The early part of this week I, along with Institutional Research Director Christy Cole, attended the annual meeting of SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and specifically of the Commission on Colleges.
Sweet Briar is in the thick of the regular process of reaffirmation of accreditation required of all colleges and universities: SACS is the regional accrediting body in the Southeast. As I moved through the program of sessions on various standards, documentation requirements, developments in assessment, and so on, I reflected on the nature of the American process of academic accreditation and how little understood it generally is.
(And understandably so, I hasten to add: it’s complicated!)
What is sometimes missed is the way in which the accreditation process is built on regional self-regulation. While the federal Department of Education certainly upholds certainly standards and requirements, in the U.S. there is no single, central, federal accreditation authority. Instead, there are regional agencies, the members of which collectively determine the criteria institutions must meet to award degrees and the process by which they can demonstrate they’ve met them. The teams of reviewers who determine whether standards have been met are drawn from accredited institutions, and are deans, librarians, faculty members, presidents, and other educational experts rather than government bureaucrats. (Of course, several Sweet Briar people have participated on review teams in their time.)
On the one hand, of course, that’s comforting and as it should be! Higher education institutions collaborating in self-regulating communities to ensure that students and the public are well served: makes perfect sense. On the other hand, of course, in reality it’s rather uncomfortable. Opening up your beloved institution, warts and all, to folks who know higher education inside and out and who are your neighbors, partners, and competitors requires both a little courage and a lot of trust.
So far, mid way through the process, I’ll tell you this. As a relatively new president, I’m finding the experience enormously enlightening, despite — well, actually, because of — the tremendous amount of data-gathering and document-reviewing it requires. First, and above all, it’s an occasion to be reminded of and celebrate all the wonderful things that happen on our campus. Second, and equally important, it’s an opportunity to become aware of areas where improvement and growth are possible and would make a significant difference for our students.
A year from now, when the process is complete, I expect Sweet Briar to come out with a lot more than “just” a simple reaffirmation. I expect us to emerge from the process with renewed imagination about how we can use what we’ve learned toward greater excellence.