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  • Robert Ubell

An Inside Look at Why Accreditation Works

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

This piece was originally published in Inside Higher Ed on 06/14/2018 and is republished here with permission.

Describing his service on a voluntary visiting team, Bob Ubell defends regional accreditation as a form of “deliberative democracy” and urges us not to hand it over to a federal education police force.

In response to a recent signal that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may be exploring alternatives to our present higher education accreditation practices, let’s take a look at what it’s like to be on the inside of a regional accrediting team.

Several weeks ago, I spent four enlightening, engaging, intimate, collaborative, debate-filled -- and exhausting -- days as a member of a team at a nearby university. (Sorry -- since deliberations are confidential, I’m not at liberty to reveal the name of the school, nor who was on my team.)

It wasn’t my first. Impulsively, I had agreed to participate in five others over 20 years at modest and grand institutions -- some with deep pockets, others hanging by a thread; some with meager enrollments, others with tens of thousands -- but all required to go through it. All forced to run an academic marathon every 10 years, hoping at the finish line to get a thumbs-up by one of the seven U.S. regional bodies, concluding that your school has been anointed, censured -- or, rarely, denied the laurel crown of accreditation.

Regional accreditation is a really big deal. It’s the gold standard guarantee that a school can announce on its website to students and their families that it clinched its final exam. Once a higher education institution is accredited, students can enroll with confidence, unafraid it will suddenly fold or be revealed as just another scam, a shabby diploma mill. It assures the public that universities and colleges are legitimate, so reliable that the federal government recognizes them as worthy enough for enrolled students to receive U.S.-backed grants and loans. While institutions enter into accreditation voluntarily, without it, Uncle Sam won’t give you a nickel to go college there.

Our team’s credentials were not at all shabby. It included the president of a high-profile university, the provost of another notable school, distinguished professors and other reputable scholars and top staff drawn from highly ranked colleges and universities, public and private. While most of us were from nearby schools within an hour or two, one flew in all the way from California. Impressively, their specialties covered every aspect of university life -- accounting, finance and data analysis; curriculum, instructional technology and course design; assessment, accreditation, institutional effectiveness, governance, planning and student affairs. A serious group with solid experience, no less than any of my previous teams.

Our chair, the president of a peer university, mused aloud over dinner one night, “I feel it’s my obligation to serve. Other presidents take the time to visit my school. I feel I must do the same.”

Evenings in our hotel conference room, the nine of us -- five women and four men -- would sit, hunched over our black laptops around a long table, writing our reports like graduate students in a library. Sometimes the room was so still, except for the clacking of keyboards, you’d think we were writing our dissertations. Together for four days, in classrooms, over meals, during interviews, engaging in our deliberations, we grew very close to each other, similar to a time, long ago on a vacation in the Caribbean, over a long weekend, when I became fast friends with others lounging on the beach -- but this time without surf and palm trees. The feeling of closeness bound us together, not only this time, but at all my previous team evaluations.

Months before our visit, a thick packet of brochures, documents and reports arrived on my office desk. Inside, the principal item was the university’s self-study report, a dense, 174-page, spiral-bound book, wrapped in a glossy, clear plastic cover, adorned with a montage of color photos of campus. One showed a young woman wearing blue rubber gloves, performing an experiment under a lab hood. Another depicted a romantic, snow-covered scene, framed by an antique iron gate; a very dignified classic college bell tower stood under a moonlit sky in the distance. Placed in the center of the report was the school’s shield and logo. A digital version arrived separately by email.

During my visit to campus, I overheard a faculty member say that the self-study took the school three years to compile. Together with the regional commission’s standards for accreditation and requirements of affiliation, the self-study formed the basis of our team’s on-campus evaluation. Representing the institution’s own assessment of its programs and services, positive and problematic -- a unique higher education intellectual exercise, not performed anywhere outside the U.S. -- it focused especially on student learning and achievement, a relatively recent emphasis in response to public criticism that higher education is failing to educate its students effectively.

Flipping through the report, I came upon dozens of single-spaced pages, illustrated with colorful charts and graphs. One showed a series of stacked boxes calling out the school’s “aspiration,” “strategic priorities” and other key goals. In an email, soon after the document arrived, we were asked to read the report carefully, making notes in the margins about themes we may not have understood or items that may have concerned us. Like facing a mirror, the self-study is a close-up. Looking outside the frame, the team has a wider view.

We were then asked to propose names of faculty and staff or chiefs of particular academic departments or services, say, the head of athletics, or in my specialty, online learning, to flesh out the text with questions we would raise during interviews. We were also encouraged to ask for a deeper dive into data, asking for additional evidence to get a better feel for what may not have been fully illuminated by the text. For example, I asked for data on online enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

On the evening before we were to meet with assembled university faculty and staff, we were asked to draft reports on what we learned from the self-study, deciding what we thought before we ran the gauntlet of interviews with faculty, staff and students. In advance of engaging with the university community, we were to reveal what we felt; what we needed to note; what we might conclude; which things could be applauded as significant accomplishments; what matters could be assigned as a recommendation or suggestion; which features must be attended to as requirements.

Interviews tested our initial insights against what we learned. Among other groups, I participated in Q&As with trustees, medical school officials, faculty and students. Colleagues -- not detectives -- we weren’t out to grill them, but to help guide them. Students were the most rewarding and most exciting.

To our surprise, we discovered that the conclusions reached in the self-study lacked a full-throated acknowledgment of the school’s impressive successes. We also uncovered blind spots we needed to call to their attention.

In our deliberations over what we might conclude, our team shifted between judging the school’s past performance on the one hand and recognizing on the other that teaching and learning and associated support services are constantly emerging, like headlights beaming out of a tunnel. In the end, we withheld certainty in favor of offering suggestions for improvement. Wisdom won out over discipline.

“Accreditation teams are being asked to make an argument that assures academic peers and the public about current and near-term promise,” remarked Daniel J. Royer in a recent paper. “They are not being asked to give an award or make a judgment related to past achievement or failures.”

Unhappiness with the state of American higher education -- poor student learning, rising college costs, serious student loan indebtedness and lack of work-force preparation, among other troubles -- often leads observers on the right and left to propose alternatives, some so severe they call for shutting down regional accreditors in favor of imposing state or federal rules, moving toward increased bureaucratization and compliance, snuffing out the democratic spirit that animates our system.

Unwisely, critics blame the blameless, pointing a finger at regional accreditation, rather than recognizing serious social dysfunction outside the gates of the university -- economic inequality and racism -- that deeply trouble many of our vulnerable students. Disturbingly, our team learned about homeless students going hungry and how the institution struggles to find ways to care for them.

Going back to late nineteenth century, regional accreditation in the U.S. is an uncommon practice. This is the only country in the world that engages institutions in their own scrutiny. In Europe, Asia and elsewhere, ministries of education and similar government agencies are solely responsible. Some call the American way an exercise in “deliberative” democracy, an idea that reaches as far back as Aristotle, contending that scholars, together with their peers, are the most competent judges of academic quality.

* * *

On our final morning -- ready for departure, our suitcases stacked in the corner of a large assembly hall -- our team chair stood at a lectern facing about 100 or so senior staff and faculty. Solemnly, the president of the university was seated in the front row. In a relaxed and friendly talk that lasted no more than five or 10 minutes, our chair smiled, announcing that everything was just fine. Our report would recommend, happily, that the school fulfilled the requirements of regional accreditation. Complimenting the assembled on having done a fine job -- so good, in fact, he said that our report praised the school on achieving five major accomplishments -- he noted that our team also found a number of recommendations and suggestions that they should take in the collegial spirit in which they were offered.

You could feel the tension easing out of the room, like a puffed-up cushion deflating as you take your seat.

Later, when the faculty and staff get to dive into our report, after the regional commission approves it, they will find not just a handful but dozens of proposals for improvement, some responding respectfully to their needs; others it will do well for them to take very seriously. Like good friends, we didn’t tell them only what they wanted to hear; we also told them things that must be said. Many of our recommendations supported changes for improvement that they had insightfully and revealingly proposed themselves in their self-study, a confident result of deliberative academic democracy.

At its best, the American style of accreditation, while recognizing the government’s interest in it, does not act as a police force, demanding compliance. Instead, regional accreditation, just like the members of our team, enters into a dialogue with faculty and staff in a collaborative effort to raise the bar of American higher education.


Robert Ubell is vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and author of the collection Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning.

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