The Value of Accreditation in Planning
The Value of Accreditation in Planning
The system of regional and specialized accreditation is a distinctive strength of American higher education. It helps to preserve the rich diversity of American colleges and universities by offering professional peer review in the place of bureaucratic governmental oversight and control. In this country, higher education is officially sanctioned as a self-critical profession: accreditors who are part of that profession are entrusted to certify academic programs for public sanction and support.
The public trust placed in accreditation is tentative and fragile at best, however, as we see every five years when federal reauthorization of the Higher Education Act rolls around. At the state and federal levels, higher education will always be fighting off the threat of direct public control.
An even greater threat to the viability of accreditation may be internal. Complaints about accreditation continue to be harshest from within the academy, on the part of accredited institutions. The demise of the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (the organization that used to oversee the accreditation system until 1993) is taken by many to be a failure of accreditors to respond to these complaints. From the perspective of institutions, accreditation can seem expensive and irrelevant or, worse, intrusive. Institutions may feel the need for the external validation that accreditation provides, but not at the expense of interference in vital matters of academic quality. Matters of quality, say already accredited institutions, should be internal matters under internal control.
Speaking specifically to those institutions, I suggest that the founding of CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, is an opportunity both to diminish the expense and increase the value of formal accreditation. There is irony in my trumpeting CHEA. Then in the role of Provost at the University of New Hampshire, I campaigned actively against CHEA during the referendum that brought it into being. It looked to me expensive (that is a New Hampshire reflex), and no one would say how institutional dues would be spent. More important, it seemed that the founders were finessing the issue of specialized accreditation because those organizations were being left out of discussions. I thought there was bound to be trouble when it came time to write standards that would include or exclude them. New England was least receptive of all the regions to the CHEA proposal, and the regional accrediting commission, on which I then sat, actually voted on behalf of the institutions it represents not to recommend approval.
This story is most important for what followed. To my surprise, it became clear that CHEA was willing to tackle the hard issues and to negotiate with representatives of specialized organizations as well as institutions. Several “lets get down to it” meetings between chief academic officers and accreditation executive directors were sponsored by CHEA and will continue. While discussions across this table are not easy, they can ultimately have real value. There is sensible talk about streamlining and coordinating review processes.
The more ambitious goal that I see and want to recommend to my academic colleagues is a reform of both regional and specialized accreditation so that both are more useful to them in institutional planning.
The conduct of accreditation on college and university campuses belongs specifically to the chief academic officer (the provost or academic vice president or dean). Faculty are involved on visiting teams and, when their own programs are reviewed, they are deputized to help with the self-study and to host the visiting team. But the ordinary, dull business of accreditation is the lot of the administration. Neither is the public much involved. Accreditation was founded on the principle of public interestprotecting public health and safety by insuring that practitioners are properly trainedbut except in dire circumstances, when a program or institution is on the ropes, accreditation is not used to inform the public. When it gets any attention, it is often misunderstood. An area newspaper learned that the New England Association was reviewing my university for continuing accreditation last year and asked excitedly what we had done wrong. In these circumstances, the chief academic officer plays the unaccustomed role of defending the status quo and being answerable to academic evaluations that rest on authority outside the institution.
On a campus like mine, the visits from regional accreditation to the institution as such are an infrequent ordeal, but specialized accreditation of individual programs is continuous: my university has dozens of independently accredited programs, and that means that specialized accrediting teams march through regularly, two a week sometimes during the year. Speaking now for my own habits as Provost, I received the program self-study in advance, but frankly, I relied on short-term memory for my interviews with the visitors. They would test our programs by standards that we tacitly accepted but that, to be honest, sometimes made little sense from the standpoint of the institution.
Typically, they would use quantitative measures of input, in the form of ratios against a benchmark. Compliance with their standards related somehow to the ambitions of the program or the institution“we would expect such-and-such from a program like yours”but that of course begged the question of our ambitions as an institution for the program. Naturally, whenever a particular program was reviewed externally, the faculty or chair or dean would try to use the occasion to leverage new support. No wonder provosts in particular often seem unfriendly to these visitors.
To change the dynamics of accreditation, academic officers must take a more active role, indeed, take charge, in the name of academic quality. What I propose is that institutions integrate regional and professional accreditation in a single, comprehensive cycle of institutional planning and review. At this moment, as CHEA is still setting its agenda, regional and specialized accrediting organizations have made clear that they are willing to work with institutions to construct more flexible schedules, to simplify their processes, and to distinguish more clearly between minimal standards and program improvement. If we could achieve this level of cooperation between organizations and institutions, the focus could be put where it belongs, on minimal compliance if necessary or on improvement, if that is feasible and desirable. This distinction is critical. As long as the standards against which programs are measured slide around according to the visiting teams expectations, those standards have no meaning or public value.
I take it to be the primary business of CHEA to get institutions and accrediting organizations together around the articulation of clear standards that protect the public interest, so that compliance can be ascertained easily. Organizations and institutions alike would then be freed to focus on program improvementorganizations to seek out and promote exemplary programs, institutions to define and realize their ambitions.
There are several distinct advantages to incorporating accreditation more fully in institutional planning. A single process of program review would ultimately be less burdensome on the institution, and at the same time, the quality of self-studies and accreditation reports should improve, as everyone involved would take the task more seriously. Planning would be more closely tied to evaluation. In this age of electronic databases, the information that organizations need for their determinations could be kept current, even as duplication is reduced. Not least important, collaboration among accrediting organizations and institutions would strengthen public confidence in higher education.
On the initiative of the “Enhancing Usefulness” conferences held by CHEA during the past several years, some institutions have begun to put this idea to the test. On the basis of an inventory of formal, external evaluation activities, institutions can ask for flexibility from the accrediting organizations, mapping the schedules of their reports and visits onto the calendar for regional accreditation. In this way, it should be possible to coordinate reviews in cognate subject areas, across the health sciences, for example, and thereby to engage the organizations in planning. Perhaps with the help of CHEA, various accrediting organizations could subscribe to the same, simple database for institutional reports, with the promise of continuous updates. On campus, in preparation for any review, decisions would be made at the outset about what is desired and expected, and those decisions would be part of the self-study. The questions we tend to finesse would be asked first: is the program standing for approval at the level of minimal compliance with the standards, or does it seek advice, perhaps on specific issues, that will help to improve program quality? The make-up of review committees might likewise be negotiated, so that it reflects not only the requirements of the accrediting organization but the distinctive nature and the current interests of the institution.
I expect CHEA to function as an interested third party in this process, advocating with the federal government but also with accreditors and institutions for a robust system of accreditation, making examples of successful accreditation practices, and mediating disputes.
An invigorated system of regional and specialized accreditation, for which institutions as well as organizations take responsibility, would encourage faculty to involve themselves more directly with the professions in setting and enforcing standards. When colleges and universities make use of accreditation, the role of the organizations can expand from enforcing compliance to seeking out good practices as examples to publicize and share. In this way, not only CHEA but accrediting commissions and organizations themselves can become visible, public advocates for the interests of American higher education.
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Last Modified: February 18, 2000