May we be candid for a moment? When academic administrators are alone—no faculty members or representatives of the press in sight—one of the things we complain about most bitterly is accreditation. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about regional accreditation of all our programs or specialized accreditation of individual programs, we find it a nuisance at best and a major waste of time and effort at worst. It’s not that we don’t see advantages accruing from accreditation. We do. But we find that those returns seem to be ever diminishing and certainly not worth the cost involved in the process.

Even worse, accreditation sometimes actually gets in the way of our efforts to be innovative and responsive to the needs of a new generation of students. Legislatures, governing boards, and students all want us to offer accelerated paths to an academic degree, but accrediting agencies are still mired in outdated notions such as seat time and contact hours, even as they give lip service to the importance of outcomes-based assessment and evaluation. So, if you accept a few too many AP or IB credits—or, heaven forfend, try to launch an accelerated bachelor’s/master’s degree program—you’re likely to run into a brick wall of reasons why your creative solution (which everyone seems to like except the accreditors) “dilutes the integrity of the academic degree,” simply because a graduate won’t have been physically present in a classroom as long as he or she might have been 20 or 50 years ago.

Despite all these frustrations, however, few institutions are probably going to opt out of being accredited anytime soon. Doing so means that they’d lose access to certain federal scholarship funding and decrease the likelihood that other schools will accept the credits they generate for students. They may feel too that losing certain specialized accreditation will reduce their program’s attractiveness to students. (It probably won’t—most prospective students don’t understand or care about specialized accreditation—but the perception, not the reality, seems to be most important.) So, if accreditation is unlikely to go away, is it possible to make lemonade from this lemon and create a more positive outcome from what is by all accounts an outdated, flawed, and severely non-
user-friendly process?

Cleaning house

Taking the perspective of “If we have to do it anyway, how can we make it better?” we might begin by saying that accreditation gives us a relatively rare opportunity to do some housecleaning in higher education. One widely quoted witticism that’s been attributed to everyone from former governor Zell Miller of Georgia to former chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Stephen Portch, says that, “It’s easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course.” Well, accreditation gives us the leverage to change history courses—and a lot more. By compelling us to make a periodic review of the curriculum, our policies and procedures, and the staffing assigned to various tasks at our schools, we have an externally imposed reason to engage in a process that can result in internally beneficial results.

For example, if we’ve been meaning to pare down the requirements for a program so that students have more options (and thus a greater likelihood of graduating on time), accreditation can give us an incentive for doing so. If our approval processes have become cumbersome, with the result that it can take months to pass even a minor change to the catalog or curriculum, accreditation can open the door to change. If we’ve allowed people to teach certain classes simply because “that’s what they’ve always taught,” even though they don’t have any record of training or research in that area, accreditation allows us to move those courses to more qualified instructors, all the time saying, “I
wasn’t the one who wanted to do this. It was the accreditation agency that required it.”

Becoming proactive

Similarly, just as we’ve learned to become more proactive when we conduct faculty evaluations—not merely appraising past performance but also building on the past to set goals for the future—so can accreditation help us become more proactive with regard to an entire program, division, or institution. Accreditation offers us a regular opportunity to ask ourselves where we want to go on the basis of where we’ve already been. It gives us a chance to plan systematically by looking at best practices at other institutions and comparing our current results with those of our peers.

Some accrediting bodies even make this proactive process part of their requirements. The Quality Enhancement Plan required for reaffirmation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools causes institutions to reflect on how they can improve student learning in a significant way that cuts across many, if not most, academic programs and produces a result that can be assessed and constantly improved. The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has developed an Academic Quality Improvement Process as an alternative path to accreditation that looks forward instead of backward and seeks to instill in institutions a culture of continuous improvement.

Meeting the enemy

Finally, it’s important to recognize that ultimately we’re the ones who accredit each other’s institutions. Although the staff members of accrediting agencies, like the career diplomats at the national level who remain in their positions even as administrations change, often seem the real roadblocks to change, it’s the institutions that belong to each accrediting body that ultimately set the standards. Staff members may be very adept at telling member institutions why they can’t or shouldn’t cast aside obsolete standards for those that are more reflective of the academy today, but we’re the ones who actually vote to approve, change, or reject standards. Maybe we’ve met the enemy—and it’s us. If some of us who feel hampered by the antiquated standards and processes in use at accrediting agencies were a little more outspoken at meetings about why accreditation often hurts more than it helps us, maybe we can begin to initiate some change. If we’re not successful, at least we’d be no worse off than we are right now.

Okay. We’ve been candid enough. It’s safe to let the faculty and press back into the room now.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLA: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 31.10 (2015): 5, 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.