For most theological schools, the self-study is the most demanding part of the accreditation process. But the team visit can be the most fraught. The notion of strangers invading the school to shine lights into dark corners is unnerving. It's easy to forget that the visiting team is there to work for the school, to help it toward the excellence to which it is called.

Recently In Trust asked members of accrediting teams — including veterans and newcomers — to share their wisdom about the process and provide some practical advice.

1. It's best not to surprise the visitors

Mitzi Budde is head librarian at the Bishop Payne Library at Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in Alexandria, Virginia. She has visited eight schools in the last four years.

Mitzi Budde was two days into a visit at one school when she learned for the first time that two key players at the institution shared a family relationship. She was disconcerted, but this didn't hold a candle to the surprise faced by a team that an associate of hers was on. At breakfast at their hotel one morning, the team discovered a front-page article in the local newspaper about the impending move of the school they were visiting — a move mentioned nowhere in the self-study.

2. Lack of preparation reflects poorly on a school

Father Vincent Cushing visited a well established, well known school where the self-study was all of 19 pages, and Cushing figured that it had been "written by one guy in the last two weeks." (Not surprisingly, that school's reaccreditation was delayed for two years.)

Other times it's the board that is unprepared. James Thames says that many board members seem completely unaware of the accreditation process and its importance. "It's amazing how many board members just seem clueless," he says, even when administrators assure the team that the board members have been fully informed. 

James Thames is associate academic dean for academic administration and acting director of external studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, a nondenominational, evangelical school in Dallas, Texas. He has been on half a dozen visitation teams in the last four years.

Presidents have a major responsibility for educating board members, but boards still must put to use what they have learned. Dennis Dirks says that even boards that appear alert overall can be caught off guard. He suggests that every board determine in advance what its members will be expected to know and prepare itself accordingly.

3. Contempt is not a good strategy

Cushing recalls a school with a president who faced several significant problems but was simultaneously running down the endowment at a rapid clip. The only scheduled time for the accrediting team to meet the board was the opening dinner, so the team requested additional time alone with the board. They were refused until Cushing announced, "This request is about to become a demand." So a meeting was scheduled for 7:30 on Tuesday morning, during which the team was told, "We don't need anyone coming from the East telling us how to run our school. We can take care of ourselves." 

Franciscan Father Vincent Cushing is the president emeritus of the Washington Theological Union, a Catholic institution in Washington, D.C., and is a consultant in theological education. He is an In Trust governance mentor and has been on more than 25 ATS accrediting teams.

Sometimes an individual team member is treated disrespectfully. Cushing recalls visiting a school of a very different tradition than his own where the host school shut him out of the discussion. "It was clear that as a team member I had nothing to do, "he recalls. Sometimes this exclusion is based on gender (and this has operated in both directions); at other times it has been based on real or perceived differences in theology or politics.

Mitzi Budd says that one of the detrimental effects of this kind of exclusion is that it prevents school administrators from seeing their institution through fresh sets of eyes. And speaking of eyes, she remembers a joint visit with a regional accrediting team, one member of which was from a school of ophthalmology. "It was fascinating to see what we have in common with a very different type of professional school," she said. "Besides, it gave us the opportunity to sing the 'was blind, but now I see' part of Amazing Grace and make lots of jokes about 'the vision thing.'"

Budde thinks that overt hostility is much less common than an attitude of just trying to get through the process. Hosts can forget that the goal of the accrediting team is not to force a school to do something it doesn't want to do, but rather to help a school to understand, "What should we want to do?"

4. Manipulating the process can backfire

Some host committee chairs have threatened to resign over a disagreement with the visiting team. Others have manipulated the schedule so that the visiting team did not have enough time with key players. Still others have tried to turn the visit into a consideration of a single issue, which is not generally a good idea, no matter how large that issue looms. Another mistake: Using the occasion of the visit as an opportunity to attack a member of the administration. All of these tactics have been tried, but visitors strongly discourage them.

5. Don't use the report as a weapon

Cushing visited a school that was fulfilling its mission but also faced significant problems. Although the school was reaccredited, the team's report was blunt in stating the challenges for the school's future.

Unfortunately, the board and others used the report as a tool to convince others that the school was beyond saving, and it was closed — unnecessarily. Educating a school's various communities about what an accreditation report is (and is not) can prevent such misuse of the document.

6. Best-case scenario: openness about challenges, sense of humor

It's important to maintain a sense of perspective and a sense of humor. Dirks was particularly impressed with a school that was under the scrutiny of the local press when the team came. The president hung a newspaper cartoon lampooning himself in a prominent display case outside his office door. It wasn't an act of defiance, but a light-hearted way to acknowledge the press and start the conversation.


Upbeat and attentive boards do best for their schools

1. Board members should read the self-study ahead of time and devote time at a board meeting to discussing it. Develop your own sets of questions. 

Dennis Dirks is dean of Talbot School of Theology, a graduate school of Biola University, which is an interdenominational, evangelical school in La Mirada, California. He has visited half a dozen schools over the last 12 years.

2. Most visiting team members arrive with a desire to help the school. Welcome them not as inspectors general, but as colleagues.

3. ATS standards are not "one size fits all." Dennis Dirks says, "We see lots of interesting ideas, and ultimately the question is, 'Can this work?'" The ATS standards are flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of entrepreneurial programs.

4. Remember to keep in mind the big picture, even when addressing details.

5. Board members should be ready to explain what the ATS is and why accrediting team members are visiting the school. Questions from many different constituencies may arise, and savvy board members are ready for them.

6. What do team members love to see? A close and easy interaction between the president and board chair. Ongoing evaluation of the president. Work already in progress on issues raised in the self study.

7. Board members should be prepared and committed to leading the school through all the changes that are necessary to strengthen the school and lead it as it fulfills its mission.

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