Enhancing Usefulness Conference III
Vol.2, No. 2
Enhancing Usefulness Conference III
More than 100 college and university presidents and senior administrators, representatives of accrediting organizations, federal and state officials, and higher education experts convened in Chicago in June 1999 to examine ways to make the accreditation process more useful to institutions, students, policy makers, regulators, and the public.
The conference, the third in a series sponsored by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), focused primarily on specialized and professional accreditation and generated a wide range of suggestions to improve cooperation and communication among accreditors and institutions, clarify standards and responsibilities, and streamline the accreditation process.
Conference participants also reviewed a draft "Statement of Good Practices and Shared Responsibility in the Conduct of Specialized and Professional Accreditation Review" developed by the CHEA Specialized Advisory Panel working with academic leaders from the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges’ Council on Academic Affairs.
The two-day meeting, held at the Regal Knickerbocker Hotel, opened with a panel discussion of "Shared Goals, Responsibilities, and Understanding Among Accreditors and Institutions" that revealed some of the issues and tensions forming the background of the conference. Mary Ann Swain, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Binghamton, urged accrediting organizations to be even more sensitive to the fiscal realities with which institutions must deal. This is especially important in light of decreasing revenues for higher education in recent years, she said. She cautioned accreditors to resist lengthening the list of standards they apply in reviewing schools or programs, noting that "adding new standards without subtracting old ones creates, for all practical purposes, an unfunded mandate."
Similarly, accrediting organizations should avoid actions that might interfere with the internal management of colleges and universities. For example, institutions have good reasons to practice "cross-subsidization" among programs, Swain claimed, and specialized and professional accreditors should consider this before pressing administrators to allow a particular program to retain all the resources it generates.
Panelist Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, maintained that applying pressure to institutions that have deficiencies is an important function of accrediting organizations. Specialized and professional accreditors "always will take a harder look at programs on campus than will regional accreditation," he said. "Inevitably, there will be more tension" as a result.
David Shulenburger, provost at the University of Kansas, replied that the greatest tension arises when accreditors specify needed physical facility improvements, which are not always related to program outcomes. Moderator Robert Glidden, president of Ohio University and immediate past chair of the CHEA Board of Directors, asserted that accreditors "can’t always measure outcomes precisely." For that reason, "the pendulum tends to swing between outcomes and inputs," he said.
While accreditation is a service to institutions and the public, the groups that perform it should not play a regulatory role, said Lawrence "Mac" Detmer, the immediate past executive director of the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Specialized accreditors are responsible for keeping standards current in fields that may be changing rapidly, he noted.
Shulenburger expressed special concern about some accreditation visits and "the specification of how we get our graduates to appropriate outcome levels," particularly regarding demands for additional institutional resources. Shulenburger called on accreditors to distinguish between advice they might give about ways to improve programs and their expectations of minimum standards.
At a first-day luncheon plenary, featured speaker Margaret Miller, president of the American Association for Higher Education, outlined significant changes in the context and challenges accreditors and institutions face in dealing with improvement and accountability. "The academy is becoming more web- and net-like," she observed. "It is no longer separated from the external environment."
Miller described colleges and universities as "open structures," where boundaries increasingly are blurred. "Quality controls in such evolving entities have to be a motion picture, not a snapshot," she held. In this context, "the fundamental job of accrediting agencies is to determine what students need to know and whether institutions are providing it."
Change is taking place not only in how work is done in the academy, Miller said, but also for whom. Institutions have more stakeholders, including not only the federal and state governments but also governments in other parts of the world. "Regular conversations between quality assurance partners about who does what are long overdue," she argued.
These partners need to share information with each other and with the public, Miller maintained. In an age of rapidly evolving information technology, "the separation between public and private information is increasingly untenable." CHEA serves as a "web-maker," she said, in its efforts to define new relationships and make accreditation more useful.
At a second-day morning plenary session on "Working for Change," panelist Trudy Banta, vice chancellor for planning and institutional improvement at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, urged that assessment should be part of a loop that begins with planning. The kind of evaluation provided by accreditation, particularly specialized and professional, should be aligned with planning at the departmental level, she said.
Accreditation can help establish and maintain the integrity of degrees, Banta contended. She called on accreditors to help academic officials focus on good practices regarding resources, processes, and outcomes.
Charles Cook, director of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, described accreditation as a "death and taxes business" that will not go away. "The question is how to make it better," he emphasized. The relationship between accreditors and institutions depends on "the attitude and approach taken by the agency," he said, because "all of them are strongly staff-driven." A commitment to self-regulation by institutions is among the elements essential for success in using accreditation as a tool for improvement, Cook stressed. "Self-regulation is not merely the absence of government regulation," he averred. True institutional self-regulation "should result in an accreditation that is non-intrusive."
In any case, Cook said, "improvement on demand doesn’t really work." Accreditation must tie itself to institutional goals and processes. It must be flexible in the timing of visits and reports and the selection of teams, allow different models for self-study, and "get away from the incrementalist definition of quality," he stated.
During the discussion period, moderator Paul Gaston, provost and executive vice president at Northern Kentucky University, asked whether accrediting organizations are doing more training of review teams as a way to deal with rapid change. From the audience, Detmer observed that "it’s hard to get people to do site visits, much less parti-cipate in training." He urged accreditors to explore new models in assembling and preparing review teams.
CHEA President Judith S. Eaton called the conference "another step toward increased understanding and cooperation between institutional leaders and accreditors. The discussions were candid and points of disagreement surfaced, but the participants also came away determined to continue their conversations and achieve stronger, more productive relationships."
Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools and chair of the CHEA panel, characterized the statement as a "working draft." After further review, a final version will be distributed to institutions and accreditors.
The statement delineates those areas in which accreditors and institutions and programs bear separate responsibility and those for which they are jointly responsible. It is intended to achieve four main goals:
The statement calls on institutions and programs to provide clear, accurate, and complete information to accreditors for the review; appropriately involve and inform key faculty and administrators; inform accreditors of the desired purpose and expected results; provide in-formation in a timely and constructive manner in response to concerns or difficulties that emerge; and understand accrediting organizations’ standards, policies, and procedures.
Accreditors should ensure that accreditation teams are well-informed and prepared for the review and apply standards consistently; pursue only the data and information needed to determine whether the standards are met; focus on financial and other resources only to the extent that they affect compliance with standards; respect the relationship of individual program needs to broader institutional objectives; keep institutional officials informed; communicate consistent information; and provide opportunities for objective review and resolution of differences.
The statement exhorts both parties to provide candid and useful evaluation of the review; ensure open exchange if issues and concerns are identified; encourage flexibility, openness, and cooperation in considering experimental and creative variations in reviews; and ensure that resources are used efficiently so that the costs incurred in reviews are essential to determining that standards are met.
(Review the draft statement at http://www.chea.org/Research/practices-responsibility.asp
To offer comments, please e-mail us at CHEA@chea.org.)
At a session on "Proliferation," co-leader John T. Casteen, III, president of the University of Virginia and vice chair of the CHEA Board of Directors, observed that growth in the number of specialized accrediting organizations has subsided recently. The focus for discussion now, he said, should be on resolving "residual issues" related to the creation of new organizations in past years.
Although the multiple demands of specialized and professional accrediting organizations occasionally have been problematic, Casteen noted, the difficulties they cause may be exaggerated because "war stories often get repeated." Specialized and professional accreditors can play an important role in encouraging good planning, he said. However, while the variety of perspectives they apply is a useful part of the process, their lack of a broad outlook can be a hurdle. "They tend to focus on small matters," Casteen asserted.
Co-leader Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, maintained that "proliferation is in the eye of the beholder," mainly presidents and provosts. He argued that some accrediting organizations, such as his own, actually work against proliferation by incorporating a number of sub-disciplines into their review process.
Among the suggestions emerging from the two sessions on this topic:
Participants in the sessions also called for better information on the growth of new accrediting organizations, the impact of accreditation on institutional budgets, and the true costs of accreditation reviews.
At a session on "Assessing Fiscal and Other Resources," co-leader Richard Traina, president of Clark University, said that in many cases, the question of whether the standards used by accrediting organizations advance the programs they evaluate is a point of contention between institutional officials and accreditors. That disagreement characterized discussion during the session, with senior academic administrators and representatives of accrediting organizations occasionally expressing sharply divergent views.
Traina noted that while many college and university presidents believe accreditors should apply minimal standards, accrediting organizations continue to raise the bar by enacting new standards that specify program characteristics they identify with excellence. "There still is a great deal of codifying of what has been known as ‘best practices,’" he said. Traina urged accreditors and in-stitutions to "get together on what constitutes success to define outcome measures, not how to get there."
Among the suggestions that emerged from the group:
Several of the groups called for CHEA to sponsor opportunities for further research and discussion. CHEA President Judith S. Eaton said that some sessions at the organization’s January 2000 conference in Washington, DC, will be devoted to issues raised in Chicago, and CHEA already is planning a fourth Enhancing Usefulness Conference for 2000. •
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