Perspectives on Accreditation and What Matters

Our guest blogger is Brigitte Valesey, Ph.D.  Dr. Valesey is Assistant Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.  She serves as the co-chair for Working Group 5:  Educational Effectiveness, and was recently invited to present on the Middle States self-study process at the Annual Conference on Teaching and Learning Assessment:  Building Academic Innovation and Renewal, held at Drexel University.


In a recent meeting with other higher education colleagues, I heard the familiar comparisons of multiple reasons for extreme busyness: “We have a new (interim or no) president (and/or provost or dean),” “We just re-organized,” and of course, the ultimate indicator of exhaustive effort, “We are working on our Middle States self-study!”

For the last, the agonizing data collection and analysis frenzy contributes to the perception of (re)accreditation as a burdensome, intrusive process that bogs down an entire institution every 7-10 years. Often added to the expressions of burden is the caveat, “BUT, we are learning a lot about ourselves.”

Ultimately, preparation for accreditation engages us in ways that sometimes seem overwhelming yet offer us opportunities to deeply reflect on our institution’s strengths and uncover areas for improvement even during leadership transitions.

Having the dual (or dueling!) perspectives of working group co-chair and Middle States evaluator, I feel the short-term urgency of producing that “unassailable” evidence and convincing self-study narrative coupled with knowing that indeed, we have the “right” documentation to demonstrate our educational effectiveness. Why should this re-accreditation pilot of the new Middle States standards be any different from past processes? How can we use the new standards to reframe our self-study preparation to be more meaningful, less painful, and less concerned with the periodic approach to accreditation and more focused on continuous improvement? What will be different after re-accreditation?

Accreditation is not a recent development in higher education. Historically, the role of accreditation was to assure the legitimacy of colleges and identify academic work acceptable for college transfer; its role has expanded to address compliance with federal regulations. As Linda Suskie notes in her 2015 Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, while federal regulations continue to shape higher education, accreditation affords a means to demonstrate and assure educational quality across very diverse colleges and universities with different missions, student populations, and programs.

Heightened tensions exist right now between higher education and the federal government over the current accreditation system and regulatory compliance, with the federal government seeking greater control over college performance, learning outcomes, and peer review processes. Critics of higher education cite rising student debt and lack of jobs after graduation as accumulating evidence of lack of accountability. In a recent Chronicle interview [PAYWALL], Judith Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, states “the biggest single issue is the call for accreditation to speak more explicitly to the performance of a college or university—students graduating, students completing other educational goals, they’re successfully transferring, they get jobs.”

So, what is different about the new Middle States standards? A colleague said to me, “There are fewer standards, just seven, to address so the self study has to be easier to write. With the fourteen previous standards, there was so much overlap and redundancy; it was hard to figure out where to put information [for the self-study].” The latter was true, but with consolidation comes a shift in emphasis. The new standards focus on the student experience first and how the institution uses its resources to assure and sustain quality, transformational student experiences that contribute to successful outcomes. Assessment is infused across the standards, with more explicit criteria for evidence of educational quality and college performance. Gone are narratives about optional evidence, replaced by explicit criteria for educational quality and future sustainability. The evidence needs to be clear and convincing about the quality of student experiences, student performance, and our ability to sustain successful outcomes in the context of our mission and vision.

How will we approach the preparation of the self-study using the new standards? Middle States expects Widener as a pilot institution to engage as many constituencies as possible in our process, so a good deal of work has been done already to provide multiple venues for communication and to demonstrate transparency. This fall the workgroups will be analyzing documents as evidence using agreed-upon analysis questions and the criteria for each of the standards. Strengths and gaps will be shared across workgroups to inform the self-study. The self-study report will have to be forward-focused, communicating how we can leverage what we do well to advance our strategic initiatives and our educational effectiveness.

As a co-chair for the Educational Effectiveness Work Group, I anticipate our workgroup will be posing critical questions, reviewing evidence, checking in and collaborating with other workgroups, and sharing information on a regular basis.

So, what if I am not in a Middle States workgroup, what can I do? Why should I care? It’s natural to assume that if you are not part of the Middle States steering committee or in a working group, that you have no contribution to make. One way to think about participation as a member of the broader Widener community is to assume the perspective of an academic citizen. To be fully engaged in the work of the institution, the academic citizen is knowledgeable of agreed-upon expectations for educational effectiveness, seeks relevant information and data, models effective practices, and contributes to quality experiences for students, either directly or indirectly, to achieve positive educational outcomes and student success.

We already care about who really matters -the students- and how we prepare them to adapt and thrive in a dynamic world. What we want to find out is, are we doing what we really ought to be doing to achieve our shared goals and outcomes?

Editor’s Note: The editor is grateful to Dr. Valesey for sharing a guest post, and welcomes any members of the Widener community to do the same.


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