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Accreditation:Tips for Staying Sane

Hello my lovely colleagues!

The blog for this month goes out to all of you who have taken part in the accreditation process or plan to do so. For those of you newbies, accreditation is essentially the process by which a school receives a sort of license or seal of approval from a specific academic organization. Many universities are accredited by regional organizations with extremely complicated names such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (called SACS for short.) Small foreign language schools are often accredited by ACCET or CEA. Anyway, the process can be grueling, tedious, and completely maddening at times—much like the implementation of any big project or initiative in any school. Below are some tips to keep you sane and help make the process more manageable.

1. Stay organized.

If I could only give you one tip, this would be it. The accreditation process is long and involves mountains of paperwork. Even one of the small schools I worked with turned in over 300 pages of documents including handbooks, academic statistics, curriculum reports, etc. Before you do anything else, set up a system to help your school keep track of everything. Create a specific format for naming files and specific locations for storing those files. You should even create a style sheet to make sure that all of the documents you collect throughout the process are in the same font.

2. Get buy-in from everyone.

Everyone? Yes, I mean everyone. As I mentioned above, the accreditation process is time consuming. It often involves collecting documents from many departments, which can mean lots of extra work for all involved. If you work at a school that doesn’t pay people for administrative time, you’ll get a lot of mumbling and groaning when you ask for specific lesson plans or copies of all exams from the last few years. Honestly, you’ll get the same response from the full timers who just don’t want to do it. However, if you explain to everyone what the accreditation process is and how it helps keep everyone employed (among other things,) you often receive a better response. At one my schools, we treated accreditation like a team competition. As we completed each section of the report, we checked it off on a big chart for everyone to see. At each stage of the process, we had mini celebrations. We made sure all of our administrators, faculty, and staff knew how important their contributions were to our team effort. As a result, almost everything got in on time and the quality of the work was stellar.

3. Give yourself a timeline, and stick to it.

When you have a year to complete the process, it’s easy to put things off especially when you are inundated with end-of-term grading or processing everything for new students. However, every time you procrastinate, you make it that much harder for the team and for yourself. Nothing is more daunting than realizing you have less than a month to put together and edit a 150-page accreditation report including documents from five departments, academic data from the past few years, a complete school review plan, and a summary of all the student satisfaction data going back five years. Make time in your schedule weekly to do accreditation tasks, so you don’t get overwhelmed. When you’re in a major time crunch, you are much more likely to forget things or make mistakes.

4. Make sure to think long term.

One of the other challenges with accreditation is that it requires that you take the long view. Accreditation is not a ‘one time’ thing. It involves submission of yearly summaries, reporting requirements, and re-accreditation every 5 years or so. You are never really “done” with accreditation, so you need to go into the process with that mindset. Set up policies to ensure that you will be able to keep up with the constant flow of requirements you will receive during the process and afterwards. You should also plan financially to ensure you can pay the people who will be responsible for the new workload you will acquire.

5. Assign specific tasks with specific deadlines to specific people.

Are you seeing a theme here? Specific. Specificity allows for you to ensure accountability. If Alan Smith is responsible for reviewing all current curriculum and he doesn’t do it, then you have someone to talk to about the problem. Many times I’ve sat in accreditation committee meetings and heard statements like “one of us should review the curriculum” or “we really need to revise our handbooks.” Such vague, general responsibility ensures that none of these tasks actually get done because everyone assumes someone else will do them. Assign tasks to specific people and follow up to ensure that those tasks actually get done.

6. Make sure the person leading the process is actually a leader.

Now, to clarify, a leader doesn’t mean the person has to already be in a position of power within your organization (though sometimes that can help.) A leader is a person who can work with a team and negotiate, but also someone who is also willing to let people know when they aren’t carrying their weight. In my personal experience, sometimes the person in charge of the accreditation process at a specific school is the person who didn’t say no (as opposed to the person who actually said yes.) These people end up getting overwhelmed and often get pushed around by their colleagues—especially if they have no authority over those colleagues. So, if you are choosing the process leader, choose wisely. If you have fallen into the role, channel the most matter-of-fact, powerful person you know. (For me, that’s my mother; she’s polite, but firm and never takes anyone’s crap.) Stand up for yourself and keep the process moving.

7. Be patient.

When you first embark upon this journey (and it is a journey,) it can be extremely overwhelming. There are lots of documents to sort through, and it can take time to understand exactly what the accreditors expect. There will be times when you'll want to pull your hair out or throw in the towel. Take heart, you will get there. Just take it one step at a time and breathe.

Do any of you have tips for those undertaking the accreditation process? If so, we’d love to hear about them. You can write your tips below. If you are involved in the accreditation process for your school and need assistance, feel free to contact me and let me know, I'd love to work with you.

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