Guided by Your Mission
Let Institutional Understanding Steer Accreditation Self-Studies
By Lily Owyang

From the May 2002 AAHE Bulletin


Decades ago as students at the Juilliard School, “listen to the music” was a refrain as familiar as the countless hours we spent practicing the piano. It inspired and pushed us to go beyond the boundaries of technique and memorization into the deeper regions of musicianship and musical understanding. Having retreated to the conventions of the academy from those of a performing musician, I find that parallels between the two experiences often emerge.

For example, just as in a musical performance where instrumental agility can give the appearance of musical understanding, so, too, can the massive collection of data on finances, governance, curriculum, faculty, student services, library, technology, and so on give an impression of institutional knowledge and depth in accreditation self-studies.

While we hope to hear in a performance the connection between technique and musical understanding, in a self-study we hope to find a connection between institutional data and the inspiration manifest in the mission. The following are examples of obstacles that institutions must overcome to make that connection.

Lack of Connection to the Mission
In the frenzy and process of collecting, identifying, and analyzing appropriate data toward the goal of preparing a self-study packed with the requisite amount of evidence and information, there is a tendency to assume that the institution’s mission is understood. The question is, by whom?

Case 1: A private college claims that it prepares students for the world of work in the 21st century. How is the claim reflected in the educational and learning dimensions of the mission? How is the claim characterized and expressed by different campus constituencies to an external audience, including members of an evaluation team? In short, how does the mission connect intentionally to what an institution reports on what it does?

Case 2: A large public university has adjusted to the influx of adult students into classrooms that were traditionally filled with students between the ages of 18 and 22. How is the outreach to the “new” students and their educational needs reflected in the educational mission? How has the mission been transmitted to the “new” population?

Failure to Make Understood Why the Institution Does What It Does
Because accreditation standards tend to be written and arranged in a sequential fashion, institutional responses often follow suit in a self-study. As a consequence, the responses appear isolated with little connection to each other.

Case 3: A traditional liberal arts institution has modified its curriculum to accommodate the influence of the professions. The curricular changes are clearly described in the self-study. At the same time, little insight is provided about the institutional processes that have accompanied and resulted from the curricular transition. For example, how does the curriculum reflect an institution’s thinking about itself, its students, as well as the educational and pedagogical challenges that accompany the accommodation?

Case 4: A community college has adapted some of its degree offerings in its curriculum to electronic format and delivery. The self-study describes the changes but provides little reflection on the institutional processes behind the pedagogical decisions to integrate technology, or any evaluation of the impact of technology on the curriculum.

Lack of Follow-Through
This problem, perhaps more than any listed thus far, reveals significant gaps in institutional understanding.

Case 5: A research university claims that its students learn and are successful upon graduation. Outside of course evaluations and perhaps alumni surveys, the institution submits a set of assessment activities as information about student learning. Even with a plethora of activities, little information emerges about how the institution has ascertained whether or not the activities produce clear evidence of an institution’s understanding of how its students learn.

What qualities of student work ought to be compiled? Should work be collected in a portfolio and analyzed from entrance to graduation, or should it be evaluated through performance and fine arts juries? What has the institution learned from year to year about how and what its students have learned?

Case 6: A small religious college offers data to support how and what students learn in a particular major. Sections of the self-study describe how the faculty assesses student progress in a major, including application to graduate and professional schools. Yet, in the sections that speak to student learning in general education courses, there is little faculty avowal about student learning in that area. How does the institution validate student learning and academic progress for work completed at the degree level achieved? How does the institution engage faculty responsibility for connecting learning to a student’s major course of study?

Be Upfront About What the Report Does Not Say
While it is understandable that an institution is reluctant to reveal what it has not been able to accomplish at the time of the submission of the self-study, nevertheless, it is far better to state so at the outset. To leave the discovery of the discrepancy to outside evaluators increases institutional vulnerability and embarrassment and can readily be avoided. For example, given the complexities of institutional planning, the responses in this area most often resemble a list of institutional aspirations reflective generally of early stages of planning.

Instead, simple explanations as to why particular institutional plans have not yet been met or, in some cases, including a list of realistic expectations with relevant time and budget lines are some responses that better serve the institution. Similarly, while institutional stories about student success can be both inspirational and meaningful, the anecdotal evidence would carry more weight if it was accompanied by evidence and data.

Final Observations

From a vantage point built upon a variety of past experiences in institutions different in size and mission, I observe that the smaller, private institutions have tended to produce self-studies that have been more reflective of institutional mission. These institutions also appear to know why they do what they do and for whom. Even in a financially challenged institution there is the impression that a student’s academic performance and persistence to graduation serve as the single institutional focus. It is as if the very act of sustaining viability has ignited for the educational community a unique and palpable sense of institutional mission and, as a result, creates environments that engage student learning.

Paradoxically, the issue of student learning within the more financially stable institutions appears not to attract the same kind of intensity or attention as in the previous group. It may be partly because of size, and partly because of the different funding and contractual issues that challenge many public institutions, that attention to student learning across the undergraduate years does not appear to claim the focus it deserves. Regardless, it remains clear when evidence about the way students learn and progress manifests itself and reflects on the institutional mission, there is “music” in the self-study.

Lily Owyang is a staff associate for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. She has served in a variety of roles and positions in private and public institutions during her 30-year career in higher education, including faculty member, dean, acting vice president for academic affairs, and accrediting teams evaluator. Contact her at

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