In June 2020, for only the third time in the 101-year history of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), member schools voted to approve a complete redevelopment of its accrediting standards.
“Considering the diversity of membership, we were hoping for a solid 90 percent of our schools to approve the redevelopment,” says ATS executive director Frank Yamada. “We were pleasantly surprised that the vote was 198 to 1. And although we were open to accepting amendments from the floor, no amendments were proposed. That was remarkable.”
The standards, streamlined from 100 pages to just 18, have three essential facets: educational quality, clarity, and flexibility. While previous standards were based on specific practices, the new ones establish “quality principles” that will be embodied differently in each school. There was a fundamental shift from measuring quality by discrete degree programs to the “principles” to better reflect the sector’s diversity of student formation practices and traditions, and the many degree programs and delivery channels now extant.
“The new standards are not simplistic,” Yamada observes, “but they are marked by simplicity.”
Yamada says the development of the new standards took a year of listening (more than 50 focus groups and 12 working groups participated) and a year of writing, followed by more listening.
He also notes that the vote took place during the pandemic. The 400-person onsite meeting was converted into an online meeting that incorporated asynchronous courses, a feedback section on the new standards, open forums, and a webinar on Black Lives Matter.
According to Yamada, this “once-in-a-generation decision” — following the first revision in 1972 and a second in 1996 — was a “daunting process” but “what made it all possible was the teamwork between the quality people on the ATS board and among the staff. With the right people on the bus, we got it done!”