Jay Phelan became president of North Park Seminary in 1996.

Jay Phelan walked into his first year as president at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago with a massive project already on his desk: the accreditation visit from the Association of Theological Schools.

"People said, 'Oh, it's only your first year and you have to do an accreditation visit -- how awful.'" But Phelan, who's been on the job for 10 years now, said it was one of the best things that could have happened. "It gave me an opportunity to see where we were, where we came from, and where we were going. It gave me an understanding I otherwise wouldn't have had for a couple of years."

Of course, the process did more than that. Even though his colleagues had done the heavy lifting of preparation before he assumed office, gearing up for the visit still ate up a lot of Phelan's time and caused him a fair bit of stress. "Accreditation holds your feet to the fire and makes you do the things you have to do," says Phelan. "That sounds like a negative, but it's a value nonetheless."

Like those who commented on Phelan's fate, most seminary administrators, faculty, and trustees have an immediate, visceral reaction to the word "accreditation." And that reaction isn't often positive.

But after a few seconds, many remember the value behind the accreditation process. At its best, the self-study conducted in preparation for an accreditation visit provides an opportunity to step back from the daily and weekly activities and really assess what's going on with the institution and whether all the classes, programs, events, facilities, and members of the community are staying as true to the mission and vision of the school as possible.

Although most board members won't play a starring role in their school's accreditation process, they do have roles to play, whether by taking part in planning meetings, helping write or critique the self-study document, attending parts of the accreditation team's visit, or even simply reading the findings and recommendations of the self-study. The greater their involvement, the more board members stand to learn about the institution they are helping to govern. And while other accrediting bodies, like regional accrediting agencies, do much the same thing, ATS's sole focus on graduate theological education means their visit and the preparation that goes into it can provide a clearer, more tailored understanding of the school and how well it is fulfilling its mission.

Keeping up with the times

ATS began in 1918 as a biennial conference for theological schools. It adopted its first set of quality standards in 1936 and issued its first school accreditation two years later. Although those initial standards had been updated at times, the organization substantially revised them 10 years ago in order to reflect the vast changes that had occurred in theological education and to make the process more relevant to the schools. As In Trust reported in 1996, the new standards moved from a primary focus on facts and figures to a greater focus on "matters of mission, quality, and 'integrity.'" 

This year North Park Seminary, in Chicago, faces its first accreditation visit under the new standards.

In part, these changes were made to catch up with the changes that were happening in ATS member schools during the past 35 years. As Roman Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox, and Canadian schools joined U.S.-based mainline Protestant schools as ATS members, and as the number of "nontraditional" students -- more diverse in terms of race, gender, age, and career path -- climbed, it became clear that a simple facts-and-figures and one-size-fits-all accreditation formula didn't adequately describe the reality of a school. Other changes in the areas of educational and administrative style, finance, and church relations were also clear reasons for more relevant standards.

This marks the final year that any schools will be going through the accreditation for the first time under the "new" standards. North Park is in this group -- the ATS visit during Phelan's first year (which earned the school a 10-year accreditation) was under the old standards. This means that many people who have been involved in recent self-study processes at seminaries -- particularly term-limited board members -- might not have been around for the old version. But the feedback about the new standards, including from those who can remember back before '96, has been remarkably positive.


Those involved with ATS's last two visits to the Faculty of Theology at Huron University College in London, Ontario -- mainly faculty members -- have commented on the proactive attitude behind the new standards. "It's now a focus on continuous improvement," said Chris Jones Harris, board chair of the Anglican school. "That switch in approach has been viewed very positively."

San Francisco Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in San Anselmo, California, went through a joint accreditation visit with ATS and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) last year. The school's president, Philip Butin, himself wrote the document's section on shared governance. "I found the ATS standards immensely helpful," he said. And although he incorporated the elements of both ATS and WASC standards in his report, "I used the ATS standards [on governance] explicitly and addressed them directly."


Leland V. Eliason is executive vice president of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary. Both the seminary and the larger university are affiliated with the Baptist General Conference.Almost 30 years ago, Bethel became a pioneer in extension education by opening a branch in San Diego.Today, in addition to the San Diego campus, Bethel's extension program includes the Seminary of the East, with sites in Auburn, Massachusetts; Dresher, Pennsylvania; Landover, Maryland; and New York City.

In Trust asked Leland V. Eliason about the particular challenges of accrediting extension sites. A brief excerpt of his response is below; you can also read a longer version, including much about Bethel's long experience in extension education.

The key to every extension site is whether it is an expression of the mission, the vision, and the strategic planning of the institution.

What that means is that there should be strong communication between the extension site and the main campus. And one of the most important parts of all of that is, are the faculty of the schools on the same page? That is, do they communicate with each other well enough so that the faculty at an extension site consider themselves to be an authentic entity of the school?

In order for that to happen, we bring all the faculty of our extension sites to our campus twice a year for a weekend retreat. In the fall it's a workshop including staff, and in the winter it's the faculty themselves. In between those two major face-to-face events, we have several compressed-video, real-time conference calls, and every new faculty hired at any of our locations is examined by the faculty of all six sites.

So, when we hire a new faculty member here in Minnesota, that person sits in a room in St. Paul, and on television screens are the faculty in San Diego and on two other screens are the faculty of Seminary of the East, and the candidate interacts with all of us.

The right pieces assembled

In part, the ATS standards are particularly useful to the organization's 251 member schools because regional accreditation bodies handle such a wide spectrum of educational institutions.WASC, the regional accrediting body, has three different commissions that deal with different segments of education. But even within its own commission, the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, San Francisco Theological Seminary has to meet the same requirements as schools like the California College of Podiatric Medicine and the American Film Institute. To have a set of standards specific to graduate theological education allows a stronger focus on issues like mission, vision, and integrity.

Several key actions and mindsets have helped make the most of the new ATS self-study standards for several schools -- and have helped to get all constituents, including board members, involved in the process. 

Huron University College in London, Ontario, which was founded in 1863, is an independent, self-governing institution affiliated with the University of Western Ontario.

Advance preparation and education.

St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology was founded in 1848 by the first Catholic bishop of Cleveland.

Learning as much as possible about the accreditation standards, process, and strategy made the experience more manageable for St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio, and Huron University College. Father Thomas Tifft, president-rector of St. Mary Seminary, and Father Mark Latcovich, academic dean and vice president/vice rector, both attended workshops sponsored by ATS and the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the school's regional accrediting body. "Both workshops were extremely helpful -- they explained the process and helped separate the myth of the process from the reality," said Latcovich."The emphasis was less on producing a particular final product and more on creating and directing a process that engages the whole institution."

At Huron, the new ATS standards' focus on mission, vision, and governance dovetailed with work the board was doing independent of the accreditation self-study. Over the past three years, the board leadership has emphasized continuing board education, particularly in the area of governance, and instituted an annual board self-study of its own. "We would ask, 'Does our board reflect our mission statement?'" said Harris. "Really, what the [new] ATS standards did for us was validate that we were on the right track."

Creating a realistic timeline and methodology.

St. Mary board chair David Hussey says the self-evaluation was a "performance improvement vehicle" for the school.

Latcovich said St. Mary Seminary took the entire three years before the visit to prepare. The first year they talked about the standards and expectations at faculty meetings, board meetings, and at special meetings with students. "Because people knew what was expected of them, everyone was on the same page," Latcovich said. Then, for the two and a half years before the visit, they held monthly self-study committee meetings. As dean, one of Latcovich's jobs was to create the calendar. That made it easier to schedule the meetings the school needed to get its accreditation work done.

Other schools took less time but regularly met with all the constituents to work through the requirements of the self-study process. Early on, it was decided that Huron's Harris, then the board's vice chair, would be the primary trustee involved with the school's self-study efforts.

By the time of the ATS visit last October, Harris was board chair and knew plenty about the self-study and the process the school went through before the visit. The rest of the board received updates from her and executive summaries from the dean of theology to keep them informed without taking an inordinate amount of their time.

Recognizing how board structure affects the level of involvement of the board in the self-study process.

North Park Theological Seminary is part of the larger North Park University, and a single board oversees the entire institution. While that board includes a seminary committee,"we're a small part of the pie," said Phelan. It's also difficult for the seminary -- the only one of the Evangelical Covenant Church -- to help shape the board, because members are appointed by a denominational nominating committee instead of school administrators. Phelan instituted a seminary board of advisors that meets twice a year to look at seminary specific issues and long-term planning. While this group has no official power, two of North Park's trustees are a part of this group, so they share the advisors' concerns with the larger board.



Huron University
College Faculty of
London, Ontario

North Park
Chicago, Illinois

St. Mary Seminary
and Graduate
School of Theology
Wickliffe, Ohio
(Roman Catholic)

San Francisco
San Anselmo,
Church (U.S.A.)


Huron's Faculty of Theology is likewise attached to a larger school, and one board oversees the entire institution. San Francisco's board is large -- more than 40 members -- and it became clear early on that not all trustees would be involved in the accreditation process to an equal degree. And St. Mary Seminary, although a freestanding school of theology with a small board, faces somewhat different limitations, because its governance function does not include appointing or evaluating the seminary president. Since the school is owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, that job belongs to the bishop.

"Seminaries are tricky things when it comes to governance," said Phelan. History, tradition, polity, and institutional and board structure all influence the role and capabilities of the board, and it's important to recognize that these quirks and limitations can in part dictate the board's involvement in the self-study and accreditation visit.

Consideration of the board's "action mechanisms."

The accreditation process is designed to keep schools focused on their mission. For many schools, like Huron, the chapel is the physical embodiment of that mission.

Standing committees were a great help for St. Mary's board as they undertook the accreditation tasks. But at Huron, the board introduced a "zero-committee" system a few years ago. This means the group abolished standing committees and instead evaluates annually what committees need to be created.

"The board took very seriously the question, 'Are we doing the right work?'" said Huron's principal, Ramona Lumpkin. "We would first ask what the right work is, and then ask what are the right committees to get that work done."

The board set up a formal governance committee last year that has tackled issues like board training, self-assessment, and orientation of new members. "That's lined up very nicely with the emphasis on board development in the ATS standards as they are now."

Recognizing that board members -- and others -- bring different perspectives to the accreditation process.

"Many of us come from outside academia," said Huron's Harris, who is vice president and co-owner of a business. "You do wonder if by bringing in elements from the outside world you are being helpful." Huron's self-study started with a series of kickoff meetings that incorporated ISO standards, global standards for quality that are more familiar to the corporate world than the academic world. "It was an eye-opener for a lot of people," Harris noted.

St. Mary Seminary board chair David Hussey and North Park's self-study director, Kim Sangster, both had experience in health care accreditation. Because of that background, Hussey said it was clear to him what a positive, useful accreditation process looks like. "There are two ways to go about it," he said. "The first is where a small group of experts does the brunt of the work. The second way is a much more systemic approach that delves down into the fabric of the organization and gets everyone is involved at various levels. I much prefer this second approach."

Coordinating all accreditation visits whenever possible.

San Francisco Theological Seminary, founded in 1871, moved to a hilltop site in Marin County in 1892.

San Francisco Theological Seminary was able to coordinate the ATS self-study and visit with those of WASC -- which had also recently revamped its review structure -- last October. The seminary mitigated the initial unhappy news that WASC would be conducting two visits instead of one under its new setup by synchronizing visits from both its accrediting bodies. ATS was able to give San Francisco preliminary accreditation approval at the first visit and will determine full approval at the second visit next year. And San Francisco spared itself a third visit by coordinating with the two organizations.

Likewise, St. Mary was able to orchestrate a joint visit between ATS and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, its regional accreditation body. Latcovich said that not every regional organization is willing to conduct joint visits with ATS, but when it is possible,"one visit is always better." St. Mary even had the good fortune of going through their joint accreditation visit just before it received word that the Vatican would be conducting seminary visitations for the first time since the 1980s. They were able to leave their document room intact for their Vatican visitation, and the visiting team was impressed with St. Mary's up-to-date, comprehensive self-study documents.

Never perfect

Having these pieces in place greatly increases the potential for a positive, proactive self-study experience. And that helps make a time-consuming, detailed process imposed by an outside entity into something valuable, dynamic, and most important, relevant.

"No institution ever hears, 'You're perfect -- you've arrived,'" said Latcovich. "As they acknowledge your good work and successes, they challenge you to maintain standards of excellence and to dialogue with your constituents. The seminary is focused on the church community, which is never static. There are always new needs, new challenges. The mission of the seminaries is to preach and teach, and to learn from the prophetic voices of our day and respond to those the best we can."

Issues that surface during the self-study or at the accreditation visit run the gamut from straightening out financial reporting and management to working on how to better share governance to improving the evaluation of faculty and students. Having an outside body point out which priorities to handle first can feel restricting but it also helps provide direction and accountability.

San Francisco Theological Seminary board chair Laird Stuart says the accreditation process helped the school be more systematic about making improvements.

"We knew we had some things to work on," said San Francisco board chair Laird Stuart. "I'd like to think we'd have done it without the accreditation process, but it helped us be more systematic."

Many ATS member schools face issues around shared governance. North Park academic dean Stephen Graham and faculty member Carol Noren recently attended an ATS-sponsored conference on faculty governance. "We're thinking about that more seriously," said Phelan. "How to appropriately include faculty [in governance] has been a big question."

San Francisco lists shared governance as one of the seven points of its strategic plan. The school began holding an annual meeting for trustees, faculty, and administrators together. While the initial meeting was more about conflict resolution, the most recent one, last February, was "extremely productive," Butin said. "It really makes a difference for the board and faculty to see each other."

The importance of evaluation

Interestingly, the level of evaluation involved in the self-study process seems to spur on the desire for more and improved evaluation -- of faculty, students, administrators, board, and of curriculum, programs, and processes. At Huron, the faculty of theology noted how some of the evaluation of programs, staff, and courses had been informal. They've embarked on a project to strengthen and formalize those evaluation mechanisms.

Similarly, San Francisco has taken a closer look at its measurement tools -- particularly for evaluation of students' theological, spiritual, and practical skills and growth and for the faculty's ability to encourage those. The school recently introduced a new emphasis on students' spiritual formation from the time they enroll to the time they graduate.

While St. Mary's board has never formally evaluated the president of the seminary because it's not one of their responsibilities, it was decided during the last self-study process that it would be valuable for it to do so, even if only in an advisory capacity.

San Francisco also has created dashboard indicators in the past few years that help assess material pertaining to the school's strategic plan. The one-page reports are distributed to faculty members, administrators, and board a few times a year. "It's a key way we can tell how we're doing," Butin said.

Best practices for boards facing an accreditation visit

Father Mark Latcovich, Academic Dean, St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology

Faculty involvement.Be sure your school has the whole faculty involved and that there is an environment that appreciates the accreditation process. It's best if everyone takes ownership in preparation for the visit.

Timing.It's best if the resource room takes shape early in the process. Don't leave to the last minute the collection of data, resources, and information that serve as a portfolio of your school's work over the past 10 years.

Student participation.Get students involved. They will provide useful insights, offer interesting perspectives, and will appreciate the ownership the school bestows upon them for the visitation.

Get help.Use your contact person's expertise for the visit. ATS and regional accreditation groups are often willing to come to your school before the "real" visit and help you understand their criteria. This (usually informal) visit can answer many of your questions.

Get information.Encourage your president-rector or other top administrators to attend yearly accreditation conferences. Review successful self-studies completed by other schools. Talk to peers and use their best practices for your own visit.

The big picture

The library at St. Mary

Ultimately, the revised ATS accreditation standards aim to help schools stay true to their mission, their vision, and their purpose.

"It was challenging and comprehensive, but extremely useful," said St. Mary board chair Hussey. "We came away with a much better understanding of the seminary and its strengths and weaknesses." The work of the self-study, he said, wasn't just an investment of time and effort in fulfilling ATS's requirements. "It was really a performance improvement vehicle for us."

Huron's principal Lumpkin agrees."I've always been told that the best test of an accreditation review is being able to identify in the process things that would be useful to you -- to turn the massive amounts of work into relevant findings for your institution. To me, the ATS process passed that test."

Hard work, but worthwhile

In 1996, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada adopted revised accreditation standards for member schools. Since then, the new standards have been widely understood to be more flexible than the old -- for example, they loosen the rules for distance learning and acknowledge the reality that many schools are expanding via extension campuses.

But the flexibility came at a price. After 1996, no longer was it good enough to check requirements off a list and be done with it. Now, fulfilling the stated mission is the standard by which a theological school is measured. In some ways, that means twice the work, since each school first must articulate its mission clearly -- and then show success in achieving that mission.

The standards emphasize governance. Boards are encouraged not only to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities, but also to assess themselves and their contribution to the shared governance of a school. Boards are not just trustees but, like the administration and faculty, they are co-leaders in governance, and only boards can shoulder the responsibility for measuring their own performance.

Experienced board members know how much work accreditation is. Preparing for the self-study can take years, and writing the report requires months. Some boards encourage executives to plan ahead by budgeting funds for extra administrative help and a reduced teaching or administrative load for the lucky professor or dean assigned to write the report. Some boards also aim to use the extensive preparation required by the self-study in creative ways -- for example, by asking questions that can also be used for a capital campaign feasibility study.

Here's a "best practice" tip from In Trust: Even if your accreditation is years away, take a look at those accreditation standards now. (You can find them at www.ats.edu/accrediting/standards/overview.asp.) Then work with the administration to create "dashboard indicators" for monitoring institutional performance based on the school's strategic plan and the ATS standards. That way, over the next few years, you can monitor the key issues all along. And there will be no surprises when your number comes up.

-- Jay Blossom


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