Higher Education Community Engagement and Accreditation: Activating Engagement through Innovative Accreditation Strategies: The Authors Studied Two Very Different Public Institutions and Share the Benefits They See in Linking Accreditation with an Institutional Commitment to Student Engagement

Article excerpt

Linking Accreditation and Engagement

Convergence is occurring between external demands placed on U.S. higher education institutions, such as those from state and federal governments for greater accountability, and calls for higher education's recommitment to public purposes. One important example of this convergence is the redesign of accreditation processes and standards. Because of this redesign, accreditation--traditionally an academic and administrative activity--now has the potential to elevate and advance an institution's commitment to greater community engagement, a more contemporary, innovative institutional priority.

Community engagement is the "collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity" (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 2007 unpaginated Web source). Its objective is to transform American public institutions to prepare citizens for the 21st century--to update the historical "covenant" between public higher education and its stakeholders. Engagement may take many forms:

* Encouraging curricular engagement, such as faculty members integrating service-learning into their curricula or creating learning communities.

* Creating community outreach and partnerships that link research with local, regional, national, or global needs.

* Using technology to provide education for nontraditional students.

* Improving access for demographically diverse groups.

* Demonstrating learning outcomes (through assessment) while providing and improving quality education and containing the costs of providing that education.

Linking the compliance aspects of accreditation with institutional needs and priorities (such as the advancement of engagement) may have many positive benefits. These can include improving the institution's competitiveness when seeking external funding, discovering faculty champions to support and lead the broader institutional strategic priorities identified in the commitment to engagement, and ultimately embedding engagement in the institution's academic and research culture to yield larger and better-designed opportunities to serve the public good.

While accreditation and engagement initially may appear to be separate functions, we propose that the intellectual exploration of one--engagement--can enrich and add depth and meaning to the other--accreditation. We find that administrative and faculty leaders and supporters who can link these two functions can engage in an effective institutional change process, one that results in renewal, transformation, and advancement of innovative strategic priorities.

This article explores trends in accreditation, engagement, and the synergy between the two by reviewing two public institutions with very different missions: the University of New Hampshire, a land-grant research institution, and the University of Southern Indiana, an institution with a broadly defined focus on education and service. We describe how these two distinctly different universities used an innovative accreditation process as a mechanism for transformation to embed and advance various engagement activities in their institutional cultures. The approaches used by these institutions reflect an interpretive accreditation strategy (Alstete 2004) in which campus leaders manage the process carefully to ensure participants understand the meaning and implications of change.

In addition to organizational renewal, improvement, and transformation, we also explore the two-way impact of this synergistic process on individuals. Administrative leaders and faculty members who served as change agents were also transformed by this innovative accreditation review process. At both institutions, leaders involved a range of new faculty champions in parallel strategic planning processes that emphasized engagement. …