Compliance Or Learning: What’s Accreditation For?

It must be accreditation season. This spring I served on two regional accreditation teams (one for WASC, one for NWCCU) as a peer reviewer. Wait – did you say peer reviewer???

— WE BREAK HERE FOR A TEACHABLE MOMENT —

Hear that students of mine? Peer Review! Yep – just like we do in our class, this process asks us reviewers to use criteria (“standards”) to assess how well we think an institution is doing based on their self-assessment report (called a “self-study”), interviews with lots and lots of people (including students), and direct evidence (such as meeting minutes, syllabi, catalogs, etc.) And you all thought I came up with peer review as a way to lighten my paper-reading load. NOPE – it’s about learning with and from others.

BACK TO MY POINT …

First, let me share with you a few fun facts about serving on an accreditation team. For one thing, you get to travel to beautiful and exotic places. For my first visit, this was my office:

For the second, this:

(Ok, ok. I took those pictures while on accreditation visits, but I really didn’t get to hang out and work right there, in the midst of that beauty. Well, except for the top one. I really did write half the report looking at that view. But of course, that’s not always the case. To be fair, I’ve heard colleagues talk about writing accreditation reports from truck stops and Denny’s restaurants.)

Serving on a peer review team is a fabulous learning experience. I learned not only from the institutions I visited, but also from my teammates. I have new ideas and strategies to bring back to my institution, and a new set of colleagues in my network. When serving on a team, you get to know other folks from other institutions who are serving with you, and because you may be tackling tough problems together in a condensed period of time (often working together into the wee hours of the night), you tend to get to know each other pretty well. In both cases this spring, I developed neat collaborative relationships with the team members, and many of us still keep in touch.

The peer review part of accreditation can present learning opportunities for an institution’s students too. A student at one institution covered the accreditation visit by writing two stories for her campus newspaper to help her fellow students know what was happening. The first was a “hey, they’re coming” story, and the second was a “hey, I had lunch with them” story. Read them here:

University makes progress with accreditation renewal

Food for thought: Accreditation luncheon

Finally, if institutions are amenable to constructive feedback (as we all should be) and if they see the process as one of genuine self-reflection and assessment in order to keep doing what works and change what doesn’t, they learn and improve too. To be clear: the reports are not easy to write or put together; looking in the mirror and calling attention to your flaws isn’t exactly a party (though you also get to call attention to your beauty marks, and identifying those can be rewarding). My own institution is a great example of the learning and improvements that can come from the process.  We have made huge improvements in how we educate and serve students since our last accreditation visit as a result of our self-assessment and feedback from peers about our practices. And it’s all good because it’s all learning.

All in all, accreditation sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s tangled into real and legitimate issues of compliance, accountability, and in some cases fear. A recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes a compelling point for why faculty should get involved accordingly:

But it’s time for college and university faculty to start paying attention to this seemingly dry issue. Further, it’s time they joined the effort by administrators and accreditors to resist the government’s increasing intrusion into accreditation. That intrusion endangers both academic freedom and the unique American system of separation of the academy from the state.

Ultimately, if we really want to improve higher education, and if we want opportunities for learning and developing networks with others, participating in a regional accreditation process can be a great way to do so. If anything, through our participation and engagement, we can help accreditation be focused on learning and improvement for everyone, including regional accrediting agencies themselves.

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One thought on “Compliance Or Learning: What’s Accreditation For?

  1. Cool piece, Mel. We are ramping up for the American Library Association accreditation of our MLIS program, which we have to do every 7 years. It’s grueling, but keeps us on our toes. If only the faculty as a whole cared a little more…

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