John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Times They Are A’Changing: our Friendly Regional Accreditors

I have just spent the weekend with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and about 3000 higher educators in Atlanta for the annual meeting of our regional accreditor, “SACS”, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Who says we can’t change in higher ed? This meeting certainly ain’t like it used to be.

As a career higher educator and public employee in South Carolina, I had been through three of the SACS self studies in 1969-70, 79-80 and 89-90, and I resolved I wasn’t going to stick around for a fourth. They were deadly dull, ponderous, enormous exercises in bean counting; huge institutional exercises that comprised a shell game to create a magnum opus sufficient to get us off the hook for another decade. The report would sit on the shelf and in many or even most cases have no impact at all, particularly in terms of driving educational change.

So I took early retirement and founded with my wife a non-profit higher education organization. And now I am thinking about regional accreditation self studies almost every day. And I am participating in not only my own geographic region’s annual accreditor meeting but later this week Betsy and I are headed for the annual Middle States Meeting in Philadelphia; and I April we will participate in both the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) meeting in Chicago and the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC) meeting in Long Beach. What’s happened?

What’s happened is that in the last decade the accreditors have reinvented themselves. They have become, in my judgment the biggest forces driving change on college campuses. For those of us whose primary focus is to help facilitate change in higher education to improve student learning, success, and retention, the accreditors are now the best partners we have. They are where the action is.

For an educator like me, who was used to conducting a relatively meaningless “self study,” the two most dreaded words in the higher ed lexicon, there has been a sea change. Now, most of the accreditors have a mechanism for campuses to develop an improvement project of some kind which becomes a central focus of the reaffirmation process. What an incredibly simple but powerful idea: let campuses voluntarily choose something they want to get better at and reward them with reaffirmation of accreditation.

I would certainly rather have our own peers in regional accrediting non profit, non governmental organizations doing the accrediting and quality control, than say: the federal government or a state agency.

So let’s hear it for the accreditors. And if those of you working to improve the experience of new and transfer students, haven’t yet linked your institutional improvement efforts to the larger campus processes of reaffirmation of accreditation, well, you have been missing out on a huge lever for change. Connecting say first-year work to accreditation has the potential to move your narrowly focused, and perhaps relatively low status, work to the top of the institution’s priority list. Please consider this. Accreditation really has changed, in both process and importance.

-John N. Gardner

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