The Faculty Role in Regional Accreditation

Service on Evaluation Teams

In determining whether an institution should receive initial accreditation or, as is more common, should have its accreditation renewed, the regional commissions typically employ a four-part process: first, an extensive self-study performed by the college or university being evaluated; second, a visit to the campus by a team of outside reviewers whose task is to ascertain whether the institution has met the accreditor’s standards; third, the visiting team’s issuance of a written report of its findings; and fourth, review and final action by the accrediting body. The team report contains observations on strengths and weaknesses in relation to the commission’s criteria, suggestions for improvement, and, in some regions, recommendations for commission action. Because of the substantial role played by the visiting team in this “peer-review” process, the quality of an institution’s accreditation experience can depend significantly upon the quality of the visiting team.

Given the influence that regional accreditation exerts upon American higher education, the central role that visiting teams play in the accreditation process, and the expert knowledge that faculty members bring to the evaluation of academic programs, we believe that qualified faculty members—particularly those knowledgeable about issues of academic freedom and shared governance —can provide valuable service to the profession and to higher education by participating as members of these teams.
 
Such service, furthermore, accords with the recommendations contained in the AAUP’s 1968 statement The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities. Of five “standards” recommended to the regional accrediting commissions, the first one states that visiting teams “should include full-time teaching or research faculty members.” The third urges that visiting teams “take explicit account of”

  • conditions of academic freedom and tenure (including provisions for academic due process);
  • conditions of faculty participation in institutional government (including provisions for the orderly handling of grievances and disputes); 
  • faculty status and morale (including working conditions and total compensation).

One connection between these two recommended standards is obvious: participation of “full-time teaching or research faculty members” on visiting teams should increase the possibility that the teams will take academic freedom, tenure, due process, faculty status and morale, and shared governance into “explicit account” when evaluating institutions for accreditation purposes.

Serving on an Evaluation Team

The purpose of this report is to provide encouragement and practical information to faculty members who might wish to serve on regional accreditation teams. For those interested in such service, several questions will no doubt immediately come to mind: To what extent do the standards employed by the regional accrediting commissions permit consideration of issues of central concern to faculty? How does one secure an appointment to a visiting team? What are the potential disadvantages of participation? And what are the potential benefits?

To what extent do the standards employed by the regional accrediting commissions permit consideration of issues of central concern to faculty?

A review of the accreditation handbooks published by the regional accrediting commissions indicates that several of the topics mentioned in The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities do not fare well. The system of tenure is rarely mentioned, and never in connection with academic freedom. References to faculty compensation appear within the standards of only three commissions, and references to faculty morale do not appear at all. On the other hand, all of the commissions generally assert the importance of academic freedom and, to a lesser extent, of shared governance (see the accompanying compilation of commission standards related to academic freedom and the faculty role in governance). And all the commissions make reference in their standards to the necessity of fair processes for the handling of grievances and disputes.

Clearly, efforts to strengthen accreditation standards in areas of basic concern to the AAUP should be a high priority for AAUP members. But until those standards are strengthened, faculty should also strive to breathe more life into the current standards, despite their deficiencies. Members of the faculty who serve on visiting teams, as well as those who participate in institutional self-studies, should apply existing criteria expansively in order to encourage colleges and universities that are being evaluated to meet the highest standards of academic quality—especially in the areas of governance and academic freedom. As the experience of both team members and institutions in all regions has borne out, evaluators who are sensitive to issues of sound academic practice, particularly in governance, have been able to address these issues forcefully and explicitly in their accrediting reviews.

How does one secure an appointment to a visiting team?

In an effort to obtain information for this report as well as to gauge the general “faculty friendliness” of the regional accrediting system, we contacted the staff at the regional commissions, who graciously provided extensive answers to our inquiries.1 Although specific answers varied, we are happy to report that the general drift of the responses from most of these staff members was that the commissions would welcome more involvement in the accreditation process by qualified faculty members.2

Answers to our questions regarding application and admission to the evaluator pool revealed a range of procedures, though all the commissions do routinely ask presidents and provosts to nominate likely candidates from their own institutions. In both the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (hereafter Western senior commission) and the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (New England commission), staff members report that they identify some potential evaluators through their service on their institution’s self-study teams, that provosts and presidents nominate others, and that some would-be evaluators apply directly. In fact, a Western senior commission staff member recommended that interested faculty members simply “contact the commission directly and ask to be added to the pool of evaluators.”

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Southern commission), the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (Western junior commission), and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (Northwest commission) do not invite prospective visiting team members to apply directly to be part of their evaluator pools. Members of the Northwest commission’s staff annually send letters seeking nominations to the presidents of the 160 institutions accredited by the commission. Staff members then write the nominees, inviting them to apply. Those who serve on Western junior commission visiting teams must be nominated by the presidents of their home institutions, by commission staff, or by commission team chairs. Nominees then fill out an application if they wish to be added to the evaluator pool. The procedure at the Southern commission is similar: individuals become members of the 3,690- person “evaluator registry” when they are nominated by their presidents, though occasionally some are recruited by staff. (The Southern commission will also remove an evaluator from the registry at the behest of his or her campus president, and annual presidential endorsement is necessary for Western junior commission evaluators to remain in the evaluator database—practices that the authors of this report consider unfortunate.) The Southern, Western junior, and Northwest commissions are therefore the only regional commissions that currently depend on presidential recommendations to identify potential evaluation team members.

The commissions’ requirements for acceptance are not onerous. The Middle States “Evaluator Data Form” may provide a sense of the qualifications the commissions are typically seeking. Besides the usual information about current employment and educational credentials, the form asks for information about prior Middle States involvement, other evaluator experience, self-study experience, consulting experience, current academic responsibilities, previous employment experiences, special expertise, and professional memberships.

According to commission staff, demand remains high for certain types of expert knowledge, particularly in the areas of finance, online education, and—perhaps in highest demand of all—assessment of student learning. Nevertheless, as the director of the New England commission pointed out, knowledgeable academic generalists are also sought after, especially people who work effectively in groups and who possess strong analytic, social, and organizational skills. The list of qualifications suggested by the Western junior commission’s executive director is consistent with this view:

Evidence of personal integrity and professional accomplishment, experience in [an accreditation] self-study at their own college, any other accreditation experiences, ability to be objective, ability to write analytically, good interpersonal and teamwork skills, any experiences that give [the potential evaluators] a broader view of institutional operations (e.g., committee work or leadership on their own campus), and a willingness to learn and apply the Standards of Accreditation.

When asked if certain characteristics—such as a legal background or AAUP activity—might disqualify a candidate, all the commission representatives said no.

Although we did not obtain any information about “acceptance rates,” one indicator of the chances of a faculty member’s being accepted as an evaluator may be the percentage of faculty members belonging to a commission’s evaluator pool. Only Middle States was unable to provide us with that statistic.3 In making our request, we were careful to define faculty as individuals “whose major responsibilities included teaching or research,” the definition that the AAUP uses for its annual salary survey. According to that definition, the commissions reported that their evaluator pools contained faculty members in the following proportions: New England, 20 percent; Western senior, 26 percent; Western junior, 35 percent; North Central, 27 percent; Northwest, 60 to 80 percent; and Southern, 33 percent.

All the accrediting commissions offer some kind of training for new evaluators to familiarize them with accreditation criteria and evaluation procedures. Workshops range in length from one day (Middle States, Northwest, and both Western commissions) to two days (New England) to two-and-a-half days (North Central). In addition, most commissions provide extensive written materials (typically posted on their Web sites) to guide both beginning and experienced evaluators.

In all regions, visiting teams are put together by commission staff based on two criteria: match and need, with need taking priority over match. “Match” means that staff members try to select individuals who work at institutions similar to the ones being evaluated. Thus, if a potential visitor comes from a community college, he or she is likely to be placed on teams that evaluate other community colleges. “Need” simply refers to the type of expertise required for a particular visit. For example, if an institution is asking for its online programs to be accredited, an available potential team member with a background in online education would probably receive preference.

One indicator of the likelihood of a faculty member’s being invited to join a team may be the average number of faculty on visiting teams in that region. With the sole exception of the Western senior commission, most commissions have been striving to include at least one faculty member (as defined above) on every team.4 The Northwest commission, however, typically includes a commendably high number of six faculty members on its unusually large teams of ten to twelve individuals. The New England commission normally includes two faculty members on its seven- to nine-member teams. The Southern commission averages two or three faculty members out of eight or nine individuals on a typical team; the Western junior commission includes two to three out of eight to twelve. Both the Middle States and the North Central commissions usually include at least one faculty member, with North Central teams averaging just under six total members and Middle States teams around seven.5

After the commission staff has selected someone to participate on a team, that person can still be removed if an institution’s administration or the team member detects a conflict of interest. In at least the North Central commission’s case, an institution awaiting a visit can also object to a team member if it believes that match is deficient. For example, the administration of a community college about to be visited might raise an objection if the commission included the president of a four-year liberal arts college on its proposed visiting team.

In short, the application process does not appear to be at all burdensome, with some commissions requiring slightly more paperwork than others. However, as long as a faculty member enjoys a good relationship with his or her administration, being added to a Southern or a Northwest commission pool of potential visiting-team participants should require the least effort because it typically occurs by nomination only. As for the probability of actually serving on a team after having been added to the pool, evaluators from the Northwest and New England commissions would seem to stand the best chance of being selected, and those in the Western senior commission the least (because it is the only regional commission whose teams do not normally include at least one faculty member).

What are the potential disadvantages of participation?

One obvious disadvantage is the amount of time and effort required to perform a visit. There are a number of possible variations in the nature and difficulty of the task—depending on the size of the team, the size and complexity of the institution being evaluated, and the number of days committed to the visit—but most accreditation visits require of each team member a great deal of advance reading and study, at least two weekdays of visitation, and the writing of several pages of the report.6 The visit itself can be quite intense, with long days taken up with interviews and late evenings dedicated to discussion and, in some cases, drafting the report.

This investment of time and effort would be easier to bear if team members received generous stipends. Unfortunately, stipends are the exception, not the rule. The North Central commission pays evaluators a modest stipend (as of this writing, $200 a day), the Southern and Middle States commissions pay only a nominal one ($50), and the other commissions pay none at all. The North Central commission’s relatively substantial stipend is offset by the fact that the commission charges a registration fee for the two-and-a-half-day training sessions required of new and continuing “consultant-evaluators.” The fee was $255 in 2007. When one adds to that amount the cost of air transportation, hotel, and meals, the price of attending could easily reach $1,000, which some faculty have had to pay out of their own pockets. And while some administrations do cover the training costs for their faculty and staff who serve on visiting teams, this practice does not appear to be universal.

Another disadvantage for faculty at many colleges and universities is the lack of institutional incentives supporting faculty contributions to accreditation. As a North Central staff member lamented, “institutional policies are beginning to make it more difficult for [faculty] service to include service to accreditation.”7 At most institutions, faculty members, unlike most administrators, will not only have to cancel classes or find ways of covering missed classes in order to make a visit, but also have to face the fact that service on regional accrediting teams is not typically rewarded in tenure and promotion decisions or otherwise recognized as activity worthy of institutional support.

Given the preponderance of administrators on most visiting teams—the Northwest commission being the notable exception—faculty members who do serve may feel isolated since they are likely to be either alone or in a distinct minority, depending on the region. Of course, most administrators have come up from the faculty ranks, and many of them still teach, so the “us-them” distinction may not be as sharp as the labels imply.8

What are the potential benefits of serving on an evaluation team?

Both experienced and inexperienced evaluators speak of the substantial learning that takes place as they attempt to grapple with the complexity and variety that characterize modern colleges and universities and as they review institutions from a holistic rather than an atomistic perspective. This learning can result in a broader and fuller understanding of the educational enterprise than that bounded by the walls of the classroom or the faculty office. And evaluators testify to the applicability to their own institutions of what they observe on other campuses—practices both to be imitated and to be avoided—in areas from teaching and scholarship, to admissions and student life, to fundraising and athletics. Another benefit mentioned by faculty members who have served on accreditation teams is the opportunity to become expert in the standards and processes of accreditation so that they can provide useful advice and assistance to their own colleges and universities when they undergo accreditation reviews.

In contrast to the small amount of contact that faculty members, especially those on large campuses, may enjoy with colleagues from other disciplines, departments, or schools and (regardless of the size of the school) with full-time administrators, the visiting-team experience can offer an opportunity to engage in meaningful work with people from outside one’s discipline or even one’s profession.

Finally, as we have indicated earlier, an evaluator who is knowledgeable about academic best practices—especially in areas such as governance— could reasonably expect to find an opportunity for applying that knowledge, as permitted by the accreditor’s standards, to the evaluation of a particular college or university. And as one commission staff member pointed out, such an evaluator could also expect to see his or her evaluation actually “influence how the institution operates.”

Concluding Observations

It is our impression that visiting teams as currently constituted do typically conduct thorough and rigorous reviews and that this “peer-review” process tends to function effectively most of the time. Nevertheless, we think that one particularly effective means of improving the process would be to increase participation by qualified faculty. Faculty members who would like to increase their knowledge of higher education generally, apply what they can learn at other institutions to improving their own, or help advance the academic quality of colleges and universities besides their own, especially in areas of central concern to faculty, should consider becoming involved in regional accreditation as members of visiting evaluation teams. As this report indicates, the door seems to be open to interested faculty in virtually all the regions, the process of becoming part of the evaluator pool is far from daunting, and the advantages of participation outweigh the disadvantages. Furthermore, as the AAUP statement The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities asserts, among the various institutional constituents, members of the faculty are not only best equipped to evaluate academic programs; they are also that “segment of the educational community which is in the best position to recognize and appraise circumstances affecting academic freedom, faculty tenure, [and] the faculty role in institutional government.”

GREGORY F. SCHOLTZ (English), Wartburg College

LARRY G. GERBER (History), Auburn University

MYRON HENRY (Mathematics), University of Southern
Mississippi

Notes

1. Those staff members are Barbara Beno, president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges; Barbara Brittingham, director of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; Teri Cannon, associate director of the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges; Steven Crow, executive director, and Lynn Priddy, director of education and training, of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; Albert Johnson, vice president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Gerald Lord, vice president, and Tom Benberg, vice president and chief of staff, of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; and Jean Morse, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The authors also sent a draft of the article to these same representatives for comment and correction of fact. Back to text

2. Staff members at several commissions stated that they would welcome increased faculty involvement in other roles beyond that of service on visiting teams. New England’s Barbara Brittingham, for example, wrote, There are two other ways faculty can be involved in accreditation—through the self-study process, which is often a marvelous opportunity to understand their own institution from a new and broader perspective, and by serving on a commission. The former opportunities are obviously more available than the latter, just by sheer numbers. But our faculty commissioners are generally drawn from people who have experience either with leadership in a self-study or experience on teams. Currently, our commission chair is a faculty member, and there are several other faculty members on the commission as well. Back to text

3. Middle States president Jean Morse wrote, “We can’t mine our database for the number of faculty [in the evaluator pool], because of how [evaluators] identify themselves.” Back to text

4. Western senior commission associate director Teri Cannon, however, notes that last spring two-thirds of the commission’s visiting teams did contain faculty members. She also points out that teams put together for “special visits,” which occur outside the regular review cycle and focus on specific areas of concern—such as finances, board governance, fundraising, and strategic planning—usually include administrators with expertise in those areas rather than faculty members. Cannon adds, We actively seek new persons for teams, especially faculty members with disciplinary expertise in areas that we need on specific teams. . . . We believe that having faculty members on teams is absolutely crucial. We are trying hard to have faculty members on every team. One big problem we have is that the faculty members who are interested in accreditation and who become experienced with us often are moved into administrative positions, e.g., director of assessment, vice provost for assessment, and more. Back to text

5. The North Central commission’s Lynn Priddy, however, notes that “teams of four . . . are now beginning to go out without faculty due to increased demand for financial commentary or student affairs ‘coverage’ given the rumblings of the Department of Education.” She added that an advisory body that she staffs has recommended that all teams be increased to “at least five members, except in unusual circumstances,” to ensure that every team contains at least one faculty member. Back to text

6. In a document entitled “Commitments and Expectations of Consultant-Evaluators,” the North Central commission, for example, states that team members should “expect to spend 20–30 hours preparing for a visit, three full days of work during the visit, and 20–30 hours after the visit writing and revising portions of the team report.” Back to text

7. Similar sentiments were expressed by Barbara Beno of the Western junior commission: “Would it be possible for the author(s) to consider adding a recommendation that institutions provide greater support for faculty serving on accreditation teams? In our area, faculty state that some of their institutions don’t or cannot provide ’substitute’ instructors to handle classes while a faculty member serves on a team. That is what keeps them from serving (they say).” However, Barbara Brittingham of the New England commission comments that she does not “have any sense that ‘institutional policies’ are making it any more difficult for faculty to serve [in her region]. . . . On the contrary, given what’s been going on with the increased visibility of accreditation recently, I would suspect there is more rather than less campus support for faculty to participate.” Back to text

8. One commission executive director adds, “The librarian is alone too. And the president. And the dean. And the finance expert. And the student services expert. In my experience, good teams work as teams, and the ‘us-them’ perspective doesn’t carry over to this work. Perhaps that’s one reason why people—whatever their at-home campus role—tend to enjoy it.” Back to text