Five Tips for Accreditation Liaisons for Effectively Preparing Your Reaffirmation of Accreditation Report
It’s accreditation season – or at least is seems like it always is. Accreditation liaisons are either planning for the next accreditation report, preparing for the on-site visit, or getting some much-needed rest and relaxation after completing an accreditation cycle. You’re essentially serving as an accreditation consultant to your own institution – helping them navigate these critical waters. In this article, I share five tips for accreditation liaisons for effectively preparing your reaffirmation of accreditation report. Whether you are the accreditation liaison for your institution’s regional accreditation (ACCJC, MSCHE, NCA-HLC, NECHE, NWCCU, SACSCOC, or WSCUC) or for a discipline specific accreditor, there is sure to be something useful here for you.
I’ve served in many accreditation related roles at multiple institutions over my career. I’ve been an accreditation liaison (including at one institution getting 100% compliance from the regional accreditor) and provided accreditation support to senior leaders. I’ve also held roles at two regional accreditors (WSCUC and NWCCU), and been on the other side of the table serving on the accreditation review teams. So, these tips are based on my nearly 15 years of deep accreditation work spanning multiple institution types, accrediting bodies, and report types (e.g., reaffirmation, warning, notice of concern, interim update, etc.).
1. Divide and conquer
Accreditation is a team sport. Yes – you are the liaison, but you aren’t expected to write the entire report from cover to cover yourself. Your goal as accreditation liaison is to set the institution up for success. You likely will write some sections (and review the entire thing) – but you are also the organizer, reviewer, editor, deadline keeper, etc. In fact, most accreditors expect involvement across campus. This doesn’t mean the entire campus needs to be involved – rather the campus subject matter expert should be the lead author on the relevant topics. One to two supporting/contributing authors are included so that a single person doesn’t go-it-alone for any one section. It is impossible for one person to know about and effectively articulate everything that is needed for a section, let alone the entire accreditation report.
Action Step: On a single page, list the sections of the report in the first column. In the second column, list the lead author. The third column contains supporting authors. This could range from one to five people (depending upon your institution size). After filling out the table, review it and ask: 1) Who’s missing? 2) Who is listed too frequently that they will be spread too thin?
2. Set deadlines for draft reports
When was the last time you wrote a perfect article on the first draft? Yep – never. No one does. And when the stakes are high (say millions in federal student aid), it is going to take multiple drafts to write thorough, crisp, evidenced-based content that fits neatly within the maximum number of pages allowed. That’s why it is important to give lead authors deadlines to submit a draft. Let them know you aren’t expecting perfection, but you do need a solid draft. This affords you, as the accreditation liaison, a few advantages:
- You can see the accreditation report coming together.
- You can begin to see if there is overlap or where you might have gaps or problems.
- You have an opportunity to give substantive feedback to each lead author. You can only give feedback if you have content to work with – right?
- If any section is going sideways – you have time to course correct to set the lead author and the institution up for success.
Action Step: Make a timeline. Ideally on a single sheet of paper, map out lead author deadlines as well as the work that you, as accreditation liaison, will be doing (e.g., reviewing and giving feedback, editing, linking documents, etc.). Add in time for review by the people and groups that will need to look things over (e.g., Boards usually want to see the report). Make sure that everyone involved is aware of the timeline and due dates each step of the way. Folks will see that the timeline is tight (at best) and they will be more conscientious about not missing a deadline when they know others are counting on them.
3. Add some wiggle room to the timeline
You can count on the fact that everything will not go according to plan. Something will come up on campus that will take one or more lead authors away from accreditation writing. Some sections will take longer than expected. Someone who has critical data or information will be out at the most inconvenient time possible. And – don’t forget, you are already working around a packed academic year of events and busy times. There are no ‘down-times’ in higher education anymore. Plus, everyone is doing their regular job on top of this accreditation work. So, be sure to build in some wiggle room into the timeline. For example, rather than having the date that the report is due to the accreditor list as your deadline, back up the due date by two weeks.
Action Step: Review your timeline again and back deadlines up two weeks to allow you some flexibility before the actual deadline. Make sure to build extra buffer days throughout the timeline.
4. Ensure that the standard/question is answered
You’ve identified incredibly talented people to write one or more sections of the accreditation report. Remember that they are awesome at their position – but they may not be expert for writing for external audiences, like accreditors. For some, this may be their first time contributing to an accreditation report. This is where you, as accreditation liaison, come in and set the lead author up for success! :-). One of the many, many hats accreditation liaisons wear is to make sure that responses actually answered the standard/question. It is so very easy when writing to get off on an irrelevant tangent. And many authors think, “Well, I’ll add more content than needed, since it is easier to cut than add.” Your role it to act like an accreditation reviewer and ask yourself after reading the response:
- “Does this content answer the standard/question?”
- “What information is missing?”
- “What information is not needed?”
Action Step: Set lead authors up for success. Before they begin writing, let lead authors know what types of information the accreditation review team is expecting in each section. Many institutions publicly post their reports. WSCUC publicly posts the team’s report on each institution’s profile page (it is helpful to know how the team viewed the information).
5. Find a fresh set of eyes
By the time the report deadline comes, you will have read the accreditation report so many times that it is really difficult to see errors or issues. As part of your timeline, have a fresh set of eyes review the report from cover to cover – just like a reviewer would. I once reviewed a report and the institution’s address was wrong on the cover page. (Whoa!) That told me that folks were working so hard and so fatigued that I needed to pay extra close attention to every. single. word. The president originally asked that I review two specific sections only. And once I told him that I found an error on the cover page – after the document had already had multiple reviews, he asked me if I could review the entire thing. [True story.] It’s scary to come that far and have things off to a bad start on the cover page. It sets the tone for the accreditation reviewer.
Action Step: Build the fresh-set-of-eyes-review into the timeline. Identify that person ask them to commit to the specific set of days in the timeline, plus or minus a few days (see #3 on wiggle room). This could be someone internal at your institution or an external reviewer that specializes in the specific accreditation report that you are working on. IEHE specializes in regional accreditation.
At the end of the accreditation cycle, your goal as accreditation liaison is to guide the institution in thoroughly and accurately presenting the evidence that shows that the college/university is at least meeting (hopefully exceeding) each standard. While this is no small task, it is professional challenge that I have come to really enjoy. I love highlighting institutional effectiveness and helping to showcase the collective hard work of an entire institution that improves students’ lives. IEHE helps colleges and universities effectively tell their story to accreditors and other authority organizations through its suite of reports and tools as well as higher education consulting and accreditation consulting support services.