The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC) process of accreditation and reaffirmation is a heavy lift for those on campus preparing self-study materials, as well as the peer reviewers who review them, visit campus, and report on their findings. Recently, peer reviewers Michele Atkins, assistant provost for accreditation and research at Union University, and a member of the SACSCOC board of trustees; Sharon Enzor, provost and vice president of Blue Mountain College; Jan Hirt, associate vice president of curriculum and compliance at Greenville Technical College, and Cheryl Torsney, vice provost for faculty affairs at Middle Tennessee State University, shared their perspectives as both peer reviewers and participants in preparing accreditation self-studies on their respective campuses. Here are 8 key things they want every SACSCOC institution to know about preparing a self-study and hosting a peer review visit.
Start early — and keep up with the changes
Start preparing your self-study 2 to 3 years ahead of a decennial visit, and stay abreast of changes from SACSCOC throughout the self-study process so your narrative, evidence, and onsite visit agenda reflect any new guidance.
“Last year, SACSCOC brought out the new dual enrollment policy,” Hirt noted, so institutions already working on their self-study or preparing for an on-site visit “need to be prepared to address that. SACSCOC is now sending site visitors out to the high schools involved.”
Stay engaged in what your campus needs for self-study on an ongoing basis. “I’m the liaison for my institution, and I look daily at issues that might arise. Daily,” Enzor said. When Blue Mountain College began offering continuing education credits, the CFO made a preliminary decision not to put that information in the database, thinking it wasn’t necessary. “I sent him an email back saying he should capture that information, as we would need to report on it for accreditation,” she said.
Reveal your unique character and accomplishments
Consider the self-study narrative a chance to reveal and celebrate your institution’s unique mission, culture, and achievements. “I see it as an opportunity to show that my institution can meet every single standard that any other institution can meet, be it a school with 20,000 students or 1,000 students,” Enzor said.
Apply your institution’s unique mission and approach to each standard in your self-study. “I tell my doctoral students to write their dissertation as if the reader knows nothing about their topic. For the institution, that means sharing your history, your culture — that needs to be quite evident in the self-study document. Be sure to tell your story under every single component of that standard in a way that I know who you are by reading your narrative,” Atkins said. “Many of your recommendations will stem from the reviewers just not having enough information about who you are as an institution.”
Nail the narrative
Although pieces of your narrative will be drafted by different people, the final narrative should speak with one voice. “I want to see that the self-study has been proofread and put together carefully because the self-study is going to speak for the institution. It’s going to speak for the care with which they have developed and vetted their own policies and procedures. It’s going to speak for the care with which they treat their students,” Torsney said. “If the self-study has been hastily put together or is not especially well-written, that does not speak well for the institution.”
The narrative should be clearly written, without obfuscation, and have functioning links so reviewers can readily view all of the evidence you provide. It should also connect the dots for reviewers. “I’ve seen the reviewer come back and say, I have your data and I’ve seen your changes. But how did you get from those data to make the changes you made?” Enzor said. “The changes were great, the data were great, but how did you get from point A to point B?”
Be transparent, but don’t overshare
Transparency is vital, so make sure your evidence is thorough. Attach evidence for every claim or statement you make. Provide current information. If you’re sharing forms, show them in use rather than blank.
That said, when addressing a particular standard, stick to your lane. “Keep your narrative precise to whatever the topic of the standard is,” Hirt advises. It’s tempting to include additional details, but this may introduce conflicting information with other parts of the self-study or open Pandora’s box to potential issues. At one institution Hirt visited as part of a special committee, details on faculty credentials were addressed unnecessarily . “By doing that, it opened up a whole new issue for the school,” Hirt said.
(Speaking of faculty qualifications, our peer reviewers had a lot to share on the topic. We’ll dig into that in an upcoming post!)
Prep likely interviewees
Give prospective interviewees the section of the self-study they might be called upon to discuss, provide some sample questions they might be asked, and encourage honesty.
“It’s okay not to know the answer,” Atkins said. “Just say you don’t know, but you will find out.” She advises providing contact information to all interviewees so they can reach you with any questions they couldn’t answer so you can provide the needed information to the onsite team.
Ace the agenda — and manage the logistics
An onsite visit requires impressive levels of coordination across multiple locations, from booking meeting space at all campuses the team will visit to coordinating transportation. Onsite teams typically consist of 10 people, some of whom may have physical limitations, dietary restrictions, or require other accommodations. “Appoint a director of logistics who knows how to coordinate these things,” Atkins recommends. “The peer reviewers need to think about the self-study, the documents they need — not about who’s going to pick them up or take them to dinner.”
Peer review teams need a room of their own. “It’s imperative that the team have a space on campus to work, and come and go — a place where we can leave our stuff,” Torsney said. Stock the room with office supplies, a printer, and snacks and beverages.
The chair of the onsite team will reach out before their visit with some preliminary interview requests. Build an agenda that meets their needs, with some open work time. “During the visit, just know that you need to be flexible,” Atkins said. “The team may ask for things that you didn’t expect.”
Embrace a self-study mindset
On Atkins’s campus and elsewhere, attitudes change as people participate in the self-study process. During Union’s most recent decennial review, “the biggest critic was on the leadership team with me, and he edited the entire self-study,” Atkins said. “Now he is one of the most vocal champions of accreditation because of what he saw.”
“The team from a regional accreditor is checking to see that you’re making good on your promises. They just want to see that you actually do what you say you do. It’s an assurance,” Torsney said. “It’s a question of a rising tide raising all ships. Accreditation is in many ways that rising tide.”
Remember: peers are here to help
Peer reviewers are academics and administrators who have trained to engage in this kind of process “because we’re committed to the quality not only of our own institutions, but also of institutions around the country,” Torsney said.
“We provide institutions as much information as we can because we all want them to be successful,” Hirt said. “It’s for the students.”
“The people on these peer review panels are folks who have lots of experience, who have experienced not only triumphs, but also failures, so they know where you are, they know where you’re coming from,” Torsney said. “They are there to lift you up.”
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