There are few obligations for faculty and staff that cause knots in the stomach and departmental wrangling than preparing the accreditation self-study. It is often viewed as a burden, a distraction from everyone’s ‘real’ work, and a process of bureaucratic box-checking or of trying to fit the round peg of the program into the square hole of accreditation requirements.
In Five Dimensions of Quality, Linda Suskie draws on years of experience with accreditation, institutional and program assessment, and accountability to re-frame the role of accreditors as “low-cost consultants who can offer excellent collegial advice” (p. 245) to schools and programs seeking to demonstrate their value to stakeholders in an increasingly competitive market. Accreditation should be viewed not as an imposition of alien practices on an established program, but as a way for a school or program to gain external affirmation of already-existing quality. The challenge is not to make the program ‘fit’ accreditation standards, but actually to be a quality program and demonstrate that quality.
Accreditation success, then, flows naturally from the pursuit of quality, and is not an end in itself. But what is quality? Suskie breaks it down into five dimensions or ‘cultures’:
A Culture of Relevance
Deploying resources effectively to put students first, and understand and meet stakeholders’ needs.
A Culture of Community
Fostering trust among faculty, students, and staff, communicating openly and honestly, and encouraging collaboration.
A Culture of Focus and Aspiration
Being clear about school or program purpose, values, and goals.
A Culture of Evidence
Collecting evidence to gauge student learning and program or school effectiveness.
A Culture of Betterment
Using evidence to make improvements and deploy resources effectively.
Fostering these cultures is the work of leadership, since they require widespread buy-in from all stakeholders. The challenge in many institutions is institutional inertia, as Suskie points out in her chapter, “Why is this so hard?” Faculty, staff, and governing boards may feel satisfied that the school’s reputation is sufficient for future success; resources – especially money and people’s time – may not be forthcoming; faculty and staff may live in comfortable isolation from the real-world needs of students; there may be an ingrained reluctance to communicate successes; there is frequently resistance to change; and siloed departments in programs and institutions make across-the-board cultural change difficult to pull off.
The question administrators and faculty should ask themselves is, “Do we put our efforts into pursuing quality, or into maintaining our accreditation?” Suskie’s book presents a convincing case that working on the former will make the latter much easier and will result in quality rather than box-checking. For its straightforward prose (including jargon alerts scattered throughout), its sound advice, and its call for schools to demonstrate quality in a highly competitive environment, Five Dimensions of Quality should be a go-to resource on the reference bookshelf of decision-makers and leaders in higher education programs.
Suskie, L., Five Dimensions of Quality, Jossey-Bass 2015
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