Higher Education Accreditation and Brain Drain
posted by Alan Chen
For the past two years, I’ve served on the steering committee and a subcommittee preparing for the University of Denver’s re-accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, the regional accreditation body for post-secondary education institutions in the North Central region of the United States. The HLC site team is visiting our campus this week, and many of us involved will need to attend numerous meetings during its visit. And, no doubt, our duties are not yet at an end, as surely there will be issues after the initial HLC report to which the university will need to respond. About a month ago, I sat in a meeting to begin planning for my law school’s self-study for its ABA re-accreditation, with our site visit scheduled for spring 2012. Other members of my law school’s administration and staff have recently completed the chore of responding to the annual ABA questionnaire. Feeling a lot like a hamster in a wheel, I have been thinking a lot about the impact that various accreditation processes have on the human capital of higher education faculties.
In my view, the opportunity costs of the collective human resources that are routinely expended by higher education institutions on accreditation compliance border on the unconscionable. The total personnel hours alone are enormous, but the costs are qualitative as well as quantitative. Universities and professional schools have a strong incentive to assign the vast data collection and compilation and report drafting to faculty and staff whom they trust to ensure that their self-studies are done thoroughly and professionally. In my experience, those assigned to accreditation committees are likely to include many of the institution’s more prolific scholars and best teachers. Thus, two of the most important things that we are evaluated for – teaching students and generating scholarship – inevitably suffer because of the time drawn away from those activities to compile the self-study. One can imagine someone like David Lodge parodying the conversation between a site inspector and a university representative about the school’s lack of scholarly production because the faculty has been immersed in the self-study effort.
This brain drain is not indigenous to the school being inspected. The same could be said about those from other institutions who serve on site-inspection teams (also likely to be successful teacher, scholars, and administrators), who are likewise taken from the things they are the best at so they may evaluate others. Of course, there are dozens of other things that detract from teaching and scholarship, not the least of which is committee service in general (and don’t even get me started on that brain drain), but none quite as ironic as the time lost to accreditation.
To be sure, accreditation by outside bodies serves important purposes
by providing external validation, maintaining credibility with the higher education community and prospective students, and ensuring a periodic opportunity for institutional introspection. I would not favor abandoning outside accreditation, but surely there must be more efficient ways to go about the process. One possibility would be to reduce the frequency of inspections. Under most regimes, each re-accreditation is a multi-year process, with the self-study typically taking about two years before the site visit, followed by an initial report identifying issues that the accrediting body would like the school to address, followed by correspondence back and forth over many months to address these issues. By the time the process is over, it can be close to the time when a school has to start thinking about the next accreditation cycle. Extending the down time between inspections would give faculty a chance to do what we are actually hired to do. Alternatively, the process itself could be compacted into a shorter time frame so that the post site inspection process is not so protracted. Or institutions might try to be more efficient internally and take measures to create an ongoing data collection process that would make the drafting of each new self-study a little less burdensome. If some staff and administrators are assigned the task of keeping the repository of information collected for the most recent self-study continually updated, the time spent collecting that data upon the next inspection will be minimal. My own University plans to undertake such a process after the HLC visit this week.
For my next post, maybe I’ll find the time to write about some law.