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Reflections on accreditation: What's behind the curtain?
October 4, 2011 - 9:31am

Accreditation is about as ambiguous a measure as anyone could imagine. Yet, being “accredited” has tremendous value in the academic world. In the United States, it is a benchmark that suggests that a “certain” standard has been met. But that benchmark covers many very different kinds of institutions with different missions, resources, infrastructure, and constituents. We are invariably awarding the same level of validation to apples, oranges, bananas, kumquats, and lingonberries.

Increasingly, accreditation is being used as an international benchmark so we now add more diversity to the mix. In addition to another set of institutions with different missions, resources, and constituents, we add differently constructed education systems, different regulatory environments, and different academic traditions. The situation becomes even more confusing as some countries chose only to accredit programs and not institutions as though the two things could be disconnected.

Accreditation has become the lynchpin by which the mutual recognition of educational credentials is possible or by which two institutions might judge themselves to be of comparable stature. Transfer from one undergraduate program to another in the US is possible when both institutions are duly accredited. But in the US, accreditation only confirms that institutional practices meet the requirements of minimum thresholds in order to allow for the needs of diverse populations and the objectives of varied missions. Elsewhere it may mean something very different. Much of the integration that has been accomplished in Europe has been based on each country providing the assurance that results from some form of accreditation. Through the discussions surrounding the Bologna Process, Europe has worked towards common reference points much as the US system attempts to use a set of basic standards as common locus. But we need to remember that this is not an exact science.

We place a great deal of trust in the significance of accreditation without always looking carefully at the process behind it. How evaluation is implemented and by whom is critical and, ultimately, determines how meaningful a process it is. This process is enormously complex and its effectiveness depends on careful coordination, adequate training and guidance to individuals undertaking the self-study as well as to those conducting the external review. Smart people do not necessarily know how to do this. The agency and individuals who coordinate accreditation reviews must assure that people understand the objectives and limitations of their involvement and that they work with a shared understanding of standards and benchmarks, separated from their personal values and biases.

Institutional accreditation in the US dates back to the early years of the 20th century. In Europe, the process dates back several decades. In Latin America and Africa, the history is even shorter. The evaluation of academic performance—its effectiveness and productivity—is an unavoidably subjective process. The newer the process, the more difficult it is to find the human resource capacity needed for an effective accreditation process. Implemented badly, accreditation risks becoming more of a bureaucratic process than confirmation of quality or impetus for quality improvement.

To clarify, I am a strong advocate of accreditation. Not so much because of the imprimatur that it provides but more because of the process it requires—obligating institutions and programs to engage in critical self-reflection on a regular basis. I believe that this process is necessary and useful. But I also worry about the explosion of accreditation schemes across the globe during the past two decades and how the results are interpreted.

Accreditation as a process in itself is far from perfect. Even after a century of experience there are probably very few individuals, if any, who would assert that the process in the United States is perfect. It reminds me of what Churchill once said in regard to democracy, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” What he said—replacing “democracy” with “accreditation.”

In theater, the audience only sees what takes place in front of the curtain, but what takes place behind the curtain is equally important. Accreditation relies heavily on the self-study undertaken by an academic institution and the external review or other external inspection that examines that self study. The reports are, in essence, the performance in front of the curtain, but what takes place behind the curtain, is less visible and equally important. In order to rely on this process as a means of academic assurance, we probably need to peek behind the curtain.


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