Accreditation is the method by which institutions of higher education ensure academic quality. General standards of accreditation are agreed upon by members of higher educational institutions across the country (U. S. Department of Education, n.d.). These generalized standards are then modified by the membership of regional accreditation bodies. In other words, accreditation standards and processes followed in the California Community Colleges system are standards that member institutions in the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) have designed for themselves to ensure the academic quality of higher education and to preserve the quality of their colleges’ ability to provide education. The member colleges of the ACCJC determine the standards and, through a peer review process and the collective decisions of representatives on the ACCJC Commission, evaluate how well institutions are meeting the standards.
A BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Faculty voices have been resonant and loud in establishing the standards applied to community colleges associated with the ACCJC. California community colleges are the largest portion of colleges accredited by the ACCJC. In fact, California community colleges are so dominant within the ACCJC that many other member colleges believe they need to emulate the processes using institutional self-evaluation reports from California community colleges as a template for writing their own self-evaluation reports.
During the early 2000s, the accreditation process caused palpable anxiety for both faculty and administrators and often felt like a hurdle to be cleared once every six years, starting with the institutional self-evaluation report, colloquially known as the ISER. Some faculty had the fortune of being selected as a visiting team member for site visits during that time. For some of those faculty members, a site visit was their first experience with the accreditation process outside of their own institutions. It was an exciting opportunity to learn more about the accreditation process and about the colleges being visited.
However, for many, the experience was nothing like what had been expected. New team members were surprised both by the level of anxiety expressed by the institutions and by the frustration of fellow members of the accreditation visiting teams. By listening closely to the conversations, participants began to suspect the potential consequences to the college were very different than they had been led to believe. The visit was not perceived as a recognition of effort and good work. Instead, the collaborative process that had been described during team training was infused with a sense of frustration and futility on the part of experienced team members and college personnel. Newly met colleagues on the visiting team were particularly unhappy that the interpretation of the standards allowed no room for acknowledging the operational environment, external influences, or culture of the college. Some who served on accreditation teams during this time remember team chairs expressing anger about how narrowly the standards were being interpreted, how many colleges had been placed on warning, and the restrictions placed on narrative content of the final report. Most found little of the experience to be pleasant.
The voices of faculty and administration ultimately led to a change by asking for greater clarification on how institutions should meet the standards. At the same time, members of the public were asking for proof that colleges were providing quality educational experiences and evidence through numbers or check lists. The people who sought accreditation leadership positions and ACCJC commissionerships worked towards responding to those interests and demands.
The leadership of the ACCJC is selected in large part from leadership within California community colleges, further indicating the influence of the system’s voice in the development of standards, procedures, and focus points of the accreditation standards. As with any institution, changes in leadership can result in rapid changes in the focus of the accreditation process. For example, in the early 2000s, leadership at the ACCJC became much more prescriptive in designing not only the standards but also how the standards were to be evaluated by peer review committees. This in turn resulted in pushback from faculty members and administrators who insisted the standards should not be so narrowly defined.
The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) frequently weighed in on defining the role of local academic senates in relation to accreditation and on the accreditation standards themselves. The strength of the voice of the ASCCC was made exceptionally clear in the early 2000s when the accrediting body required the inclusion of student learning outcomes as an evaluative measure for both institutional quality and faculty performance. The ASCCC adopted a paper that included a number of recommendations, including several directed at the accrediting body to ensure faculty representation on all site visit teams and a direct objection to the implementation of student learning outcomes in a manner not consistent with academic freedom (ASCCC, 2004).
After several long years of debates, public hearings, and ongoing negotiation, the wording of the standards and implementation of the evaluations were revised to be less rigid. The role of the ASCCC and the voice of faculty across the California community colleges in achieving these changes demonstrates the importance of the faculty role in the peer review processes.
Transitioning from a high stakes and anxiety-driven process to a collaborative one took time and effort. To move the transition forward, faculty consistently pushed for a focus on quality of education within the respective colleges and expanded interpretations of the accreditation standards in ways that allow institutional cultures and values to be honored. The reality is that administrative representatives are not always free to express themselves in the same way as faculty. Faculty representatives serve on the accreditation commission, on accreditation site visit teams, and on committees within individual colleges that work constantly to maintain alignment with the accreditation standards.
Voices of the public and representative voices from member institutions of the ACCJC reshaped the process as more collegial and moved the standards forward through review and revision. Interests aligned across institutional differences, and colleges sent the same messages about their expectations for accreditation. The ACCJC commissioners, whose membership includes faculty, and the leadership of the ACCJC shifted the focus of accreditation from prescriptive and punitive to being accepting of innovation within more broadly defined standards.
The ACCJC Commission and the ACCJC leadership continue working to create and support an accreditation environment where colleges meet the standards and improve their institutional effectiveness while celebrating their uniqueness, sharing their achievements, and daring to innovate. And faculty members continue to influence those changes.
The ASCCC and many local academic senates have focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism in response to numerous acts of systemically approved violence in recent years. In recognition that these acts had been ongoing, but not acknowledged, and that systems, processes, and procedures have promulgated an environment that allowed continued abuses to occur, faculty voices began speaking up and pushing for review and evaluation of all of policies, procedures, practices, and curriculum with an eye toward advancing the social justice movement and ending systemically-based promotion of discrimination and violence. As faculty voices rose and academic senates acted, and as many administrators also spoke out, similar concerns and discussions arose within the ACCJC. As a result, in June 2021, the ACCJC Commission adopted a “Policy on Social Justice” in which “[t]he commission recognizes the moral necessity of promoting equity and diversity through its policies and practices and creating a climate of inclusion and anti-racism among its membership” (ACCJC, 2021). Policies of the ACCJC are part of the accreditation process and thus are also influenced by faculty participation.
FACULTY AND SENATE ROLES IN ACCREDITATION
Faculty have a responsibility to participate in the accreditation process at all levels . Title 5 §53200 (c) delineates eleven areas of academic and professional matters on which academic senates, as representatives of faculty, must be consulted. These areas specifically include “faculty roles and involvement in accreditation processes, including self-study and annual reports.” Each of the remaining areas of academic and professional matters can be directly associated with the four broad standard areas that define the accreditation process. The the following table shows shows the alignment of these areas with the standard sections.
Accreditation today serves the same purpose that it did in the early 2000s: It ensures that institutions provide quality education, are financially stable, meet the needs of their communities, and seek continual improvement and effectiveness. The impact of the collective voices expressed through the ASCCC, local academic senates, and individual participation in public listening sessions offered by the ACCJC have wrought a more effective, inclusive, and rewarding process. Faculty members involved with formal accreditation now more commonly find it to be a valuable, collegial, and worthwhile experience in professional development and that the experience adds value to their work within their home institutions.
|Accreditation Standards||Standard 1: Institutional Mission and Effectiveness||Standard 2:
|Standard 3: Infrastructure and Resources||Standard 4: Governance
|Academic and Professional Matters Listed in Title 5
|#9 – Processes for program review
#10 – Processes for institutional planning and budget development
|#1 – Curriculum including establishing prerequisites and placing courses within disciplines
#2 – Degree and certificate requirements
#3 – Grading policies
#4 – Educational program development
#5 – Standards or policies regarding student preparation and success
|#8 – Policies for faculty professional development activities
#10 – Processes for institutional planning and budget development
|#6 – District and college governance structures, as related to faculty roles|
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2004). The 2002 Accreditation Standards: Implementation. https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/publications/AccreditationPaper_0.pdf
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2021). Policy of Social Justice. https://accjc.org/wp-content/uploads/6.b.i.-Policy-on-Social-Justice-First-Read.pdf
U. S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Accreditation in the United States. https://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg2.html#U.S.
1. See, for example, ASCCC Resolution 2.02 SP 90 at https://asccc.org/resolutions/accreditation-standards-7, the ASCCC paper Accreditation: Evaluating the Collective Faculty (1990) at https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/publications/Accred90_0.pdf, and the ASCCC paper Strengthening the Accreditation Process (1992) at https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/publications/StrengtheningAccreditation_0.pdf.
2. Faculty can apply to serve on an accreditation visiting team by completing a Peer Reviewer Interest Form at accjc.org/forms/.