Accrediting Commissions’ Standards on Faculty Governance

What do accreditors say about the role of the faculty?
By Michael DeCesare

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) defines accreditation in higher education as “a collegial process of self-review and peer review for improvement of academic quality and public accountability of institutions and programs.” The process typically involves three primary activities: an institutional or programmatic self-study, a review of the institution or program conducted by an outside visiting committee, and a decision by an accrediting organization to accredit, to accredit with conditions, or not to accredit the institution or program. According to the most recent data from CHEA, there are more than eighty-two hundred accredited institutions and more than forty-four thousand accredited programs in the United States.

The AAUP has a long-standing interest in institutional accreditation in particular. Its 1968 statement The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities presented a number of recommended standards for both institutions and regional accrediting commissions. Since that time, the Association has published additional statements and reports regarding accreditation, including, in 2008, a call for greater faculty involvement in the accreditation process and a report containing practical information for faculty members interested in serving on regional accrediting teams. The most recent AAUP publication on this subject, a brief advisory statement jointly issued with CHEA in 2012, posed several “timely and important” unanswered questions regarding academic freedom, institutional governance, and accreditation, the last of which asks in part about faculty governance, “To what extent do [accrediting organizations’] standards . . . capture the significance of institutional decision making and the faculty’s role in that process?”

This article addresses that question by examining the relevant standards (also called criteria or sections) of the seven regional accrediting organizations currently recognized by CHEA and the US Department of Education. In alphabetical order, they are the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges–Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC), the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). In evaluating the extent to which each of the seven organizations’ standards delineate the faculty’s role in institutional decision making, I also comment on the congruence—or lack thereof—between those standards and AAUP-recommended principles of academic governance.

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges–Western Association of Schools and Colleges

The ACCJC adopted its current standards in 2014. Most references to institutional governance are found in standard IV (“Leadership and Governance”), the prefatory paragraph to which states in part: “Governance roles are defined in policy and are designed to facilitate decisions that support student learning programs and services and improve institutional effectiveness, while acknowledging the designated responsibilities of the governing board and the chief executive officer. Through established governance structures, processes, and practices, the governing board, administrators, faculty, staff, and students work together for the good of the institution.”

Standards IV.A.2, IV.A.3, IV.A.4, IV.A.5, and IV.A.7 read, respectively, as follows:

The institution establishes and implements policy and procedures authorizing administrator, faculty, and staff participation in decision-making processes.

Administrators and faculty, through policy and procedures, have a substantive and clearly defined role in institutional governance and exercise a substantial voice in institutional policies, planning, and budget that relate to their areas of responsibility and expertise.

Faculty and academic administrators, through policy and procedures, and through well-defined structures, have responsibility for recommendations about curriculum and student learning programs and services.

Through its system of board and institutional governance, the institution ensures the appropriate consideration of relevant perspectives; decision-making aligned with expertise and responsibility; and timely action on institutional plans, policies, curricular change, and other key considerations.

Leadership roles and the institution’s governance and decision-making policies, procedures, and processes are regularly evaluated to assure their integrity and effectiveness. The institution widely communicates the results of these evaluations and uses them as the basis for improvement.

Although the ACCJC does not devote any of its standards entirely to the responsibilities of the faculty—as it does for both the chief executive officer and the governing board—four standards address the faculty’s curricular responsibilities. Standard II.A.2 (“Instructional Programs”) grants the faculty “collective ownership” over curricular matters:

Faculty, including full time, part time, and adjunct faculty, regularly engage in ensuring that the content and methods of instruction meet generally accepted academic and professional standards and expectations. In exercising collective ownership over the design and improvement of the learning experience, faculty conduct systematic and inclusive program review, using student achievement data, in order to continuously improve instructional courses and programs, thereby ensuring program currency, improving teaching and learning strategies, and promoting student success.”

Standard II.A.12 states, in part, “The institution, relying on faculty expertise, determines the appropriateness of each course for inclusion in the general education curriculum, based upon student learning outcomes and competencies appropriate to the degree level.” Standard II.B.2 (“Library and Learning Support Services”) also recognizes the primary responsibility of the faculty as well as librarians for curricular support: “Relying on appropriate expertise of faculty, including librarians, and other learning support services professionals, the institution selects and maintains educational equipment and materials to support student learning and enhance the achievement of the mission.” Finally, and interestingly, standard III.A.2 (“Human Resources”) codifies in faculty position descriptions the faculty’s expertise in and responsibility for curricular matters: “Faculty qualifications include knowledge of the subject matter. . . . Faculty job descriptions include development and review of curriculum as well as assessment of learning.”

Higher Learning Commission

The HLC adopted revised accreditation criteria in February 2019, and they became effective on September 1, 2020. The new criteria include only three statements on faculty governance. The first gives faculty oversight regarding “academic matters”: “The governing board delegates day-to-day management of the institution to the institution’s administration and expects the institution’s faculty to oversee academic matters” (criterion 2.C.5). The second is a vague statement about the role of various groups in institutional governance: “Shared governance at the institution engages its internal constituencies—including its governing board, administration, faculty, staff and students—through planning, policies and procedures” (criterion 5.A.1). A final HLC criterion appears to provide faculty—but also staff and students—the opportunity to be involved in academic decisions: “The institution’s administration ensures that faculty and, when appropriate, staff and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy and processes through effective collaborative structures” (criterion 5.A.3).

Middle States Commission on Higher Education

The MSCHE published the most recent edition of its Standards for Accreditation and Requirements of Affiliation in 2015. Just three of the nearly fifty total criteria mention the faculty’s role in institutional governance. Criterion 2 under standard III (“Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience”) describes an accredited institution as being characterized by “student learning experiences that are designed, delivered, and assessed by faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other appropriate professionals.” Another characteristic of an accredited institution is that the faculty is involved in assessment. As such, criterion 2 under standard V (“Educational Effectiveness Assessment”) calls for “organized and systematic assessments, conducted by faculty and/or appropriate professionals, evaluating the extent of student achievement of institutional and degree/program goals.” Finally, criterion 1 under standard VII (“Governance, Leadership, and Administration”) states that an accredited institution possesses and demonstrates “a clearly articulated and transparent governance structure that outlines roles, responsibilities, and accountability for decision making by each constituency, including governing body, administration, faculty, staff and students.”

New England Commission of Higher Education

The standards currently used by NECHE were adopted and became effective in 2016. NECHE has a far greater number of standards that describe different aspects of the faculty’s role in institutional governance than any other regional accrediting commission.

Standards 3.13, 3.14, 3.15, and 3.17 (“Internal Governance”), respectively, read in full or in part:

In accordance with established institutional mechanisms and procedures, the chief executive officer and senior administrators consult with faculty, students, other administrators, and staff, and are appropriately responsive to their concerns, needs, and initiatives. The institution’s internal governance provides for the appropriate participation of its constituencies, promotes communications, and effectively advances the quality of the institution.

The institution’s chief academic officer is directly responsible to the chief executive officer, and in concert with the faculty and other academic administrators, is responsible for the quality of the academic program.

The institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty. Faculty have a substantive voice in matters of educational programs, faculty personnel, and other aspects of institutional policy that relate to their areas of responsibility and expertise.

Through its system of board and internal governance, the institution ensures the appropriate consideration of relevant perspectives; decision-making aligned with expertise and responsibility; and timely action on institutional plans, policies, curricular change, and other key considerations.

Standard 4.5 (“Assuring Academic Quality”) calls for faculty participation in overseeing the academic program: “Through its system of academic administration and faculty participation, the institution demonstrates an effective system of academic oversight, assuring the quality of the academic program wherever and however it is offered.” Standard 4.44 (“Integrity in the Award of Academic Credit”) provides for a related and more specific faculty responsibility: “Faculty, with administrative support, ensure the academic integrity of the award of grades and certification of competencies, where applicable, and credits for individual courses.”

Standard 6.2 (“Faculty and Academic Staff”) details additional responsibilities of “faculty and academic staff, including librarians, advisors, and instructional designers.” Those responsibilities are “instruction, accessibility to students, and the systematic understanding of effective teaching/learning processes and outcomes in courses and programs for which they share responsibility; additional duties may include, e.g., student advisement, academic planning, and participation in policy-making, course and curricular development, research, and institutional governance.”

Standard 6.4 (“Faculty and Academic Staff”) relates to faculty searches: “The institution employs an open and orderly process for recruiting and appointing its faculty. Faculty participate in the search process for continuing members of the instructional staff.”

Finally, standard 8.3 (“Educational Effectiveness”) gives the faculty a role in the assessment of students’ learning: “Assessment has the support of the institution’s academic and instructional leadership and the systematic involvement of faculty and appropriate staff.”

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Standard 1.C.5 (“Student Learning”) of the NWCCU’s “2020 Standards” describes the faculty’s role in the curriculum and in assessment: “The institution engages in an effective system of assessment to evaluate the quality of learning in its programs. The institution recognizes the central role of faculty to establish curricula, assess student learning, and improve instructional programs.” The only other relevant section is standard 2.A.4 (“Governance, Resources, and Capacity”), which vaguely describes the faculty’s role in academic governance: “The institution’s decision-making structures and processes, which are documented and publicly available, must include provisions for the consideration of the views of faculty, staff, administrators, and students on matters in which each has a direct and reasonable interest.”

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

SACSCOC’s College Delegate Assembly adopted The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement in 2017. Two of the document’s fourteen sections describe the faculty’s role in academic governance. The first comes in the preamble to section 6 (“Faculty”):

The tradition of shared governance within American higher education recognizes the importance of both faculty and administrative involvement in the approval of educational programs. Because student learning is central to the institution’s mission and educational degrees, the faculty is responsible for directing the learning enterprise, including overseeing and coordinating educational programs to ensure that each contains essential curricular components, has appropriate content and pedagogy, and maintains discipline currency. Achievement of the institution’s mission with respect to teaching, research, and service requires a critical mass of qualified full-time faculty to provide direction and oversight of the academic programs.

Section 6.2.b similarly stipulates that the institution “employs a sufficient number of full-time faculty members to ensure curriculum and program quality, integrity, and review.”

The second statement on faculty governance is in section 10.4 (“Educational Policies, Procedures, and Practices”): “The institution (a) publishes and implements policies on the authority of faculty in academic and governance matters, (b) demonstrates that educational programs for which academic credit is awarded are approved consistent with institutional policy, and (c) places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.”

Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission

WSCUC revised its 2013 Handbook of Accreditation in 2015 and edited it in 2018. The document includes a total of four standards, each of which is broken down into a number of “criteria for review.” Of the thirty-nine total criteria, only criterion 3.10 addresses the role of the faculty in institutional governance: “The institution’s faculty exercises effective academic leadership and acts consistently to ensure that both academic quality and the institution’s educational purposes and character are sustained.” The single mention of the term governance in WSCUC’s standards is found in the guideline for demonstrating compliance with criterion 3.10: “The institution clearly defines the governance roles, rights, and responsibilities of all categories of full-time and part-time faculty.”

Observations and Conclusions

One of the striking features of the seven regional accrediting commissions’ standards is their lack of uniformity, in terms of their length and structure. The shortest of the documents is ten pages (HLC); the longest is thirty-five (SACSCOC). The number of standards (or criteria or sections) ranges between two (NWCCU) and fourteen (SACSCOC). Four of the seven organizations—the ACCJC, MSCHE, NECHE, and NWWCU—include a separate standard on institutional governance, while only one (SACSCOC) has a separate standard devoted to the faculty. Finally, the use of relevant terms varies widely. The word governance is found only once in the WSCUC standards but a high of thirteen times in the NECHE standards; the word faculty appears just nine times in the MSCHE standards but sixty-two times in the NECHE standards. One would reasonably expect much more consistency among commissions that not only serve the same group—colleges and universities—but have the same purpose.

Much more important is the general inadequacy of the accrediting organizations’ standards regarding the faculty’s role in institutional governance, especially when they are compared to the principles and practices set forth in the AAUP’s foundational Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. Jointly formulated with the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the Statement on Government lists the following fundamental areas in which the faculty has primary responsibility: “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” In addition, “the faculty sets the requirements for the degrees offered in course, determines when the requirements have been met, and authorizes the president and board to grant the degrees thus achieved.” Finally, the Statement on Government calls for the faculty to “actively participate in the determination of policies and procedures governing salary increases” and to be involved in various areas of “joint effort” with the administration and governing board, including long-range planning, budgeting, and presidential searches.

Aside from identifying the faculty as a “constituency” that participates in assessment and oversees the curriculum and other vaguely defined “academic matters,” the HLC, MSCHE, NWCCU, SACSCOC, and WSCUC standards quoted above say virtually nothing about any of the other areas of faculty primacy spelled out in the Statement on Government. The single exception is the HLC standard that states that faculty “are involved in setting academic requirements”—but, “when appropriate,” so are staff and students.

The ACCJC standards relating to faculty governance also focus overwhelmingly on curriculum and assessment, though they also go a bit further. For example, they enable faculty members, along with administrators, to “exercise a substantial voice in institutional policies, planning, and budget that relate to their areas of responsibility and expertise.” In addition, the part of the prefatory paragraph to the ACCJC’s standard IV reproduced above hints at the language of the Statement on Government regarding the “joint effort” by and “inescapable interdependence” among the governing board, administration, faculty, students, and other groups.

The most comprehensive of the seven commissions’ standards are those of NECHE, and they also come the closest to AAUP-recommended governance standards. In addition to explicitly recognizing the faculty’s primary responsibility for the curriculum and its involvement in assessment, as the other commissions’ standards do, the NECHE standards accord the faculty responsibility in other areas identified in the Statement on Government. These include, as quoted from several standards above, “matters of . . . faculty personnel,” “the academic integrity of the award of grades and certification of competencies . . . and credits for individual courses,” “the search process for continuing members of the instructional staff,” and “additional duties” that may include “student advisement, academic planning, and participation in policy-making, course and curricular development, research, and institutional governance.” Even as the NECHE standards relating to faculty governance are the most comprehensive, they, like the other commissions’ standards, fall well short of the AAUP’s recommended standards. The standards of all seven accrediting agencies, including NECHE’s, simply assign too many areas of faculty primacy—including research and matters of faculty status—generally to “the institution” rather than specifically to the faculty.

It is useful also to compare the accrediting commissions’ current standards to those that were in place in 2008, when the AAUP published a compilation of relevant standards, “Regional Accreditation Standards concerning Academic Freedom and the Faculty Role in Governance,” in an appendix to the report The Faculty Role in Regional Accreditation. The standards on faculty governance employed by five of the seven regional accreditors have largely remained the same in terms of their inadequacy; these include the standards used by ACCJC, HLC, NECHE, SACSCOC, and WSCUC. Much more alarming is that the remaining two accrediting commissions—MSCHE and NWCCU—have deemphasized the role of the faculty in institutional decision-making.

The 2008 appendix reproduces a lengthy paragraph from the MSCHE standards that describes the commission’s “expect[ation] [of] a climate of shared collegial governance,” which is characterized by “issues” being “openly discussed” and by “each major constituency” not only “carry[ing] out its separate but complementary roles and responsibilities” but also “contribut[ing] to an appropriate degree.” No such language, which is reminiscent of that found in the Statement on Government, exists in the current MSCHE standards.

MSCHE also used to employ a separate standard called “Faculty,” which stated in part that “the institution’s instructional, research, and service programs are devised, developed, monitored, and supported by qualified professionals,” a group that included members of the faculty, who “bear primary responsibility for promoting facilitating, assuring, and evaluating student learning.” In addition, “the faculty and other qualified professionals are responsible for devising and developing an institution’s academic, professional, research, and service programs within the framework of its educational mission and goals.” The faculty’s “primary responsibility,” the standard stated, includes “participation in institutional planning, curriculum review, and other governance roles . . . [and] such participation should complement the faculty’s primary responsibilities for teaching, research and scholarship.” All of this prior language, too, is consistent with the Statement on Government’s assertion that the faculty has “primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, [and] research.” The current MSCHE standards do not speak of any primary responsibilities of the faculty, as noted earlier.

The NWCCU standards on faculty governance have also been significantly diluted. The authors of the 2008 report drew the following conclusion in the report’s appendix: “The accrediting handbook of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities includes some of the strongest affirmations of the faculty’s role in shared governance.” The current standards on faculty governance employed by NWCCU, presented above, are both the smallest in number and among the weakest of any of the regional accreditors.

That none of the seven regional accrediting agencies has done anything over the past thirteen years to improve their largely inadequate standards on faculty governance is troubling enough. That two commissions—MSCHE and NWCCU—have actually diminished their governance-related standards is as alarming as it is deplorable. At the very least, all of the accrediting agencies, concerned as they ostensibly are with the improvement of academic quality, should be working toward both strengthening their standards and making them more uniform—and certainly not toward weakening them. The commissions should also be aligning their standards on faculty governance with those that were jointly formulated by the AAUP, the AGB, and the ACE more than fifty years ago and that have defined normative principles of academic governance ever since. In so doing, accrediting commissions would much more effectively help the institutions they serve, as the Statement on Government puts it, to “enjoy increased capacity to solve educational problems.”

Michael DeCesare is professor of sociology at Merrimack College. He is chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and second vice president of the Massachusetts AAUP conference. His most recent book is Death on Demand: Jack Kevorkian and the Right-to-Die Movement. His email address is [email protected].