Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Creating CHEA: Building a New National Organization on Accrediting

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Creating CHEA: Building a New National Organization on Accrediting

Article excerpt

Studies of organizations are conventionally concerned with already formed and functioning entities. This leads to a focus on problems about organizational goals, effectiveness, efficiency, and internal and external relations. There is a literature on new organizations that emphasizes the survival threats these entities face as they contend with more established rivals, try to become known and trusted, and attempt to coordinate their activities in the face of no history of internal interaction. There is a smaller literature that deals with institution creation, the act of putting together an organization where one does not exist. This study concerns the formation of such a new agency, a national organization concerned with accrediting.

In the period from 1993 to 1996, the higher education community worked to form a new national agency on accrediting and was successful in creating the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). This new organization replaced the Council on Postsecondary accreditation (COPA), an entity that was in existence from 1975 through 1993. In this study I report on and analyze the actions and relationships among the major stakeholders in the creation of the new organization and provide a background and context within which the task of organization building took place. The article illustrates the precariousness and uncertainty involved in the task of organization creation in the rapidly changing political, social, and technical environment for higher education of the 1990s.


To understand this organization-building process, theories of institutionalism and organization creation are brought to bear. When an organization is created, the founders want to institutionalize it, that is, to make certain the organization is stable and predictable with shared expectations and understandings. The founders seek to legitimate the new organization in the eyes of the stakeholders.

Theories of institutionalism are conventionally applied to already existing organizations. In fact, institutionalism is thought to be a part of the maturation of an organization, a stage after infancy (Miles & Randolph, 1980, p. 46), and not a part of the organizational creation process. The interest here is in the period before there is an organization. In this study, concepts of institutionalism are applied to the organization formation arena. As a result, emphasis is shifted from an emphasis on the organization itself and how it achieves institutionalism to a focus on the organization creators themselves and their attempts to influence the structure and purpose of the new organization and to capture and sustain legitimacy, both for themselves and for the proposed organization.

Institutional theory divides into two types, "old" and "new." Old and new institutionalism both emphasize the influence of environment on an organization, and both cast doubt upon the accuracy of rational actor models of organization (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991a, p. 12). Together, old and new institutionalism emphasize the symbolic, cultural aspects of organizations, and both guide the examination and interpretation of the events and actions of this study.

Old institutionalism. While sensitive to the need to align an organization's internal values with external cultural forces, old institutionalism perspectives also allow a prominent role for the formal exercise of power through legislation and regulations and give a central place to the activity of interest groups influencing government action through lobbying (Brint & Karabel, 1991; Selznick, 1996). Thus, old institutionalism accommodates analysis of the exercise and analysis of leadership and power.

The initial stages of forming the new agency on accrediting took place in an environment filled with suspicion and hostility toward accreditation. Congress, the federal Department of Education, and the states seemed bent on forcing compliance to new accreditation rules, and educators perceived that formal regulating environment as seriously endangering their autonomy. …

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