matter how foreboding an accreditor may seem or how far away the changes I've described may appear, it's almost always possible to make better use of the accreditation process. You just have to be proactive about it. I once cochaired a self-study team at a professional school; my cochair and I set out to make the whole process as efficient as possible both by using the absolute fewest resources (of all types) and by using the process to accomplish work that needed to be done anyway. We had planned in the next year to undertake a strategic planning process; knowing that, we fought for and eventually got permission from the accreditor to change its data-collection and reporting requirements so they fit our immediate planning needs.

With this example and others in mind, let me make these points:

  • Approach accreditation with your own needs and agenda in mind. Do you have a change process already under way? How, then, might accreditation serve it? Value accreditation for its ability to be responsive to what you are doing. If it isn't, push back at accreditors.
  • Approach accreditors proactively from a position of power. More often than not, uncertain of their status and future, they're vulnerable. Tell them your requirements and let them know how they can serve your needs ... approach the whole relationship in just that way.
  • Minimize the compliance part of the visit. Try to limit your reporting to what is already collected or is easily pulled together from existing databases.
  • Put your needs for special study — not their criteria — at the heart of the accreditation process; make your own decision-making requirements the driver. Insist on a broadly based, top-flight visiting team and on an objective study and report that campus decision makers can respect and act on.
  • Keep both institution-wide and program-specific special studies in your own office, led by senior people who understand campuswide strategic issues.
  • Accreditors have needs (and limits) too; understand these, even as you negotiate for a process that speaks to your program's needs.
  • Finally, look for ways to redesign the entire process and relationship between campus and accreditor. The day when that redesign will be possible — indeed, necessary — is not far off.


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