College governing boards need to get more involved in the accrediting process at the institutions they serve, helping to preserve a longstanding system of self regulation and peer review that is not without its critics, two major advocacy organizations said today.
The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation released a joint statement  today, urging boards to play an integral role in the accreditation process.
“Beyond the heightened individual, societal, and economic pressures for accountability, American higher education remains collectively responsible to the broader public good,” the statement reads. “As such, governing boards can assure policy makers and the public that the unique U.S. higher education enterprise is operating with integrity and stability, is delivering high-quality academic programs, and is worthy of its autonomous authority and self-regulation by demonstrating their engagement in the accreditation process.”
The accreditation movement, which began for institutions and programs about 100 years ago, has emerged as academe’s standard measure for assuring academic quality. Even so, the process has become a familiar target for critics who say it fails to effectively assess learning outcomes and needs greater oversight from outside academe. Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings  called the current accreditation model “insular” and “clubby,” leaving institutions “accountable to no one but themselves.”
It is the current environment of skepticism, however, that makes it imperative for trustees to insert themselves into the process, said the accreditation council's president, Judith Eaton. In so doing, board members can help strengthen and add legitimacy to the accreditation system, she said. “We think that there is a powerful case to be made for the value of self regulation and peer review,” Eaton said. “We have all kinds of evidence that it is strong and effective. At the same time, we know we’ve been living in a climate of some doubt.”
“We think the loss of peer review as the central factor in judgments about academic quality would harm everybody,” she added.
The push for more accountability in higher education has led to the development of a series of new tools, including the Voluntary System of Accountability  and the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  Those tools can be an important companion to accreditation, but not a replacement, Eaton said.
“There’s no question that there are greater demands for accountability, and that’s why the higher education community stepped up to the plate and developed these tools,” she said. “But they are part of the effort. I don’t think anybody sees [the tools and the accreditation system] as in competition with one another.”
Rick Legon, president of the AGB, said there is already evidence to suggest that board members are engaged with the accreditation process, but the aim of the statement is to ensure they stay involved or increase their involvement. Legon cited a recent AGB survey  of more than 700 institutions, which found that more than 71 percent of governing boards use accreditation data in their oversight of academic quality, and more than 80 percent participate directly in the institutional accreditation process. Trustees commonly meet with accreditation visiting teams as well, Legon said.
“Boards are, at a rather significant level, already engaged,” he said.
The AGB surveyed chancellors, presidents and board professionals -- not the trustees themselves. Legon said he was confident in the survey’s results, despite some criticism  that not surveying trustees directly may have impacted the responses.
The AGB/CHEA statement lays out a series of suggestions for both governing boards and chief executive officers. Included in the recommendations are the establishment of an ongoing orientation or accreditation education program for board members; a review of key elements of an institution’s accreditation self study; and participation in the accreditation process. Chief executive officers are also advised to inform the board of specific governance-related criteria that will be evaluated during the accreditation process.