What’s the board of a theological school responsible for? Raising funds? Offering expertise? Representing the church body? Making sure that the school doesn't lose its theological moorings? Perhaps. But most of all, the board of a theological school is responsible for making sure the school is fulfilling its mission with economic vitality. That means the board oversees almost everything.

Everything—including accreditation. If a school is a member of the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), its board must be prepared for the accreditation self-study report and evaluation committee that comes at the end of the school’s term of accreditation (usually 10 years). But the board should also understand the important role of governance in the accreditation standards themselves. Finally—especially for schools with distance learning programs — boards should be aware of the significant changes that have been made in recent years in the General Institutional Standards, the Educational Standard, and Degree Program Standards.

In order to understand these changes, In Trust recently talked to Tisa Lewis, senior director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at ATS, and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz, director of accreditation and evaluation, who oversaw the process of revising the standards. The following is based on that conversation.

What are the standards of the ATS Commission on Accrediting?

The first thing to understand about accreditation for theological schools is that there are three sets of standards that apply to all schools. (However, the second and third sets of standards are usually combined in a single document called “Educational and Degree Program Standards.”)

• General Institutional Standards address big-picture issues like the faculty, the library, student recruitment, institutional resources, and information technology. An entire section of the institutional standards is dedicated to governance issues. The General Institutional Standards were last amended at the 2010 Biennial Meeting. They are online at http://bit.ly/ATS-GIS.

• The Educational Standard presents the various theological degrees and explains residency, distance learning, and extension sites. It also addresses assessment, academic credit, and nondegree programs. The new Educational Standard was adopted at the 2012 Biennial Meeting. This standard is online at http://bit.ly/ATS-EDPS.

• Degree Program Standards apply to each unique degree program that a school offers — most schools offer only a few degree programs, although collectively, ATS schools offer dozens of different degrees. These standards explain the purpose of each degree, the importance of educational assessment, the educational content and length of each program, learning strategies, required resources, admission requirements, and more. Degree Program Standards were amended at the 2012 Biennial Meeting; they are online at http://bit.ly/ATS-EDPS.

Each ATS member school has to be concerned with all three areas. Members of governing boards should note that with each revision of the standards, assessment has taken a more prominent place. Student learning outcomes must be assessed, but each institution is also responsible for assessing itself as an educational institution. As part of this, boards must evaluate their own performance. And ultimately, it’s the board’s responsibility to see that evaluation and assessment are occurring at every level throughout the school.

The board’s responsibilities are clearly outlined in the General Institutional Standards, but boards also need to be aware of the Educational and Degree Program Standards — at least in their broad outlines—because these standards affect fundraising, assessment, the library, and more.

Of the revisions to the standards that were adopted last year, one of the most significant affects schools that already have a comprehensive distance education program approved by the Board of Commissioners. (Once a member school is offering at least six online courses, the school must petition the Commission on Accrediting to approve its comprehensive distance education.) As of June 2012, these schools may now offer basic master’s programs in general theological studies completely online, without petitioning the Board of Commissioners. (However, a school that doesn't already offer a basic master’s program in general theological studies does need to get approval for that degree program before it can begin to offer an all-online degree).

In the new post-2012 standards, degrees other than the basic theological degrees continue to have a residency requirement — that is, students in these programs must earn at least a third, and for some degrees two-thirds, of their credits in residence. However, in another change adopted last year, schools may now petition the Board of Commissioners for an exception from the residency requirements for individual degree programs.

Schools that wish to petition for an exception from residency requirements must go to www.ats.edu/accrediting/ petitions-substantive-change and download the Petition for an Educational Experiment or Exception. On the petition, they are permitted to explain what evidence has been gathered, or will be gathered, to show that student learning outcomes are comparable to programs with “typical” residency requirements. In other words, it’s incumbent on the school to show that it can provide online education that’s comparable to residential education.

The number of credits required for each degree vary considerably. For example, some schools accredited by the Commission require more than 120 credit hours for an M.Div. degree, while others require just 90 credit hours.

Since the revision of the Degree Program Standards last year, some ATS Commission-accredited schools have already begun offering all-online M.A. degrees. In accordance with the new standards, these schools already had Commission-approved comprehensive distance education programs and offered basic degree programs oriented toward general theological studies, so they were able to begin offering all-online master’s degrees without petitioning the Board of Commissioners.

Eleven additional schools have submitted petitions to begin offering all-online M.Div. degrees, and the Board of Commissioners will consider most of these at its August 2013 meeting.

Preparing for an accreditation evaluation visit

When a school is preparing for an accreditation evaluation visit, the board’s responsibilities increase. These evaluations take place once every 10 years except in special circumstances. A shorter time frame, such as five years between evaluations, means that the Board of Commissioners feels that that the school needs extra oversight as it addresses significant challenges. Schools accredited for the first time are also honored with another evaluation visit after five years.

First, the school’s governing board or its executive committee is required to take formal action to receive the selfstudy report, which is prepared by the school before the evaluation committee arrives on campus. (While receiving the report implies that the board understands and concurs with the report in general, it does not require the board to agree with every recommendation.)

Second, at the time of the evaluation committee’s visit, committee members meet with some of the school’s board members, usually on the second day. (Board members may participate by phone.) As part of this conversation, the evaluation committee may ask board members about their role in the self-study report, and board members are expected to be familiar with it. The committee may also ask the board how new board members are oriented to their work and how they evaluate the school’s president.

Third, if a school receives a “notation”—a formal and public notice about a deficiency—boards should be aware that the noted problem must be rectified within two years or the school risks losing its accreditation. The most frequent reasons for a notation are insufficient assessment, precarious finances, inadequate strategic planning, and problems with governance—all issues that are part of the board’s agenda.

Boards know that it’s essential that they not be rubber stamps, but many love and trust their presidents. And for practical purposes, that can look a lot like rubber-stamping. Tisa Lewis, the ATS senior director in charge of accreditation, offers a warning: “If I were a board member,” she says, “I would make it my responsibility to ask the faculty and administration how we know that we’re achieving what we say we’re achieving. Can we demonstrate that we are achieving our goals?”

That’s hard work, but it’s rightfully the board’s work. And as a school moves into new territory with online degree programs or faces an accreditation evaluation, it’s the board’s responsibility to ensure that a theological school fulfills its mission, and that there’s money in the bank for a rainy day.

More information on accreditation is available in the Spring 2012 issue of Colloquy magazine, online at www.ats.edu/ uploads/resources/publications-presentations/colloquy/ colloquy-2012-spring.pdf

Four categories of accredited theological degrees

1. Basic programs oriented toward ministerial leadership
Examples: Master of Divinity, Master of Religious Education, Master of Christian Education, Master of Sacred Music, Master of Arts in Church Music, Master of Arts in (a ministry area). 

2. Basic programs oriented toward general theological studies
Examples: Master of Arts, Master of Arts in (an academic field of study), Master of Theological Studies

If a school already offers one of these degrees, it can now be offered entirely online without petitioning the Commission on Accrediting, but only if the school already has approval for its comprehensive distance education program. 

3. Advanced programs oriented toward ministerial leadership
Examples: Doctor of Ministry, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Missiology, Doctor of Sacred Music 

4. Advanced programs oriented toward theological research and teaching
Examples: Master of Theology, Master of Sacred Theology, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Theology

Note: The Master of Theology (Th.M.) and Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.), though master's degrees, are considered advanced programs, while all other master's degrees are basic programs. 

What is residency?

ATS member institutions deliver education to students in four ways: On the school’s main campus, online, through faculty-directed individual instruction, and at extension sites.

There are four kinds of extension sites:

• Branch campus. This is a permanent facility with its own faculty and administration, its own budgetary and hiring authority, and a full complement of courses that leads to one or more degrees.

• Complete degree site. This is a site that offers all the courses necessary for a degree, as well as adequate library resources, tech support, and classroom space. It does not necessarily have a permanent faculty or administration of its own.

• Ongoing site. This site offers at least one course every year, but not all the courses that lead to a degree. An ongoing site must provide library resources, tech support, and classroom space sufficient for the onsite courses.

• Occasional site. This is a place in which fewer than one course per year is offered.

Credits earned through courses offered at the main campus, at branch campuses, and at complete degree sites count toward the residency requirements, as does faculty-directed individual instruction if the student is on campus meeting with the instructor face to face. But credits earned online and at ongoing sites and occasional sites do not count toward residency. Residency requirements themselves vary by degree: For most degrees, at least one-third of credits must be earned in residence, but some degrees require that at least two-thirds of credits be earned in residence.

A reminder: A school must have permission from a state or provincial authority to offer courses in that jurisdiction. Offering even a single course in a new location across state lines requires months of planning, and schools that fail to gain permission to offer a course may be subject to repaying any federal loans that students used to pay for tuition.

Accreditation Standards on the Board’s Responsibilities

Section 7.3 of the General Institutional Standards addresses governance issues, and the board’s particular role is outlined in Section 7.3.1.

General Institutional Standards The board has the responsibility to hold itself accountable for the overall performance of its duties and shall evaluate the effectiveness of its own procedures. It should also seek to educate itself about the issues it faces and about procedures used by effective governing bodies in carrying out their work. The board shall evaluate its members on a regular basis. The board shall be responsible for evaluating overall institutional governance by assessing and monitoring the effectiveness of institutional governance procedures and structures. http://bit.ly/ATS-GIS

Educational Standard

6.4.3 The governing board of the school is responsible for ensuring that the school has a program of assessment of student learning and that the results of these activities inform and shape educational and institutional decisions. http://bit.ly/ATS-EDPS

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