Book by Patricia M. O’Brien
Review by Ronald Banks
Associate Director, Corporate Enrollment and Academic Services
Charter Oak State College
New Britain, CT 06053
Periodically every legitimate college and university in the United States undergoes a rigorous accreditation process. Accreditation: Assuring and Enhancing Quality is a collection of essays that addresses the role of accreditation, its evolution and development in the United States (and in Japan for purposes of comparison), and the challenges and opportunities facing accrediting agencies in the 21st century. Advising staff would be well-advised to advocate for an active role in the accreditation and strategic planning processes at their institutions, since the work of advisors is critical to an institution’s ability to achieve its mission.
In the “Editor’s Notes” at the beginning of the book, O’Brien provides an informative summary of the “hallmarks of U.S. accreditation” (p. 1) as well as the criticisms that are associated with them. O’Brien explains that accreditation is mission driven, both quantitative and qualitative, confidential (although many institutions publish their self-study and related accreditation materials online), based on peer-review (collegial rather than adversarial), and that the primary focus is on improvement rather than a specific check list of accreditation criteria. According to O’Brien, however, critics argue that this leads to a subjective process, lacking in rigor, lacking in transparency, and that it prevents the emergence of clear and consistent standards for institutions of higher education (pp. 1-2).
The essay by Robert Oden, president of Carleton College, provides a compelling answer to that age-old question, “Why do we have to do this every 10 years?” Oden argues, “It is among the only, perhaps the sole, opportunity we have to inquire together and in depth about the entirety of what we aim to do.” (p. 38) As a result, the accreditation process provides institutions “the opportunity to describe and assess the totality of our mission and how each part of our institution contributes to this mission…” (p. 39). Since the process forces institutions to question whether they are doing the best that they possibly can, even elite and prestigious organizations benefit from comprehensive introspection (p. 40).
The book does have a couple of weaknesses. The chapter that defines accreditation, for example, appears near the end of the book. I would encourage anyone planning on reading the book to start with the seventh essay (“Accreditation in the United States”) and then proceed to the beginning of the book. I was also expecting to see a more detailed description of what actually takes place during the accreditation site visit. While this topic is addressed tangentially, a more comprehensive discussion would have been helpful for someone who has not been actively involved in the accreditation process.
Overall, this collection of essays provides a useful introduction to the role of accreditation in higher education. Although its usefulness as a practical tool for academic advisors is limited, it is important for everyone employed in a college or university to have an understanding of the accreditation process and its significance. The essays in Accreditation: Assuring and Enhancing Quality provide that basic knowledge in an informative and enthusiastic manner, tempting the reader to take a more active role in the accreditation process.
Accreditation: Assuring and Enhancing Quality (New Directions for Higher Education #145). (Spring 2009). Book by Patricia M. O’Brien, ed. Review by Ronald Banks. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 100 pp. Price $29.00. ISBN # 978-0-470-48902-4