Are You Prepared for Your Accreditation Visit?
- As schools pursue initial or maintenance of accreditation, writing distinct mission statements and telling their stories are factors critical to success.
- At the start the accreditation process, accreditation teams should establish systems of ongoing measurement to evaluate the progress of their schools against the standards.
- Because a school’s report often does not tell the full story, peer review teams should wait until their campus visits are complete before drawing conclusions.
For any business school seeking initial accreditation or maintenance of accreditation, having a successful peer review team visit depends on two important factors. First, administrators must adequately define what they do and what audience they serve in a clear mission statement. Second, they must comprehensively tell the school’s story and explain how they are executing on their strategies in a written report and during on-site interviews.
I have chaired numerous peer review team (PRT) accreditation visits, as well as served on AACSB’s Continuous Improvement Review Committee and Initial Accreditation Committee. As a former dean, I also have hosted four peer review team visits myself. Over time, I have observed that both schools and PRTs at times can fall short of fully preparing for successful visits.
Based on my experiences, I have several suggestions that might help both your school and your PRT prepare for, and enhance the value of, PRT visits. With the right preparation and strong communication, all parties can ensure that PRT visits will be successful.
For Schools: Mission and Metrics
Accreditation is mission-based, so it’s critical for a school to be able to pinpoint its mission and communicate that mission as clearly as possible. With this in mind, administrators should address the following areas before their next PRT visit:
Tell your school’s story. The accreditation process is an opportunity for the school to highlight what it does, what its successes and challenges have been, and what it hopes to do in the future. It is your story, so tell it and sell it!
Create a focused mission statement. A mission statement should be descriptive enough to allow the school to set the standards on how it will be evaluated. If PRT members aren’t presented with a distinct statement, it will be difficult for them to determine whether the school is accomplishing what it set out to do.
Align faculty qualifications with the mission. Each school defines its own qualifications for faculty. You should ensure that your definitions align with the school’s mission and the programs it delivers.
Establish a strategy for intellectual contributions (IC). At this point, you should not be surprised to hear that your school’s IC strategy, too, should be mission-based! Identify an overall IC strategy that aligns with your mission and that provides faculty with appropriate guidance on producing mission-based research.
Focus on AOL outcomes. Where AOL is concerned, too often schools focus primarily on the assessment process. However, PRT members are mostly concerned with what your faculty learn from their assessment efforts and what actions your school takes when outcomes are deficient.
Remember, it’s about metrics, metrics, metrics. Most school accreditation teams understand that some key metrics are required for both initial accreditation and continuous improvement review visits. And yet, some schools fall short of a successful outcome because they fail to achieve their own stated standards.
That’s why accreditation teams should establish a continuous process of measurement the moment their schools receive approval to start the initial accreditation process or complete their five-year reviews. Then, every year, their schools need to evaluate how they fare against the accreditation standards and take corrective action when needed. By making this process ongoing, schools will avoid any surprises in the years their PRT visits occur.
The Case for Mission Alignment
In my years as a peer reviewer, I have seen many examples of schools failing to take into account one or more of the factors listed above. For example, I once chaired a review for a school that primarily served first-generation college students and second-generation immigrants. The school’s accreditation team produced an excellent report that outlined the services the school offered these populations and highlighted its successful graduation rates.
But there was a problem: The school’s mission statement made no reference at all to the populations the school served; instead, it was a generic statement about research and teaching. In this case, the report told the school’s story, but it was not aligned with the school’s mission.
Conversely, a school in another case took a creative approach to aligning its mission to its activities, particularly in regards to faculty qualifications. I chaired a review in which the school had a very large undergraduate program and relatively small, focused master’s and PhD programs. Its mission statement was well-crafted, stating that it focused primarily on teaching undergraduates and preparing them for successful careers. However, school administrators were uncertain how they should define faculty qualifications—especially qualifications for scholarly academics (SA).
Too often schools focus primarily on the assessment process, but PRT members are mostly concerned with what faculty learn from their assessment efforts and what actions the school takes when outcomes are deficient.
Their creative answer was to divide their faculty into two groups: those teaching undergrads only and those teaching the entire student population. They then set two different standards to define the SA qualifications—essentially creating two different IC lists to determine the qualifications of their faculty.
Within these standards, those teaching undergraduates had a much broader universe in which they could publish and still be considered SA, while the requirements for faculty teaching graduate courses had a much more focused list of journals to achieve SA status. The PRT thought that, given the mission of the school and its focus on undergrad education, this creative solution worked well for them.
For PRTs: Communication and Clarification
Just as a school must carefully prepare when it is expecting an accreditation visit, a peer review team also needs to be well-informed and prepared before it makes its visit. Only then can a PRT provide school administrators with actionable information and guidance that they can use to immediately focus on important issues and continuous improvement. To provide a school with as much useful information and support as possible, every PRT should keep the following suggestions in mind:
Understand the role of the PRT chair. A well-executed visit demands that the chair facilitate the process, from the time the team is formed. AACSB also highly encourages PRT chairs to visit schools ahead of the peer review process. Chairs can provide early feedback to both the schools and PRT members based on what they observe.
Set up a system of clear, frequent communication. Once the team receives the report from the school, communication between team members is critical. PRT members should hold a meeting to set deadlines for reading and commenting on the report. Then, they should schedule a follow-up meeting to determine what feedback and additional data, if any, they require from the school.
Adhere to the 30-day rule. At least 30 days before the scheduled visit, PRT members should let the school know if they need additional data or clarification of issues in the report. This gives the school ample time to respond appropriately.
Hold one last team meeting prior to the official start of the visit. This allows the team to discuss areas of concern and ensures they are all on the same page concerning issues before meeting with school officials.
Take control of the agenda. Both initial and CIR visits are very short. Based on the report, the team should know the most important groups they need to meet with and make sure these groups are on the agenda, providing ample time for discussion. Also, PRTs should avoid late afternoon or early evening cocktail events—evenings need to be reserved for team discussions. PRTs should try to schedule meetings with university provosts, presidents, and chancellors at the very end of the visit. Scheduling meetings at the end of the visit allows team members to communicate to university leadership what they have observed and the rationale for their recommendations.
Do not jump to conclusions before making a full visit. Reports often do not tell the full story. The information that PRT members gather during their official visits might lead them to be more positive about how the school operates than they were from reading the report alone. Or, conversely, they might see issues that were not easily seen within the report.
Meet with the dean near the end of the visit. Every visit will inevitably raise additional questions. It can be helpful for the PRT to discuss those issues with the dean before going into its deliberations.
PRTs are encouraged to provide schools with copies of their initial reports before departing. These initial reports, which can be shared through AACSB’s myAccreditation platform, do not need to be perfect, because PRTs have 10 days to refine and finalize their reports’ wording. As long as PRT members communicate what they have observed, what issues need to be addressed, and what their recommendations are, the team has done its job.
The Case for Controlling the Agenda
Regarding the above suggestions, I can recount a PRT visit that illustrates how important it is for the team to control the agenda and not presuppose outcomes.
I was a team member on an international visitation. Based on the school’s report, the PRT was all but certain that the school would receive a positive review. So certain, in fact, that the PRT chair had finalized the agenda with the school’s dean without conferring with the rest of the team.
The agenda consisted primarily of meetings with advisory boards, prominent alumni, and students, and included a series of breakfasts, lunches, breaks, and cocktails. But prior to the PRT’s Sunday evening dinner with the dean, intended to kick off the official visit, two team members commented that the agenda lacked meetings with people in key roles, such as department heads, associate deans, faculty, and budget officers.
The information that PRT members gather during their official visits might lead them to see issues that were not easily seen within the report.
Before dinner, the chair asked the dean if we could include representatives from these groups in our Monday meetings. The dean agreed, asking only that we start the meeting slightly later in the morning so he could accommodate the request.
When we arrived Monday morning, however, we found that while the agenda had been revised, it still lacked key meetings with associate deans and some department heads. Moreover, conversations with faculty indicated a severe lack of leadership, primarily within the undergraduate curriculum. Faculty revealed that that two departments had been without leadership for more than a year, and the position of undergraduate associate dean had been vacant for almost two years.
These vacancies were not included within the report. Not surprisingly, PRT members became very concerned about the school’s strategic leadership. They suddenly realized that the visit was not going to be as clean or positive as they had initially anticipated.
Through this experience, I learned two important things. First, PRT members must avoid drawing conclusions from the report alone; and, second, the entire team must participate in setting the agenda. During the visit itself, PRTs must be ready and willing to change directions and ask for additional information.
Plan Ahead for Success
The accreditation visit is the culmination of a long process by both the school and PRT. A successful visit provides the school with invaluable information that it can use to drive continuous improvement. It gives PRT members the satisfaction of contributing to the industry and often gaining new knowledge.
I believe that, by using the above recommendations as a potential roadmap and checklist, business school administrators and PRT members will be more fully prepared for their visits. More important, they will be more likely to achieve positive outcomes.