Accreditation, Quality and Your Institution

Chet(1)By Dr. Chet Haskell Partner of Edu Alliance Group, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors. Dr. Haskell has served as President of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs, and Cogswell Polytechnical College. He is an expert in the field of regional and international accreditation.

If you are a leader of a regionally accredited higher education institution, worries about maintaining accreditation is not at the top of the list of things keeping you awake at night.

American college and university leaders are well acquainted with accreditation. Institutional accreditation is the necessary precondition for access to essential student aid and research funding. Programmatic or specialized accreditation has been achieved by many of your academic programs. Some of your faculty members and senior administrators and, occasionally, you yourselves participate in the processes of accreditation, serving on review teams or on accreditation commissions. The routines and reports that are necessary when an institution or a program is reviewed are familiar. Accreditation is a fact of life for you and your institution, as it is with most of American academe.

But are there aspects of accreditation that should concern you? I can suggest a couple.

First, the accreditation game may change. The regulations of the Department of Education are in the hands of a new administration with views that contrast with those of the previous administration. The PROSPER initiative of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce would change many rules and incentives that affect institutions and their accrediting bodies. More importantly, the Congress is inching its way to a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. While accreditation reform is not a major theme in the current discussions, various proposals have been put forward that would have an impact. The decoupling of Title IV financial aid from accreditation is the most radical of these, but others such as allowing regional accreditors to compete or mandating new oversight would alter accreditation in significant ways. And because there are a number of imposed mandates on accreditors, they are in many ways de facto agents of the U.S. government. The present debates may influence any or all of these factors. You can be sure that all the accrediting organizations, both institutional and programmatic, are paying close attention to these proposals.

Second, the accreditors themselves are seeking change. Among the initiatives discussed at the recent CHEA meeting were:

  1. Greater emphasis on mission appropriate measures of student success
  2. More efforts designed to inform the public about accreditation, its purposes and processes
  3. More attention to the roles and responsibilities of institutional trustees
  4. New international partnerships
  5. An increased focus on competency based education
  6. Better recognition of the diversity of student demographics and the role of lifelong learning. These and similar steps will influence institutions in numerous ways.

Third, the stakeholders of your institution understanding of accreditation as it relates to academic quality. Accreditation’s credibility and value may be at risk and thus your institution also may be at risk. Indeed, it can be argued, as reflected in recent polls, that more and more Americans not only do not understand higher education, but also doubt its worth.

This is perilous territory for higher education in general and individual institutions in particular. Such sentiments feed potential Congressional and Federal actions that would damage higher education. Furthermore, every higher education institution is dependent on the support of a wider community of students, parents, alumni, donors and local businesses and governments. Institutions are on unsteady ground if these actors question the very value of your institution.

What this really comes down to is the meaning of quality in higher education. Accreditation is one piece of the quality discussion, but it is not well understood that institutional accreditation is just a threshold, establishing minimum standards and playing a sort of minimalist consumer protection role. This approach is the only way to accommodate the diversity of institutional missions and approaches that characterizes American higher education and gives it much of its energy and creativity. Threshold accreditation is not about excellence or quality improvement.

There is no accepted definition of objective quality for institutions. Even the smallest institutions are too complex for simple definitions of quality. Yet the stakeholders, including the public and governments, are often seeking clear indicators of the expected return on their investments. This creates a vacuum into which the various ranking systems have entered, meeting a broad demand for simple statements of relative quality and reputation.

Only institutions can be responsibility for assuring and improving quality. The best American institutions demonstrate this, despite hardly needing accreditation. The top research universities are accredited only because of the desire to access Federal Title IV and research funding. Yet, they constantly seek excellence in an extremely rigorous and competitive environment. Crucial to their success are internal traditions and processes of accountability and a shared culture of academic freedom, faculty based shared governance, meritocratic selection of students and faculty members and similar characteristics. Accreditation does not force them to do this. They would operate the same way even if accreditation did not exist.

So your institution’s internal mechanisms and processes for addressing questions of quality are critical. This is particularly true because not all goals are convertible to metrics. Making measures of outcomes like employment as a standard is not only misleading, but according to longtime Bard College president, Leon Botstein, “dangerous.” Rigorous and continual internal accountability for defining and assessing quality is one of the most important responsibilities of any institution.

Part of internal quality accountability is being open to the rest of the world, since knowledge is a global commodity. How does your institution define benchmarks and select benchmarking targets? How can you assure you are avoiding the provincialism common to higher education institutions? How can you be certain you are educating students not only for their personal success, but also to fight for the principles of higher education and to confront the anti-intellectualism too common in our country? How do you make sure your students are educated for local engagement and also for life in interconnected national and international environments?

Isolationism is a dead end. Despite current national policies (and the fact that fewer than 40% of American adults even own a passport), successful institutions of the future will be those driven to improve quality for their own purposes and to do so in line with their missions, both local and international. At the same time, success will also depend on the capacity to explain all this to often-skeptical parents, students, donors and governments. Transparency matters, but accessibility that assures understanding matters even more.

Thus, something that should keep you up at night is guaranteeing your institution’s constant concentration on defining, assuring and improving educational quality in your own terms. The accreditation processes should be merely a validation of your own commitment to quality. Faculty and staff members, boards of trustees, alumni and donors and, most important of all, students and parents, need to understand the value of what is being offered and accomplished in your institution.

Of course, academic leaders need to pay attention to changes in the policy and accreditation contexts. However, at the end of the day they should worry most about the quality of their own institutions and programs. Crafting and succoring a culture of quality appropriate to one’s own institution is fundamental. Assuring and improving quality in all aspects of an institution and its programs is essential. After all, there is no market for being mediocre. Rather, the value of academic quality will only increase in a competitive global environment. Accreditation may change in many ways, but you can cope with that. But accreditation is not central to high quality. Only you and your institution are.


cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

Presidential Leadership and Crisis Management within Institutions at Risk

Steven JonesBy Dr. Stephen JonesPresident/CEO of Great Blue Heron in Madison, Alabama and a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

What gives me license to write about presidential leadership, crisis management, and universities at risk? First, an unorthodox entry to higher education administration – 12 years in the paper and allied products manufacturing industry right out of a bachelor’s degree. A mid-30s hard-drive to a PhD with a wife and two kids, at a level of personal and professional maturity far beyond most much-younger, still green graduate students. Nine years advancing through the faculty ranks and tenure at Penn State. Reporting directly to the president at three subsequent universities, and then serving as president at four universities. I have always thought of myself as an industrial forester who just happened to stumble into higher education administration. I have held tightly to the belief that universities are businesses, albeit not-for-profit. Neither the Fortune 500 company I served or any of the nine universities that issued me a paycheck could spend money it did not have.

My most recent CEO gig gave me a very special perspective. As a six-month, time-certain Interim President, I had to leap into the deep end, assess the context, evaluate the team, compare actual to potential, and make near-immediate adjustments (major and minor) to bridge the gap to permanent leadership. The Board asked me to pave the way for an exemplary president who could hit the ground at full speed, with most of the obstacles, potholes, and road debris already addressed. I repeated the refrain often that my preceding six positions had given me ample opportunity to make most of the mistakes available for learning. The definition of experience – that thing you get right after you needed it! I came to the Interim Presidency with a great deal of hard-won experience.

Assessing University Status, Risks, and Potential

I will speak from my aggregate experience, both as a CEO and on senior administrative teams. I’ve cloaked the identity of individual universities. We’ve all seen the criteria signaling financial risk. The more boxes checked, the greater the vulnerability:

  • Rural location
  • Poorly endowed
  • Non- or weakly-selective admissions
  • Excessive deferred maintenance
  • Significant debt
  • High discount rate
  • Declining enrollment/revenue
  • Weak alumni base and tepid annual giving

Closer inspection might reveal other serious problems that reach beyond risk to imminent peril:

  • High Accounts Receivable
  • Composite Financial Index already in the Zone or below
  • Successive years of budget cutting and mid-year expenditure reductions
  • Insistence upon saving as the way to prosperity
  • Satisfaction with adequate
  • Poor retention and low graduation rate
  • Uninspired leadership – both Board and administration
  • Absence of passion and purpose
  • No clear brand, identity, distinction, or reputation

My Ecosystem Approach — As a forester and doctoral-trained applied ecologist, I view universities the same way I might any organism in a natural ecosystem. My doctoral research evaluated soil-site productivity. That is, the potential for a given set of conditions to produce biomass and forest products and services. Often, the actual forest in place may express past treatments and poor management, and not be truly reflective of the potential. I used independent measures of soil, slope, fertility, topography, and other objective metrics to assess potential. If a great site is supporting a poorly performing stand, then investments in rehabilitation could return dividends. If the site is poor, no investment will return dividends. The same is true for universities.

Is a particular university worth attempting salvage and rehabilitation? Is the site (the collective factors constituting potential) such that a new approach, refreshed leadership, and rededicated efforts can right it? Is it time to cut losses and abandon the institution? Not every university at risk can be saved. Not every Board can rise above itself. Some CEOs cannot lead even a healthy institution. Some leaders cannot ask the right questions, much less answer them.

A university with which I am familiar brought on a new president two months after it had added a million dollars in long term debt just to meet operating expenses on a $15 million annual budget. It had just opened a new residence hall, named after a Board member who donated a sum equal to just four percent of the total project cost. Its endowment was a mere $2 million. Deferred maintenance costs were excessive. For example, brick spalled from the south side of the gymnasium. Enrollment sagged. The discount rate exceeded 55 percent. The Board held the unenviable reputation as the most inept of all institutions in the state. The Board repeatedly refused to approve entrepreneurial ventures… efforts that might have lifted the university to a recovery ramp. This institution stood at the abyss. Salvageable? Not with that Board. With a new Board and outlook? Perhaps.

I know of another university, well maintained with solid potential, exciting programs (existing and envisioned), competent faculty, and manageable debt. Yet, the administration had a fatalistic attitude. That is, believing that decreasing state funding and weak high school graduation demographics led to an inevitable spiral of lessening enrollment, revenue, staffing, etc. Satisfaction with adequate, suppression of ambition, and acceptance of mediocrity destined the institution to a slow, inexorable decline. Instead, new leadership ascertained what stood within reach, awakened the institution to its potential… stirred the Board, administration, faculty, staff, alumni, and its broad community to rise far above what had been accepted as inevitable.

The university (in my metaphor, the forest) flourished under innovative, challenging, and inspired leadership. Rich soil on a wonderful site nourished recovery and response. All the ingredients were in place. A systematic assessment, innovative ventures, strategic programmatic investments, organizational realignment, critical senior-level adjustments, and an infusion of passion, power, and purpose into a decent Board set the university afire.

Failing, or even falling short of potential performance, constitutes a crisis. Better to anticipate and address the situation proactively. In the first example, the hole had already grown too deep. The second, far too close for comfort, yet still in time for decisive, firm, and strategic action.

Look, See, Feel, and Act

I have embraced four essential verbs as critical to dealing with any enterprise, whether a multi-million-dollar university or a family. First, I implore those involved in leadership roles to Look – to focus with eyes open, and attentive to the world around us. I’ve seen many people open their eyes, however, without actually seeing. We are too often blinded by the distractions of life and our digital environs. I implore folks to See… to pay attention with senses alert to multiple dimensions. To see deeply, through layers of the visual… beyond and beneath the surficial. Looking and seeing alone do not suffice. We must see deeply enough to evoke Feeling. Feeling, emoting, and striking empathy for the organization and the cause sufficient to spur Action. Without action, looking, seeing, and feeling accomplish nothing. The first institution operated blindly for far too long. Fresh eyes, sharpened with deep experience, brought insight, offered remedies, and urged action in time to lift the second university to new heights.

University leadership must be fully attuned to the environment… the ecosystem within which the institution operates. Look, see, and feel to a level sufficient to assess whether action investments can be fruitful. Effectively operating any enterprise demands a business-like approach. Again, a university is a business, albeit not-for-profit. Operating requires revenue. Over some timeframe, revenue must exceed or equal expenditures. Although a noble cause, higher education still must abide by the rules that dictate business – you cannot spend money you don’t have. And like a forest, an education enterprise cannot grow to be The Mighty Oak on shallow, impoverished soil on an exposed upper slope. Site resources are too limiting. Nature, nor business, allows the impossible and even the best of sites will not produce The Mighty Oak with inadequate management practices.

Because I still operate with my industry orientation to action, I have observed with frustration that universities approach decisions with tendency to “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim….” The opportunity window too often closes without decisive action. I prefer “ready, fire, aim,” then, if necessary, tune the aim. Act before inaction assures failure. A dear fisheries biologist friend once said to me, “Steve, there is only one way to guarantee you will catch no fish. Don’t throw a line in the water.” The first example university avoided fishing. The second, with counsel, fresh looking and seeing, and urging, decided to throw a fish fry!

Dr. Jones article “Presidential Leadership and Crisis Management within Institutions at Risk” is a part of a series called: Things That Keep Higher Education Leaders Awake at Night. Edu Alliance thanks Steve as well as our Partners, Advisors and Friends for their valuable contributions and insights.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.