Five Tips for Surviving Accreditation: A Tongue-in-Cheek Reflection

Many academic leaders are involved in regional accreditations, and I am no exception. The six regional accrediting agencies are becoming increasingly stringent in the application and interpretation of their standards, and this can make the accrediting process a difficult one to survive. Our institution was a founding member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and has been accredited continuously from the beginning. I have been involved in four of the 10-year “reaffirmation” activities, serving as chair of the college steering committee twice and serving as our institutional liaison with SACS for many years.

These experiences are incredibly time-consuming, are increasingly focused on data and student learning outcomes, and can lead institutional leaders to sometimes justified states of paranoia. Nevertheless, you can survive your regional accreditation. While I use SACS as my prototype for a survival guide, I am confident that the strategies I suggest below are equally applicable to any accreditation effort.

1. Work on your SACS appeal. This strategy requires you to be attentive to allurements. Of course, when the visiting committee arrives on campus, you want to be sure that your buildings and grounds are in their very best shape. It will not hurt to do whatever you can to encourage faculty and students to manifest their best manners and to show extreme courtesy to the honored visitors. But your SACS appeal also can be enhanced by how you present your documents to the accrediting agency even before anyone arrives on campus. Do you have an attractive cover design? Has your formatting followed all the specified requirements? Do your various documents show your institution in its best light? If not, you may end up making an appeal to SACS to show how you have remedied your weaknesses.

2. Develop Your SACS education program. You should not be surprised to find that many faculty and students are oblivious to the existence of accreditation agencies and have very little idea about their importance to your survival. Both during the self-study process and the follow-up visitation from a committee of your peers, it is crucial that you educate the entire campus to the significance of the enterprise and the nature of its importance to your own survival. Your educational strategies should cover the gamut of your communication processes: regular and special meetings of faculty, students, and trustees; updates and announcements on your campus website; and educational forums to discuss issues and ideas related to the accreditation.

3. Practice safe SACS. Often, the greatest challenge for academic leaders involved in the accrediting process is the unknown. Will the chair of the visiting committee be reasonable and supportive? Has the steering committee addressed all the standards completely and accurately? Have there been any unanticipated changes in the accrediting agencies’ operating procedures—or even the development of new standards not yet contained in the accreditors’ manuals? You will want to do everything possible to eliminate unanticipated surprises that have resulted in part because you have not protected the institution to the maximum extent possible.

4. Anticipate SACS harassment. Regional accreditations used to be more social, congenial, and enjoyable than they are now. While you can be reasonably confident that your peers will be highly motivated and will understand your responses to standards from your perspective, this may not always be the case. To be sure, this is a “quid pro quo” relationship with an outside agency that is responsible for a thorough evaluation. If you give them what they demand, they will give you your desired accreditation. Because regional accrediting agencies have attempted to forestall federal takeovers of the accrediting process—an actual proposal afloat in Washington—they have become determined to be rigorous stewards of institutional quality. For you, this may create the appearance of a “hostile work environment” as evaluators press you for your information, your cooperation, and your compliance. While you may feel harassed, it is wise to assume the best intentions from those who have “invaded your personal space.” After all, they are just trying to do their jobs well.

5. Pursue SACS therapy. At some point, the process will come to an end. Not really an end, you might note, as accrediting agencies will do their best to keep you in line and continually focused on the demands of the agency. This may take the form of “probationary status,” “monitoring reports,” or “periodic reviews.” But once the intensity of the self-study and the visit is over, you should take steps to return the campus to its previous state of healthy equilibrium. Celebrate whatever successes you can identify; assure those who feel wounded that you appreciate their efforts and understand their frustrations. Identify small ways that you can reward those who have participated in the process. It is important to develop healthy SACS relations while also helping those on your campus to conclude that the accrediting process is ultimately a very satisfying one—when you have survived.

It is unlikely that many faculty or administrators have chosen their professions based on the opportunity to enjoy the process of accreditation. Nevertheless, the regional accreditation of your institution is an important mark of success and an essential ingredient in its development. The survival strategies above are intended to help you think through the best ways to succeed in the face of increasingly complex and demanding accrediting policies and practices. The ultimate objective, however, should not just be to survive such processes, but indeed to thrive as you help your institution become the best it can be.

Excerpted from Surviving Your Regional Accreditation: A Tongue-in-Cheek Reflection, Academic Leader, February 2009.

Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education and senior vice president at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.