Ah, yes. Accreditation. Where did we put the last self-study, anyway?
At the dawn of my administrative career, my president named me as the point person on our decennial accreditation. I wangled a trip to an accreditation seminar held (at one of the Rutgers campuses, as it happens). At this remove, I recall two memories. The first was how woefully underprepared I felt to lead the self-study. The other was a statement from one of the presenters that accreditation ought to be a continuous enterprise.
Through the lens of thirty years of experience in roles ranging from self-study chair to team chair, I can tell you: he was dead right.
If you’re like most presidents or provosts I’ve known, accreditation—and the self-study which forms its gravamen—evokes wearying thoughts of file reviews, document hunts, committees, teams, workshops, drafts, record-keeping, institution-wide meetings, editorial readings, political searches for the right phrasing, and the final hope that your institution will sail through the document you submit and the visit that ensues. Most of all, it is perceived as an ill-timed institutional pause in the operational and strategic flow.
Accreditation thinking—learning to embed the intent of accreditation into your real-time operations and making the standards and expectations (and the documentary record) normal parts of your operations—makes two very important contributions to your work.
First, you are building into every part of your operations metrics and perspectives that your line administrators and faculty normally don’t think about. (How often do your web services people vet your website for compliance? Are you still having that debate with faculty about what constitutes evidence of student success? What is it about your co-curricular program that, in the words of one accreditor, responds to the “needs of its student population” and is “guided by a philosophy that reflects the institution’s mission and special character”?).
Second, if you have integrated ‘accreditation thinking’ into your strategic and operational activities, self-study is already underway long before you receive that letter notifying you of the upcoming visit. Data collection and documentary evidence has already been shaped or broadened to include the information you need. Institutional Research already can supply the analyses (not to mention the spiffy charts and content maps) you will need. Your data repository is already largely built. Institutional knowledge about the standards and aspirations of accreditation is already resident across the institution.
No matter under which regional accreditor you reside, at the end of the day, the general principles and requirements impose a burden that can be off-set by having built the tools, practices, and culture you need into the work you already do.
Oh, and by the way, all of this applies to specialized accreditors, too.