The role of (self) study
North Lake Tahoe Bonanza: We all reach points in life when we reflect on whether our past decisions have helped us to meet our goals, whether our current path is correct, and whether our future aspirations are the right ones. At such times, we often reach out to a trusted advisor for feedback. Ideally, this is someone who shares our values, understands our goals, and who has spent time walking a path similar to our own, and thus the commendations and criticism offered by this advisor dovetail with our own personal assessments so we are then able to use that advice to improve our present practices and shape our future for the better. At critical moments, colleges and universities, much like individuals, engage in self-assessment and peer review, except that theirs is a practice that involves a formal process of self-study and accreditation. At its best, however, this formal process has elements in common with the introspective individual seeking the advice of a trusted advisor.
In order to qualify to disburse federal financial aid, U.S. colleges and universities must be approved by one of the five regional accrediting bodies in the country. These accrediting bodies are responsible for defining the standards that all institutions of higher education must strive to meet and for monitoring the progress of each institution in adhering to these standards. Because the majority of members in these regional accrediting bodies are current school officials from institutions within that region, the people setting the standards and determining if institutions are meeting their goals are also subject to the same review and criteria as applied by their fellow members in the accrediting agency.
This system ensures that members do not create standards they cannot live up to and do not judge compliance in terms that they would not wish to uphold at their home institution. That is to say, the members in these accrediting agencies know that the goals they set for other institutions will become their goals as well – having walked a similar path, they know they will be standing in the same shoes in the near future. This is mutual accountability in action.
Sierra Nevada College recently hosted an accreditation team from the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) on campus. This team was made up of officials who were on campus to determine if SNC was living up to expectations in areas such as Educational Mission, Student Services, Financial Planning, and Institutional Integrity. Prior to the visit, the SNC staff had written a detailed self-study that helped the college to identify strengths and weaknesses in these and several other areas. The arrival of the team was highly anticipated on campus, an anticipation that also reflected a certain degree of nervousness. Asking for honest feedback, even from an advisor you trust, always involves a certain amount of vulnerability and doubt. The accreditation team did its work and, after three days of conversations with students, faculty, staff, and community members, announced its commendations and recommendations. The compliments and criticisms delivered by the team reflected what the college had already found in its own self-study, and the sighs of relief could be heard across campus. The college had opened itself up to peer analysis and for its efforts had received useful, welcomed advice that could be used to build a stronger future. As college officials shook hands with the departing accreditation team, they were bidding farewell to – if not quite friends, exactly – fellow participants in a system that diligently aims to maintain the integrity and ensure the success of accredited colleges and universities across the country.
While the accreditation process may not be foolproof – in the same way that individual introspection and outside advice aren’t – colleges and universities such as SNC continue to rely on it because it’s the best they’ve got and, well, it works.
Shannon Beets is the dean of Enrollment Services and registrar at Sierra Nevada College. In addition to 12 years of administrative experience in higher education, Shannon has served as an adjunct faculty member at California State University, Fullerton; the University of La Verne; and most recently at Sierra Nevada College. She is completing her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She received a dual B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from University of La Verne.