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Including Faculty in Accreditation Preparation: Boon or Bane?

By Anne B. Bucalos February 13, 2014

THE ACCREDITATION PROCESS IN higher education has undergone dramatic changes in the past twenty years (Ewell 2005; Volkwein 2010; Wolff 2005), having substantive impact on the nature of institutional research, the creation of a culture of continuous improvement, and the proliferation of resources—both personnel and technology—to assist institutions. Meeting accreditation standards, with their emphasis on student and program outcomes and accountability, has spawned accreditation coordinators who use software such as Compliance AssistTM to streamline their focused accreditation work. Increasingly, the knowledge of the ever-changing accreditation process is the purview of a select few who are assigned this work on their campuses, attend highly specific conferences and workshops designed for them, and participate as reviewers on other campuses to have the “inside track” on what passes muster. Consolidating the process within the ranks of a knowledgeable few can ensure accuracy, commitment to a high-quality product, and adherence to a strict, yet often shorter, timeline; but at the cost of limited input, lack of understanding by many, and little ownership of institutional performance and change. Who is the group most likely to be on the fringe of the accreditation process? The faculty are often the outsiders.

Perley and Tanguay (2008), representing the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in a report on the participation of faculty in accreditation, maintained that “greater involvement of faculty members can increase the likelihood that teaching and learning are maintained at a high level of quality. To leave this process primarily in the hands of administrators and other staff members is to abdicate a portion of our responsibility to our students, to our institutions, to our profession, and to our society” (89). Greenberg (2012), in his support of faculty’s being more involved in the accreditation process, describes a political and educational benefit: “Support for voluntary accreditation among the entire academic community would make for a potent political force to resist unfriendly governmental efforts to control academic programs and research,” and “a faculty more engaged with the accreditation process would be more aware of how excellence throughout a campus is as vital as excellence in their own departments” (3). Yet, on many campuses, accreditation is shunned by faculty as administrative work, while administrators panic at the thought of faculty wreaking havoc with their well-organized accreditation files!

Is faculty participation a boon or a bane? Part of the answer rests with the accrediting bodies and their requirements for faculty involvement, particularly in the self-study process that typically initiates accreditation and reaccreditation efforts. Professional program accreditors, such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, require full faculty participation and its documentation as necessary for meeting their standards. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (1968) likewise assumes faculty involvement as integral to institutional effectiveness and transformative change. So why is there the siloed effect on most campuses, where specialized personnel in administrative positions orchestrate the process instead of faculty-based committees? The answer to whether increased faculty involvement is beneficial, desirable, and necessary rests with a faculty development process.

Faculty need “developing” with regard to the intricacies of accreditation, and they need affirmation that this service is integral to the well-being of their academic mission and that of the institution. Bringing faculty into the “fold” has numerous benefits to both faculty and the institution:

  • Faculty are in the primary position to provide analyses and evaluation of curriculum, assessment, policies, academic advising, student support services, and retention efforts because they are in direct contact with students.
  • Faculty are more likely to understand and cooperate with policy changes by administration if they have been involved integrally with decisions leading to those changes as a result of accreditation determinations.
  • Faculty see the bigger picture of the workings of the institution and how one change can affect and effect many others.
  • Faculty morale improves when they feel that they have directly contributed to a successful effort in which they have ownership, while distrust lessens when they feel included and engaged.
  • Faculty are in a better position to advocate for increased resources, including personnel, if they clearly understand accreditation standards and their relationship to effective practice and student success.
  • Faculty who participate in the accreditation process as reviewers at other institutions are able to provide feedback to their own institutions on how to improve and expand programs.
  • Institutions have the benefit of multiple perspectives to enhance efforts to continuously improve.
  • Institutions have a natural “line of succession” of faculty who may be interested in leading accreditation efforts on their own campus.

Faculty involvement in improving instructional quality will show accreditors that faculty actually care about the quality of students’ experiences, rather than being disinterested or distrustful of administrators’ monopoly of the accreditation process. When an accreditation team comes to campus, each faculty member should feel as though he or she is the host. Faculty should be able to look at the accreditation report and see their input and evaluation, as well as understand the feedback from the accreditor. This requires a more holistic view of accreditation by the institution, an opening-up of the process to multiple constituents, and a commitment to developing faculty so that their talents are used constructively in the process. With increasing use of software systems, departmental or school committees can more easily contribute data and narrative explanation to accreditation responses and exhibits. Faculty begin to appreciate data collection and analysis more when they are intimately involved in the assessments and evaluation and have a better conception of what truly is working rather than assuming effectiveness.

What are the negative aspects of faculty participation? There is more input to process from a broader group of participants and less control over that input. Institutional policies and practices may become more transparent, which, in turn, may evoke more faculty response. There may be an increased need for editing for consistency and accuracy. Collaboration can have its ups and downs, with more people having their own ideas and ways of structuring them and unique perspectives to contribute.

Yet collaboration with faculty as integral participants can add an authenticity to the process that is lacking when only administrators are the primary authors. Faculty are often motivated to contribute when they believe their input is not only valued but used. One approach is to divide faculty strategically into work teams, each with a chair or designated leader—who then functions as the primary participant in a broader accreditation leadership team. The team chair functions as the “developer” in the sense that he or she has more experience with the accreditation process and with the institution. Regular work sessions of teams within a well-defined time frame keep the accreditation work on track. Teams can “peer edit” their work, cutting down on the amount of final editing. The team leaders serve as communication conduits between the faculty and the administrators assigned to complete the final report and prepare for the on-site visit. During on-site visits, faculty teams can become prime interview candidates, having been involved in fundamental ways. The administration has the satisfaction of knowing that interviewees are well informed and prepared to field questions. Faculty participants can take pride in their accomplishment of having contributed to a crucial component of ensuring quality experiences at their institution. Accreditation becomes less of a “dreaded” and onerous task and more of the continuous road to improvement that it is designed to be. Perhaps the greatest benefit is to newer faculty, who do not have the history and background of the institution and who are drawn more quickly into its inner workings through participation in accreditation.

An informed faculty is an empowered faculty, and an empowered faculty can have a very positive impact on academic quality when the work of accreditation is done collaboratively. If an institution expects faculty to be fruitful contributors to the accreditation process and paves the way for them to be integrally involved, they will rise to that expectation, and the institution and the students it serves will be strengthened.

References

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. 1968, April. “The Role of Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://www.chea.org/pdf/RoleoftheFacultyintheAccreditingofCollegesandUniversities.pdf

Ewell, P. T. 2005. “Can Assessment Serve Accountability? It Depends on the Question.” In Achieving Accountability in Higher Education: Balancing Public, Academic, and Market Demands, edited by J. C. Burke. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Greenberg, M. 2012, April 19. “Accreditation and Faculty.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/131577/

Perley, J. E., and Tanguay, D. M. 2008. “Institutional Accreditation: A Call for Greater Faculty Involvement.” Academe, March–April, 89–91. Retrieved from http://www.aaup.org/report/call-for-greater-faculty-involvement

Volkwein, J. F. 2010. “The Assessment Context: Accreditation, Accountability, and Performance.” New Directions for Institutional Research, Wiley Online Library, 3–12. doi: 10.1002/ir.327

Wolff, R. A. 2005. “Accountability and Accreditation: Can Reforms Match Increasing Demands?” In Achieving Accountability in Higher Education: Balancing Public, Academic, and Market Demands, edited by J. C. Burke. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Anne B. Bucalos is director of faculty development at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.


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